By Jason Todhunter
Rich Tatarka’s grandfather, John Tatarka, was born in Czechoslovakia but with the unrest in the region at the time he decided to move to America in about 1910 where he soon found himself mining coal in Thermopolis, WY. He then bought a grocery store and started in the retail business. He ended up moving to the Gallatin and met and married Rose from Stockett, MT. They soon they bought a farm in Gallatin Gateway where they would start their family. They sold the Gateway farm in the early 1940s and bought land off Valley Center Road west of Bozeman; this was the start of Tatarka Dairy which is still in operation today. Their family continued to grow at the new place. It takes a lot of hands to run a dairy farm and with ten kids, they probably nearly needed the dairy just to keep them in milk! Rich’s uncle Bill who is 83 is still milking 70 cows a day in the same spot however the scenery has changed a lot in the area since they started!
Rich’s father, Ray, was raised with the work ethic that this era and lifestyle will build. He of course worked at the family dairy, but also at the movie theatres in the area. Ray started in the trucking world working for Garrett Freight Lines. He worked in the warehouse and then did town deliveries from 4 am til noon, then would go to Laurel, MT to load asphalt trucks and bring a load home just in time to go work at the movie theatre.
Rich T remembers his dad always being a hard worker who never slept very much! He always had something going. Ray met Carolyn, who’s family (Walker) had been in the Gallatin since the mid-1800s when they moved following the Virginia City gold rush. They figured out it was better to grow crops and sell to the miners than to mine so they ended up farming near Springhill. Ray and Carolyn stayed in the Gallatin and had four kids; two boys and two girls. They raised their family and when Ray retired around 60, they bought some land and cows and ran a small dairy for quite a few years into his retirement.
Rich Tatarka graduated from Bozeman high in 1977 and for sure he was bound by family heritage to be a dairy farmer except for two problems; he was a lactose intolerant cow hater! “The only good cow comes in a wrapper and has COSTCO stamped on it!” he told me while I was interviewing him. Rich did spend plenty of time working the dairy while growing up but just wasn’t his thing. Liking mechanics, he enrolled in the Helena Diesel mechanic/truck driving vo-tech program where he started hauling lumber from Kalispell and Missoula back to Helena for his instructor.
After graduating he went to work for the truck shop in Bozeman as a mechanic. They were short of drivers so he started driving on a sleeper team coast to coast hauling produce. This got old after 4 years of road time so he started driving mixer trucks and bouncing at several bars back in the Gallatin. Rich met a guy at the bar who was looking for a log truck driver. Rich and family always spent a lot of time hunting and fishing and loved the woods so he said yes. They met at 0-dark thirty at Four Corners and with Rich driving went up to Big Sky got a load and hauled it into the mill. As the day was nearing its end Rich says “well you want me to come back tomorrow?” The guy says yes but the deal is you gotta buy the truck (for a terrible deal) and the job is yours! This one didn’t work out, but in the spring of ‘84 he found a job with a logger by the name of Pat Wilhelm and was hooked on log hauling instantly. 1984 was a good year as he also he met Sheryl and they got married.
“Log hauling was great with Wilhelms” Rich remembers “we had fun, ran safe and wore hardhats when all that wasn’t cool! They really treated everyone very good from the gypos to the company trucks everyone got equal treatment” ...except for Doug Russel who always got to load first on Friday because he lived the farthest away. We tormented him constantly for this!” This job continued until 1989 when Pat decided it was time to retire. He sold Rich the 1987 Kenworth log truck he was driving for a good deal and RJ Tatarka Logging was formed. Pat told Rich “The first thing you need to do is join the MLA and get work comp on yourself” Pat didn’t like or agree with grey areas and always wanted everyone to have coverage, he also knew the business benefits to staying involved. Rich hauled for Ward Wilhelm, Greg Hegdal those first years and things rolled along. Rich kept with the Wilhelm model of trading in the truck every 5 or 6 yrs., and traded for a new truck in 1993. In 1994 he bought a new self-loader and put it on his truck to be more independent and to branch out into new business such as hauling log houses to the building sites. He continued trading trucks on this schedule getting his last one in 2003. “I just signed the papers with Kenworth when I heard on the news that the LP mill in Belgrade was shutting down!” Things worked out with business diversification but when the 2003 was due to trade he couldn’t do it. “They were having so many problems with the emission crap by 2008-9 when this one was due, I decided the ‘03 was just gonna keep getting rebuilt.”
About 2010 the business took a turn when Rich bought a sawmill and a load of logs near Rocker and hauled both home. Log hauling was a little slow and the oil boom was strong in North Dakota so the business diversified a bit; the ‘03 also got a longer reach and started hauling poles out of Canada to add more diversification to the business. Rich’s son, Ross, had been working a firewood business with the family since high school and started working more with the sawmill at this point. Along with other custom orders they started cutting 8x8x20’ beams they use for stickers to stack oil pipe on. They also started cutting custom orders which they continue doing today. They added a new Woodmizer mill to the operation in 2019 but still run the old mill as well for some custom orders. The firewood business has grown and Ross continues to do firewood orders and deliveries in the Gallatin.
When Sheryl retired from teaching several years ago, she started doing more with the family businesses as well, even though she always has in the summer months. Ross has made some really cool wood projects and orders over the years which are unique because he uses a fire treatment on the wood for preservation and treating. Daughters, Rachael and Becca, have also occasionally been a part of the wood business as well although their interests have always been more in horses and less in logs!
Rich has been involved with the MLA since day one and was first a chapter director in 1991. He served on the Executive Committee of the MLA then was President of the MLA from 2005 thru 2007 and has remained on the Executive Committee as an active past President. In 2016, Northwest Montana Hoo Hoo honored him with the Woodpecker of the Year award. Rich was one of the founding members of the PLH program and has worked tirelessly for log hauling issues at both the state and federal level. He has testified multiple times during the state legislature on various issues ranging from trucking issues to work comp issues. He has also been involved with multiple meetings the with the Montana DOT and Federal Motor Carriers. He continues to give his time advocating for the MLA to help this profession we all love.
As President of the MLA, Rich travelled to Washington DC and met with folks on forestry issues. Rich has also been the go-to guy for trucking or log hauling issues and has always kept up on the current issues facing the industry. Sometime in the early 2000s Rich started writing the Truck Stop Article for the MLA Newsletter. He said pure motor carrier issues can be a bit dry and there are fun things like fishing and antelope archery hunting to write about! Rich has written countless newsletter articles and every one is new and different…he has never recycled one. He tried retiring once but thankfully that didn’t last long!
As you drive the Valley Center Rd in the Gallatin Valley the primary scenery is subdivisions, one Town Pump, some McManchions, one or two spots that are hay and look like they might belong to a dairy farm, and one log yard.If he is there you will see a 2003 Kenworth self-loader with over a million miles on it but just as sound and road worthy as the day it was new. It may have a long reach for hauling poles, it may have a log house or a load of firewood or logs on it…just depends on what the job is at the time. There are piles of firewood out by the road to advertise, and some slabs and a growing stack of lumber for the latest order. Ross might be pulling a tape across a partially sawed log getting the final dimensions right. Rich never planned on growing his business more than one truck to stay simple and have flexibility and has succeeded in running this business model for 33 yrs while also giving a lot back to Montana’s logging industry. Well done, Sir! Timber Roots