River Rock Oasis

Fifteen years ago Tom and Linda Whitaker organized the Heber City Cowboy Poetry Gathering and Buckaroo Fair, but they had been collecting Western memorabilia even before stepping up to create an event that recognizes and nurtures cowboy culture.

Their new home in Oakley, Utah, is a showcase of their Western furnishings and collectibles ranging from handcrafted burl beds and river rock fireplaces, to chaps, saddles, guns, spurs, bits and artwork.

The Whitakers don’t just collect Western relics; they have been out working the land and experiencing the lifestyle along with their six children. I met Tom and Linda in 1997 on the Mormon Trail as we traveled with a wagon train from Winter Quarters (Florence, Nebraska) to Salt Lake City (which is west of the Whitakers’ home in Oakley). Tom drove their wagon (one of several he owns), and Linda walked many of the 1,181 miles. Son Daniel maintained a computer blog (before blogging was “the” thing to do), while youngest daughter Leah rode comfortably in the wagon.

They founded the Heber City gathering as a way to preserve the lifestyle of the West, whether it is at the concerts, horse clinics, mountain man camp or riding the chili lunch or breakfast trains on the Heber Valley Railroad (known locally as the Heber Creeper). This year’s gathering will be held on November 3-8, in Heber City, 25 miles south of their home.

The Whitakers often bring the gathering back home with them. Each year they discover treasures that keep the West alive in their home, from Western paintings to saddles, which they purchase at the annual auction held to raise money for the gathering. During the past year Tom significantly enhanced his collection by purchasing more than 30 saddles, chaps, bits and spurs from Bob Barger. “I like collecting,” Tom says, “But I’m more into preserving. I like anything old that has to do with the West.”

He has transported six log cabins from various locations in Heber Valley to preserve them. He has old sheep wagons, covered wagons, more than half a dozen McClellan saddles, other saddles dating from the late 1800s and many chaps. “It’s the mark and the maker that makes the stuff valuable and interesting,” he says.

Having the Old Western paraphernalia all around their home is comforting, Tom says. “To us we just like having that stuff around us, where we can look at it every day, where we can talk to it, feel it, touch it.”

Linda has decorated their new house to reflect their love of the West. Located beside the Weber River, the property has a pond suitable for canoeing or a place for trout to swim. The grandchildren fish in the pond, releasing those that don’t “swallow the hook” and eating those that do, Tom says. River rock accents and wood decks surround the home, which is landscaped with pine and aspen trees, and a variety of flowers. A log-framed deck off the kitchen draws guests to the backyard, which has a sandstone fire pit.

Inside, the river rock fireplace dominates the great room. The wall with the bank of windows is accented by a Texas longhorn surrounded by chaps, bits, spurs and artwork. A limited-edition giclee print, Wyoming Girl, by Robert Duncan—used as the poster art for the 2008 Heber City Cowboy Poetry Gathering—rests on the fireplace mantle.

Constructed of massive logs, the home has a central stairway of logs and slate tile leading to bedrooms. The logs are precisely coped so they fit together; interior and exterior wood trim is similarly crafted for a perfect fit against the logs.

The four-bedroom home is designed for family and friends to enjoy. It offers a spacious kitchen, a large deck with hobby horse (that has a real saddle for the grandkids to ride) and plenty of outdoor grass for games and activities.

Among decorative elements are a handcrafted wooden table and chairs (made by a Heber Valley couple from a log dated at more than 150 years old), tile and slate flooring, leather couches and chairs, plus both cowboy and Indian collectibles. One particularly prized possession is a Mandan medicine bag made from the hide of a young bobcat. Another is a print of the combined Pawnee Bill and Buffalo Bill Wild West shows, which was made from the original negative.

The eight-acre property is adjacent to the Oakley rodeo grounds, where one of Utah’s biggest rodeos takes place every Fourth of July. The property offers a new four-stall barn and plenty of room for family horses, not to mention walls, nooks and crannies where the Whitakers can display their expansive Western collection.

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