A Prineville resident for sixty-four of his ninety-three years, James “Cole” Still’s life is a study of endurance.
The third of seven children born to James and Mabel Still, Cole was raised on the family’s one-hundred-sixty acre farm near Exeter, Missouri, in an area known locally as Thomas Hollow. He and his siblings attended the Union Valley School, a one-room schoolhouse located right on the family farm. The Still kids comprised half the school enrollment.
“We were never late for school and couldn’t play hooky because Mom would watch us walk out the door and into the school yard every day,” remembers Cole.
A horse-farming operation, corn, hay, milk cows, and strawberries were the main crops on the Still farm. But it was the strawberries, and his mother’s insight, that provided young Cole with the opportunity to nurture a lifetime love for horses and riding.
“Mom said I wasn’t any good at working with the strawberries, and she knew I loved to be around our five work horses, so she put me to work plowing the fields and generally taking care of them,” recalls Cole.
That was all the encouragement Cole needed to begin a lifelong love affair with horses.
Cole worked the family farm throughout the depression era. “I worked ten-hour days for a dollar. Farming was tough. I still remember that Kansas dust blowing in the early evening. It would turn the sun red.”
At twenty-three, Cole met up with the other love in his life, a pretty sixteen-year-old filly, Charlotte Cole. A feisty young gal, Charlotte wasn’t too sure that Cole was the right man for her at first.
“Cole and I had been dating about six months when he asked me to marry him. At first I said no. But then my schoolhouse burned down¾so I asked him if he still wanted to get married¾and he did. So we got married,” recalls Charlotte. That was seventy years ago in 1942.
Cole and Charlotte’s marriage fueled a mutual love of horses and riding. Their first home, a three-room log cabin in Thomas Hollow, provided the perfect setting for their outdoor riding adventures together. “We used to ride ‘Tiny,’ our first grade mare, down to the Sugar Creek water hole. There was a bluff overlooking the water hole, and we’d ride her right off the bluff and into the water hole for fun,” recalls Charlotte.
Cole left farming and hauled milk for the Pet Milk Company during the early years of their marriage. Two daughters, Connie and Carolyn were born in 1943 and 1944. Things were just fine in Thomas Hollow during those years. That was, until a cyclone came through and blew down their barn. The Still’s left Thomas Hollow and moved to Exeter, Missouri. In 1948, Cole lost his milk hauling route to the new tanker trucks which could haul milk more economically.
That year, Charlotte and Cole traded their pickup for a family car, packed their two children and all their belongings into it, and drove to Prineville. Charlotte’s sister, Ivon and her husband, Floyd, had already relocated to Prineville, and Floyd was working for the Evans Lumber Company (which eventually became Consolidated Pine.) Floyd offered Cole a job, providing the incentive to make the long journey.
Driving into eastern Oregon for the first time, Cole was skeptical about the wood products industry. “Driving through Burns I wondered where a lumber company could get any logs in this country,” remembers Cole.
Cole’s skepticism about lumber disappeared, however, when they reached the Ochoco’s. And he spent the next forty years with Consolidated, retiring in 1988. “They kept me on like a piece of equipment,” said Cole.
The Still family’s involvement with horses really flourished with their move to Prineville. They joined the Prineville Ridge Riders in 1951, participating in trail rides, play days, and horse shows. Cole has been President of the club for all but two of the past sixty-one years. They fondly remember the names of all their horses during the 1950’s and 1960’s, especially those that performed well in competition.
“We had a mare named Ginger in the late 1950’s that set play day records in the figure-eight event that still stand today. She also won Grand Champion -Showmanship at the Prineville Fair in both 1962 and 1963,” remembers Cole.
Charlotte, still feisty after twenty-two years of marriage, bought her first horse, Zelahia, in 1964. “It was either get a horse of my own or leave Cole because he was always going riding somewhere,” recalled Charlotte.
Cole and Charlotte started endurance riding and racing in 1973. One of their most memorable rides took place that year. Alice Warner, Cole and Charlotte rode the Pacific Crest Trail from the Columbia River to the California Border in seventeen-and-a-half days. No easy feat, considering no one had previously ridden it in less than twenty days.
