There probably isn’t a ranch in the Bitterroot Valley that doesn’t have a squeeze chute in their corral system. Most were painted bright red. Built to handle cattle in an efficient and humane manner while doctoring, branding, pregnancy testing or artificially inseminating cattle, these red squeeze chutes could, and can, be found on almost every ranch here and throughout Western Montana and the West. The legacy of that chute, and A.E. Thorson, the inventor and manufacturer of that chute, was honored by The Bitterroot Stockgrowers on Saturday at their annual banquet.
Robert “Bob” Thorson and his brother Don are A.E.’s sons. The three of them took these creations and marketed them, expanded upon them, and built the company. These various tools and implements came about as a means to make working, moving and hauling cattle easier, as well as improving life on a farm or ranch.
A.E. spent a lot of time in the mid 1940s working and hauling cattle.There were no stock trailers then; instead cattle were hauled in the back of pickup trucks and trucks with wooden racks on them. The means used to work cattle were simple at best and hard to work with. A.E. began making prototypes of the chute during this time. The first one was built around 1947.
The family had lived in the Bitterroot before on a place up the West Fork on Piquet Creek and then in Arlee and then they went back to Wise River. Through it all, A.E. was figuring out the best way to make working with cattle easier. When they moved back to the Bitterroot in the late ‘40s, it was for good. The family lived west of Victor and then in the Corvallis area.
They built a shop on Quast Lane and began manufacturing the chutes that the senior Thorson had designed. It was here that they expanded and began building not only squeeze chutes but also calf tables and a few other items. When they weren’t building, they were sharpening sickles for hay mowers or building or modifying sprinkler pipe trailers. They began building pickup racks that were one piece and would slide into place quite easily.
In 1971, they moved to a location just north of the ’S’ curves on Eastside Highway north of Corvallis. While some their first efforts were done in buildings with no electricity and they used gas welding equipment, this building was modern and well made. Bob Thorson, who had always had an interest in wiring and electricity, wired the Industrial building and proudly stated, “The building passed the inspection.”
During this time, until the company closed in 2006, they pursued many avenues of marketing and expansion. Farmers and ranchers were replacing pickup racks with stock trailers, and replacing sickle mowers with swathers with sickle bars that were difficult to sharpen, and so the company looked for other opportunities to market their goods.
They worked with Quality Supply and had their chutes and equipment in those stores around the state. Prior to that, the bright red equipment was seen in the John Deere dealers, Davies Farm Supply, in Kalispell and Missoula. They built chutes to handle bison in Yellowstone and up at the Bison Range in Moise. When the administration at Yellowstone saw how well the chutes worked for the bison, they ordered chutes for the elk and moose, too. These chutes also found their way to various veterinary schools around the country.
Some pieces of the equipment manufactured were patented and Bob still has the tiny mock-ups. He said they didn’t do a lot of patents because it was costly and people could easily change just one part of the equipment and not violate the patent.
Don retired from the company in 1999. Bob, along with his son Chris, ran the business until 2006. Bob said they survived the fluctuating cattle market and the first ‘Mad Cow’ disease outbreak. But when the second outbreak occurred, Bob was 67 years old and ready to step away from the business. They sold the land and the buildings and closed the doors.
Bob kept enough equipment to continue tinkering on old tractors – Farmalls are his preferred line – and building other little items. He has entered his tractors in several parades over the years. He is a member of the Tired Iron Club, the Corvallis Grange, and of course, the Bitterroot Stockgrowers.
Bob served in the Navy for four years on active duty and another 38 years and one month in the Navy Reserve for a total of 42 years and one month. He says his commander said it wouldn’t be possible but Bob proudly says he was able to do it.
Bob also was a 4H member and then a leader for many years. He was president of the 4H Council for two years. He helped many years with the swine barn and the livestock sale at the county fair. His son, Chris, carried on the tradition and helped in the swine barn as well. His daughter, Jeannette Smith, is a 4H leader in the same 4H club Bob was once a member of, Summerdale 4H Club.