Wyoming man uses antler-based art to support veterans

In this Sept. 27, 2018 photo Ben Barto displayes 1200 pound pallets of moose, whitetail and mule deer antlers. 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. (Randy Tucker/Riverton Ranger via AP)

Riverton, Wyo. • 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.

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-based 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 is 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.

Help he has in a variety of ways, most notably through his brainchild, "Horns for Heroes."

Horns for Heroes is an all-volunteer project designed to help veterans through the sale and donation of antlers and antler-based products.

The hunting tradition runs strong in Wyoming, and most hunters have deer, elk and moose antlers hanging around the garage, the 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 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 go to veterans," Barto said.

The antler treats are a favorite treat for dogs and last a long time. Barto markets these wholesale to large retail sporting and pet supply outlets.

Dog treats are good source of revenue for veterans 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."

Barto 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, Ore., 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 antlers and in 1982 purchased a hand-crafted resin and hand-painted wildlife hat pin business from artist Brent Barret.

He 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. He began buying more antlers as well.

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 even 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.

In 2000 he 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.

He 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.

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 store room of complete art work awaits customers who select knives, pins and ornaments from the myriad displays in well-lit, mirrored showcases.

In the bowels of the building Barto and his staff work 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, but a surprise awaits in one of the work rooms in the back.

Two industrial lasers, one a fine-tuned fiber optic device, cut 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.

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