By: Randy Tucker
It was known simply as “Red Rocks” a generation ago, the restaurant and motel on the north side of U.S. Highway 26, just before the big curve 20 miles east of Dubois, Wyoming. While the meals may have been memorable, what goes on inside the former restaurant and motel complex is unexpected.
Ben Barto, a Wyoming native originally from Rock Springs, has created a quiet industry along the Wind River that produces world quality knives, ornaments, pins, and just about anything else you can imagine from elk and deer antlers.
“We take a basic hunting knife and turn it into a work of art,” Barto said.
The enterprise produces unique, wildlife-centric art, but has another special purpose in supporting veterans and veteran organizations across the state and the nation.
The walls of the company office, adjacent to the showroom, clearly display the respect and dedication to veterans that are the focus of Barto’s efforts.
“After spending time with these veterans, hearing their stories and learning that roughly 23 veterans commit suicide every day, I knew I needed to figure out a way to help,” Barto said.
Helped he has, in a variety of ways, most notably through his brainchild, “Horns for Heroes,” an all-volunteer project designed to help veterans through the sale and donation of antlers and antler-based products.
A Strong Hunting Tradition
The hunting tradition runs strong in Wyoming, and most hunters have deer, elk, and moose antlers hanging around the garage, shop, or barn. These horns can be donated to help local American Legion posts.
Barto has five sanctioned horn buyers he works with. If a supply of antlers is large enough, a buyer will meet the seller, sort, weigh, and value the antlers, then write a check to the local American Legion for 50 cents below the current spot price for the horns.
Antlers come in grades of A, B, and C, with the A and B grades being newer, harder horns with some or all of the original color still in them. C grade antlers are older, have lost most of their original tint, and often have a chalky appearance. The grade doesn’t matter; all of them are marketable, and Barto has a use for every one of them.
An interesting product sold and marketed directly from his Red Rocks location is antler dog treats. Barto’s staff takes raw antlers, cuts them to dog bone-sized lengths, and packages them for local sales or worldwide distribution.
“The difference between wholesale and retail of all dog treat sales goes to veterans,” Barto said.
The antler treats are a favorite of many dogs and last a long time. Barto markets these wholesale to large retail sporting and pet supply outlets.
Dog chews made of deer antlers are displayed at Ben Barto’s Horns for Heroes, 50% of every sale goes directly to veteran’s organizations.
Designing and Creating Art
Dog treats are good source of revenue for veteran organizations, but Barto is much more an artist than an entrepreneur.
“My skills are in designing and creating art,” Barto said. “The business side, I’m just not that good at it.”
Barton started in the antler carving business as a hobby just a few years after graduating from Rock Springs High School in 1971.
He was working for Pacific Power during the construction of a line from Rock Springs to Medford, Oregon in 1974 when he began to carve antlers as a hobby in his free time. Over the next few years, his hobby developed into a passion. He began to buy more antlers, and in 1982, purchased a hand-crafted resin and hand-painted wildlife hat pin business from artist Brent Barret.
Barto began carving and hired 11 sub-contractors to mold and paint products. He began wholesaling pins to Cabela’s, and his carving business picked up.
In 1991, he purchased the Red Rock Lodge. He began holding concerts in 1995 with Steppenwolf, Nazareth, the Ozark Mountain Daredevils, Gary Allen, and Mark Chestnut performing over the next few years.
In 1998, he met and later married Sherry Moser, also an artist, and the couple decided to close the bar and enlarge their pin business into magnets and Christmas tree ornaments.
Barto’s creative side kicked into high gear, and he began designing wine holds from antlers, tree toppers, and he eventually patented an antler Christmas tree. His buyers expanded from Cabela’s to Bass Pro Shop, Gander Mountain, Sportsman’s Warehouse, and Ace Hardware, along with hundreds of gift shops across the west. At peak production, they were creating 400,000 pins a year after moving the molding production to China.
Touching Lives of Veterans
In 2000, Barto hired Chance and Kelly Phelps, a couple of Dubois High School students, to hand-paint wildlife pins. Both brother and sister joined the military, and Chance, a Marine, was killed in action in Iraq on April 9, 2004. It was a tragic event that enhanced Barto’s respect, admiration, and interest in veterans’ lives after they returned from service.
Barto helped Chance’s mother, Gretchen Mack, in supporting the Chance Phelps Foundation she started in her son’s honor. The story of Chance Phelps was retold in the film “Taking Chance,” starring Kevin Bacon.
Barto made custom hat pins for the surviving Doolittle Raiders and built a knife for the late Samuel T. Holiday, one of the only two remaining Navajo code talkers, when Holiday was 98. Dick Cole, age 103, presented Barto with a Doolittle coin later.
One afternoon at a “Rocking the Winds” fundraiser at Crowheart, Barto watched double-amputee Green Beret Dana Bowman parachute into a nearby field and was inspired once again.
Bowman is now a member of the Horns for Heroes Board of Directors. Jeff Milton of Dubois, a veteran and now a real-estate agent, is a member of the board along with Goran Berndtsson, a Swedish businessman who designs and markets personal protective equipment across the world.
T.R. Pierce, a veteran and retired banker from Jackson, Kenneth Persson, a retired Wyoming Game and Fish warden and past American Legion Commander, Art Lawson, the Wind River Reservation Fish and Game Director, and Thomas Dean, past president of the Wyoming American Legion, and Barto comprise the rest of the board.
The exterior of the Red Rock facility is traditional red painted logs that are common in buildings along the upper Wind River Valley, but inside is a state-of-the-art production and distribution facility.
Pallets of antlers weighing 1,200 pounds each are bundled and awaiting shipment across the nation. A storeroom of complete artwork awaits customers who select knives, pins, and ornaments from the myriad displays in well-lit, mirrored showcases.
In the bowels of the building, you’ll find Barto and his staff working with Dremel tools, sanders, and stains to put the perfect finish on a handmade antler handle destined to be mated with a stainless or Damascus steel blade.
And a surprise awaits in one of work rooms in the back.
Two industrial lasers, one a fine-tuned fiber optic device, cuts laminated birch panels into custom ornaments, and the other engraves knife blades, antlers, handles, and even items as tiny as shell cases with the Horns for Heroes trademark, or any other design or name a customer may choose.
Barto plans to expand the business to nine full-time employees in the near future and will continue to add to the thousands of dollars his business has donated to veterans.
Randy Tucker is a retired history teacher and freelance writer from western Wyoming. He has a lifetime of experience in farming, ranching, hunting and fishing in the shadow of the Wind River Mountains. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.