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The Original Tahoe Cowboy

Bud Jones and the Squaw Valley Kids
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No one can remember Bud Jones ever changing his clothes. His garb was Levi jeans and jean jacket, a cowboy shirt, big boots, and a black floppy hat with grease rings around the top. He usually kept a tin of Star Tobacco and a flask of whiskey close by, and reportedly sold his wife to a sheepherder for the price of a horse, forever claiming he got the better end of that bargain. Yet beneath his tough exterior lay an industrious entrepreneur and surrogate parent with a fierce dedication to a still wild Squaw Valley, when cows and horses outnumbered skiers.

In 1931, Bud — then a rancher from Folsom, Calif. — arrived in Squaw Valley (to be named Olympic Valley when the valley was chosen as the site for the 1960 Olympics) with his cattle and horses and founded the Squaw Valley Stables. For the next 31 years Bud would run the Squaw Valley Stables, and a pack station, which supplied visitors to the valley with tools for backcountry fishing and hunting trips. He also supplied milk to residents in Tahoe City and along the Truckee River all summer long. He embodied the rough independence for which this high mountain area is known, an attitude that shakes up local debates — for example about how to manage the land, and how much you can tell people what to do — even today.

Locals who knew him well will never forget him. He resided in a small, shingled cabin that was “completely lopsided,” recalled Mazie Carnell, a longtime Tahoe and Sierra Valley resident who spent her summers with Bud in the ’30s and ’40s milking cows and driving horses. It was one of the only houses in the valley at the time, she said. It was located right next to the horse corral and had no running water. Bud leased the land the house and corral sat on from the Smiths and eventually the Poulsens.

The hard-working rancher, who spoke sparingly with a slow draw, made a lasting impression on those he encountered, according to Mazie. When Mazie’s mother died, and the family fell on hard times, Bud stepped in and helped her father raise the five Carnell children. Bud was bent and broken, having been being bucked off many horses throughout his life and he refused to ever see a doctor. Yet, 89-year-old Mazie recalls that Bud was “more loved by others than any other person” she’s known.

Bud gave children more responsibility than most adults did, Mazie said, and this taught them a great level of independence and self-reliance. Bud enlisted Mazie’s help with stocking Five Lakes with fish, waking the young girl at 4 a.m. so they could lug milk jugs full of the fish up the mountain. When she was 10, he taught her to drive an old pick-up to Squaw Creek to haul buckets of water back to the stables. Mazie and her sister were overjoyed to drive the truck, she recalled, although they could barely see over the steering wheel. Bud had extra horses he couldn’t keep in the valley, so he would herd them over to Lake Forest, where they could graze on the meadow. A 12-year-old Mazie was allowed to help drive the horses, riding from Squaw Valley through Tahoe City and into Lake Forest meadows.

Sandra Poulsen and her brother Eric Poulsen, who grew up in the valley after their father Wayne Poulsen arrived in 1932 and began to imagine the mountain’s potential for a ski resort, have similarly vivid memories of the cowboy. They recalled his appearance as intimidating. “He was scary looking!” Sandra said. The siblings described the eeriness of Bud’s staring glass eye, which was a replacement after a horse kick damaged his original eye. “Bud never looked a day over 90 years old,” said Eric Poulsen, jokingly.

But the Poulsens, who also spent a great deal of time with Bud at the Squaw Valley Stables when they were kids, fondly recalled the lessons and lore of this original man. As they spoke about Bud, they both were grinning.

Like Mazie, Sandra remembered the accountability Bud instilled in children. Even when her legs couldn’t reach the horse’s girth, Sandra was allowed to shimmy up onto Toby, her horse, and take off to ride around the valley. However, Bud demanded responsible behavior. One day, Sandra was rushing back to the stables to meet her brothers so they could go to the Reno Circus. Running late, she rode as fast as she could, and when Bud saw her coming in at a gallop, he was furious. To teach her that he never wanted horses ridden that quickly back to the barn, he made her walk her horse back out into the valley before she could return. Much to Sandra and her brothers’ dismay, they all had to wait for the horse to cool off before leaving for the circus. But the message sank in, Sandra said.

Hardworking Bud had his own ideas about how to have fun. He regularly rode on his horse into Wayne Poulsen’s bar in the Valley called The Bear Pen. With a chuckle, Poulsen would then ban Bud from the bar for 24 hours. Resolutely self-sufficient, Bud didn’t believe in banks or safety deposit boxes. “He was the type of person to keep all of his belongings under his mattress,” Eric said.

Bud’s independence led him to do what few would have the courage to do, ending his life on his own terms. A wood stove heated his rickety cabin, and Bud used gasoline to get the fire going. There are a few different versions of what went wrong one night in April 1962; some say a local teenager at the gas station sold him the wrong type of gasoline, and others say that Bud’s cataracts had gotten so bad he couldn’t see the fireplace anymore, but either way, Bud would make his last fire that night. His stove exploded and witnesses saw him run outside to call for help but after a few minutes Bud went back inside and locked the door.

Apparently, regardless of the fire, that summer was already going to be one of Bud’s last in Squaw Valley, and he knew it. His sister had been concerned about his laundry list of health conditions, and had been asking him to leave the ranch. According to friends, he dreaded the day he would have to leave. Bud’s life and death speak to his deep connection to the valley, and to his desire to stay there for eternity.

~ To read about another entrepreneur who calls Squaw Valley Stables home, see here. To see more Tahoe horses, see. here.

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June 14, 2018