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Ivan Denton: Last Free Range Cowboy


May 18, 2011 by wcobserver

Staff Photographer Brooke McNeely Galligan - Ivan Denton feeds his horse Lad Saturday morning at his home in Mountainburg. Denton rode Lad to California, which took five months in the 1980’s. Denton will sign copies of his latest book on May 21 at the West Fork Municipal Library.

By Susan McCarthy

His custom-made clay-colored cowboy boots are inscribed at the heel with “Last Free Range Cowboy” and Ivan Denton may just be one of the last real cowboys, especially in Mountainburg where he lives with his wife of 30 years, Rose. He’s made a living throughout his lifetime in a variety of unconventional ways, but is well known in these parts and beyond for his intricate animal wood carvings. But if you ask Denton about what defines his life, he doesn’t hesitate…horses and being a cowboy.

“I’ve always had the cowboy thing. I don’t know why it’s so strong in my heart,” Denton said.

Denton looks the part. Denim jeans, light-colored cowboy hat, leather boots and he stands tall, unfazed by his 80 plus years. He’s also politically conservative and opinionated although he knows not everyone would agree with him.

Denton’s earliest childhood memories began on the back of a plow horse in what he says was between a cotton patch and a corn field in North Carolina. He was born in 1927 and his family were sharecroppers. At 14, Denton fell in love with his first horse, Pony Bill. There would be a lifetime of horse loves, including Lad, a 28 year old horse he rode from Arkansas to California in 1989 when he was 61.

“He and that horse could read each other’s minds by the time we got to California,” said his wife Rose.

Denton can spin a tale; his stories are broken in much like an old saddle. You can tell they’ve been told many a time over the years, but they’ve all got one thing in common, adventure. And perhaps a wink of embellishment. His life has seen a lot of adventure whether he was out at sea for a year or breaking wild horses that no one else would venture to tame.

“I live in a state of poverty. Whatever I did, I did for adventure,” Denton said.

It may be hard to pinpoint exactly where someone like Denton gets his sense of adventure, but one of the defining moments would have to be when his father packed up his family in 1945 and moved, sight unseen, to Alaska.  Denton said his father left with the season’s crop money in his pocket and headed to Seward, Alaska; they’d live in a tarp tent there until they could build their own cabin, cutting the logs with a crosscut saw.

But Denton said that Alaska wasn’t horseman’s country and didn’t have good riding weather, so in the middle of his senior year, he quit school and struck out on his own.  He never finished high school and didn’t attend college; although he jokes he went through college when he once rode his horse across the University of Arkansas campus.

Denton landed at Ike Mountain in West Fork in 1951 and has lived in Arkansas ever since.  It was here that he began his unintentional career as a wood carver after a brief stint of trying to raise chickens.  He said he’d been a whittler all of his life, but was trying to repair a fence when a stubborn limb from a black walnut tree inspired him.

“I split it and started carving and it never ended,” said Denton.

Denton says he’s made and sold over 10,000 wood carvings over this lifetime but gave up carving a few years ago to battle two types of cancer.

“My strength seems to go down, down and down,” he said.

He said his specialty was horses and dogs and once carved a life-sized horse that was made into a postcard at Silver Dollar City in Branson, MO.

​​​Denton lives in a serene setting at the end of a narrow dirt road in a cabin that he and his wife built themselves after his horse ride to California in the late 1980s. In front of the cabin is a small orchard of peach trees and a hand-cut wooden fence corrals his horse, Lad. The cabin is small; you can see all of the rooms from the front doorway including the bedroom which sports a large quilt over the bed.  The rock fireplace has a small fire still stirring from the night before.  A buffalo skull hangs at the top of the fireplace and Denton says he traded two of his buffalo carvings for the skull.  A guitar hangs near the front door and Denton recalls being an emcee and performing at West Fork’s Little Ole Oprey for several years.

There isn’t much evidence that this is the home of a famous wood- carver.  Denton stands to reach for a small carving on the fireplace’s mantle.   It’s a carving of a horse, but not as intricate as some of his other carvings.  However,  it’s a treasured piece because Denton carved it on the back of a galloping horse.  He says he did it just to prove he could and said the horse even jumped over a log in the midst of making one of the cuts.

Over the years, Denton has authored a number of books including a children’s series.  He’s also just finished a new book that he self-published last year. His books feature some photos, but also his own pen and ink drawings.  Denton said he tried his hand at writing a column for the Northwest Arkansas Times called the Cowboy Whittler, but that lasted only about nine months.  He said he was too controversial and the editor told him he was costing them subscriptions, but he had all of the columns he wrote bound into a booklet as a keepsake.

“I’ve always loved writing, you know,” he said.

Denton’s new book, “I Grabbed Ahold of Thunder: My Life with the King of Beasts,” chronicles his life and his lifelong love for horses which he refers to as the king of beasts.  He said he wrote the book to record memories so his family and friends would know what kind of life he’s had. The book includes short chapters about each of his four children, all daughters, and it’s no surprise that his favorite memories with each centers on horses…and art.

Denton will autograph copies of his book at the West Fork Municipal Library on Tuesday, May 17 from 1 p.m. – 3 p.m.  A copy of the book costs $15 and will be available for sale at the library.  If you are unable to attend and would like an autographed copy, you may reserve one by calling the library at 479-839-2626.

Denton said his life’s inspiration has been in God’s creation of the outdoors.

“If your church aint’ everywhere, then it’s not nowhere,​” he says and then recites a poem he wrote.

“I finally settled on what I believe is the cowboy’s church.  Cowboys live each day in church.  That’s why they never have to search.  When skies are blue or thunder rolls, they feel God’s voice down in their soul.”






  2. Aprilmay says:

    Love reading about you we always had horses when we were young now we have none your church story was beautiful and so true My Grandfather was a Denton he had a horse name Dolly
    She live to be 27 She was a big plow horse took us on many a sled ride in the winter she was a beautiful horse again thanks for your story Aprilmay

  3. Ron Azzanni says:

    Mr. Denton,
    I have one carvings of your work. I have two of Terry’s. I would like to get them appraised as I bought them in the 70 at Silver Dollar City and one of Terry’s won first prize at a Oklahoma Art contest that she entered. I bought it right after she came back. Please help me. The one I have of yours is a horse raring up it is about 11 inches tall.

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