Duke Pursley: man for all seasons

He was born Aaron Pursley on a cold windy day in the foothills of Mt. Centennial in 1935. Very early on his father started calling him Duke and it has been with him all of his life. Duke's mother and father were James and Mildred Pursley.

One time Duke was in the hospital in Great Falls when a nurse came in and told him there was only one Duke (referring to John Wayne's nickname of Duke). Duke Pursley looked at her and said, "There is only one Duke and that is me."

Duke's Dad ran the Nygard Coal Mine from 1933 until 1945 in Coal Mine Coulee close to Big Sandy. After World War II the coal mine was shut down. The family bought the Nygard Ranch and as Duke says, "that is where I have been ever since."

Duke went to school and graduated from high school in Big Sandy. He has one brother who runs a saddle shop, Broken Arrow Saddlery in Great Falls.

Duke has lived 81 years three miles from where he was born. From his earliest times he was a cowboy.

"We had cattle and we had saddle horses," Duke explained. "I loved one old horse that my mother rode to school. The only one who could catch that horse was my grandmother because she never rode him. Roannie was his name. He had a razor back."

Duke's mother got her education riding back and forth to school and sometimes staying in the old Big Sandy Dormitory.

Duke said that his favorite horse was named Fox. His second favorite was Spook. The rest of his name was "You SOB, get over here." (All horses have that same last name Duke contends.) That horse was all Arabian and died at age 29.

"He was a good horse. He had a mind of his own. If you tried to fight him in any way he would win. You had to get along with him."

Duke said that having Arabian in a horse puts the fight in them. There were two cross between Thoroughbreds and Arabians named General Custer and Major Reno who were so tall and long they destroyed the chutes wherever they went.

"If you were nice you could get on General Custer but no further," recalled Duke. "I think that Larry Kane actually rode General Custer but I don't know for sure."

Duke Pursley got married in 1957. He and his wife Dolly have three boys and a girl. Son Mike lives in Great Falls, Kip lives in Anchorage, Alaska and Ted lives in Big Sandy. Daughter Julie lives in Chester. The Pursley's have seven grandchildren.


Duke Pursley started to rodeo in 1954. He was always a bucking bronc rider as he said that was the only thing he could do.

"For ten to fifteen years I rode in the Rodeo, PRCA," said Duke.

Duke continued, "It was a perpetual vacation. I had a pickup and a camper and my wife and traveled around the country and worked one eight hour day once a week and got paid very well for it."

Duke said that he once traveled within fifty miles of the Grand Canyon six times and never did see it until later when they took a special trip just to see it.

Duke said that he always made good money in rodeoing.

Duke rode in the Calgary Stampede and won the Alberta Circuit in 1961.

Of all the trophies and awards he has won, Duke is most proud of the silver buckle he won in the Havre rodeo in 1957 because he won it with some very tough competition and it was his first silver buckle...

Oh, and by the way, as an afterthought, Duke said that like most all professional cowboys he knew from this area, they all started out at the Warrick rodeo!

"I had a great time when I was a young fellow," added Duke. All that came to an end when in Sidney, Iowa in 1961 Duke fell of a horse and broke his leg. He was in traction for three months and mostly immobile for another three or four months when he got back home.

"I rode bucking horses after that but not much. It was always interesting," said Duke, smiling.

What a life! Well, hold on to your hats partners, you ain't heard anything yet!


"I trapped beaver to make some money after I broke my leg," said Duke. " I trapped the Bear Paw Mountains all the way to Cleveland where I stayed with Robert Cox."

Duke got 117 beaver in one year and sold them all. He figured that was a lot of work for so little gain, so always thinking, Duke started making beaver hats and selling them for $65.00 each. Most everyone in Big Sandy bought one for winter. Duke said that Mark Eatinger and one of Duke's sons helped in the operation.

"I was in the trapping business until 1980. I should go into it again as beaver are bothering

my fish pond." said Duke.

See Page 3: Pursley The caps had ear flaps made from little beavers and leather bills and were lined with corduroy. Duke says he still wears his every winter even though it is getting a little frayed these days.


In 1975 Duke started making pocket knives and heavily engraving them.

"I made a few hunting knives but mostly pocket knives," said Duke. "All were engraved with a buffalo on them or a scene of some kind.

Duke was in Kalispell at a gun show when a man named Henry Flank was selling the knives. Duke wanted to buy one but instead Flank showed him how to make them.

Duke had a single order for 100 of the knives to be made for the Montana Centennial. Those knives sold for $950.00 each. Duke's knives started out selling for around $350.00 each. Buy one today from Duke, (Yes, he still makes them) and it will cost around $700.00.

Little Sharps:

Probably the most famous thing that Duke Pursley has ever done is to partner up with Ron Otto and start production of a small rifle called the Little Sharps.

"It is called that because that is what it is, a small Sharps," said Duke.

They started the business because they were coming home from a gun show and thought they could get in the gun business because Ron had a milling machine and Duke had learned engraving and had been engraving on pistols.

"We started getting advice from all the directors here in Big Sandy. They didn't know anything about what we were trying to do but neither did we," said Duke.

"We knew we had to do something," added Duke, "Because we started to get orders!"

The business is known all over the world by gun collectors. Matter of fact there is a gun smith in Italy who pays Duke and Ron royalties to manufacture the Little Sharps under a different name.

Duke thinks they have made around 200 of the guns. The first ones sold for around $3500.00 and were not engraved. Now all are engraved and they sell for $5000.00 to $6000.00 each.

Duke says that he and Ron have orders for so many Little Sharps that they will never get them filled in their lifetimes. It seems they both like to go gopher hunting too much.

In 2015 Duke fell off his front porch on a very cold fall day. He fell into a pile of rocks and broke that same leg he had broken in Iowa so many years ago. When Duke woke up, he found his old border Collie Sam lying close to him trying to keep him warm. Sam was licking Duke's face.

"That's when I knew why I had always had a dog around the place, said Duke.

Today Duke is walking with a cane and just as full of it as he ever was.

He lives those old words by Charlie Russell. "Never was there a horse that couldn't be rode/ never was there a man who couldn't be throwed!"

"Been a hell of a run," said Duke. "I am still alive and that is the main thing!"

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