“Our toughest endurance race was the Pistol River Ride, which no longer exists. Supposed to be a sixty-mile race over the sand dunes, across Pistol River, and up into the mountains¾but it was actually seventy-five! Thirty-seven horses started that race, eleven finished. All five horses from central Oregon finished, and my horse, Pepper, won the ‘best-conditioned’ award,” recalled Cole.
Although Cole has won many endurance races over his riding career, caring for his horse’s health is more important to him. “I’ve actually got more ‘best-conditioned’ awards than first places. It shows that I’ve had my horses in shape to compete,” said Cole.
However, July 28, 1988 was a day that Charlotte and Cole’s endurance riding skills were put to the ultimate test.
Bob Hathrill joined them on a five-day pack trip along the Pacific Crest Trail from Mt. Hood to the Santiam Pass. The fourth morning of the trip started perfectly. Beautiful weather and wonderful views. However, just after leaving camp at Hunt’s Lake near Mt. Jefferson, Bob heard an approaching roar overhead.
“It’s a plane and it’s coming in low,” Bob hollered to Cole and Charlotte following behind on the trail. Seconds later, two Air National Guard jets raced over the tree tops, spooking the horses and sending them running in all directions.
Charlotte screamed, “I can’t hold Stormy!” as she raced down the trail past Cole and Bob. Cole gave chase, while trying to control his own horse, Wendy, and a pack horse. The pack horse broke away and raced off into the forest, leaving Cole trying to contain Wendy. It was no use. As Cole struggled, Wendy tried to climb the steep embankment, and threw Cole onto a pile of rocks, knocking him unconscious, severely gashing his head and injuring his knee.
Meanwhile, not far down the trail, Stormy had violently bucked off Charlotte. Lying beside the trail with a broken back and shoulder, she was unable to move or speak. Fortunately, Bob was uninjured and immediately came to start first aid for the injured couple. “I thought we were goners for sure,” said Cole.
With three of the four horses long gone, Bob had no choice but to stabilize the injured riders and go for help. Many hours later, an Air Life helicopter lifted Charlotte and Cole out of the wilderness to safety.
Charlotte spent seven months in a full body cast. Cole recovered more quickly, but his knees have never been the same.
Their horses were all eventually recovered. The riding horses were found three days later, back at their last campsite near Hunt’s Lake. Their pack horse showed up eleven days later, near Three Fingered Jack, nearly twenty-miles away. Much of their tack and camping equipment had been stripped away as the horses raced through the forest.
Two years after the accident, the Air National Guard reached a settlement with Charlotte and Cole, never having admitted any guilt in the accident.
Cole was sixty-nine when the accident occurred. Ten years later he was averaging four or more races a year, winning or placing in most. And in 1994 he won the Lily Glen thirty-mile race on Knight, his beloved Arabian gelding who was nine years-old at the time.
Cole has also won the twenty-five mile race at the Prineville Endurance Rides, a series of races (25, 50, and 75 mile distances) on the National Grasslands held each May on Mother’s Day weekend. Not only has he won that race, he’s also been the Ride Manager for the annual event since its inception in 1972.
“I’ve tied many a ribbon on the Grasslands over the years,” said Cole.
Promoting endurance riding is clearly a labor of love for Cole Still. For many years Cole cleared trails and tied course marking ribbons on trees for weeks before an event.
His attention to the environment and safety is appreciated by both riders and Forest Service personnel. “I never question the safety of a trail when I ride one of Cole’s races,” said Vicky Patterson, a well-known Sisters endurance rider.
In appreciation for his tireless volunteer work and promotion of the Crooked River Grasslands, the Forest Service named the popular 25-mile trail which starts at Skull Hollow the “Cole Loop Trail.”
Cole and Charlotte were awarded the “Ambassador Award” by the Pacific Northwest Endurance Riding Conference (PNERC) for their promotion of endurance riding in 1995. They helped form the PNERC in 1972. Cole is also the oldest member of the organization, and certainly the most active in his age group.
At ninety-three Cole is no longer racing but is still active as the President of the Prineville Ridge Riders and Ride Manager for the Prineville Endurance Rides. And he still rides a horse or two during the week – and probably will until he’s called home to that big grassland in the sky.
(Charlotte rode off into the sunset in 20012, Cole followed in 2013)
First published 2003
By Bill Mintiens
Jakie Spring Media LLC