Life on their own terms

Monday, December 23, 2002

Mark Boardman became a cowboy -- in the original sense of the word -- all on his own. It certainly wasn't a family tradition -- his father was an architect and his mother was a teacher. He didn't grow up dreaming of it, and he never did it to imitate some fancy-pants actor in a 1960s spaghetti western.

Maybe it was instinct, maybe it was fate. Maybe it was that he loved animals or maybe, as they say, it was in his blood. Or maybe, Boardman agrees, it was just a case of stupid luck.

"It just turned out to be something I needed to have -- I wanted to have," he said with his slight twang. "It was me and I can't explain what instigated it. Who knows why things turn out the way they do?"

But a cowboy he is. He has the black cowboy hat, big belt buckle, bushy dark mustache and slightly lined face to prove it. He even writes that he's a cowboy on paperwork.

But most important, Boardman, 51, has the résumé of a cowboy. It began when he was 8 years old showing chickens at the fair. The next step, at 10 years old, was delivering 29 newspapers each day in rural Cape Girardeau from the saddle of his first horse, Tag. At 13, it was his idea to buy five sheep to keep the grass down in the back of his mom's home after his parents divorced. By this time, he was also boarding horses and showing cattle.

It has culminated with Boardman and his wife Donna owning Flickerwood Farms and Arena. The farm was established in 1983 with a purebred and commercial cattle and hay operation has come to include a wood shaving business and a hay, cottonseed and byproduct feed business.

But they are mostly known for the arena, the area's largest and most successful fully enclosed indoor facility, which sits next to the farm near the Fruitland exit off Interstate 55. On any given weekend, country crowds flock to the 60,000-square-foot arena to watch or participate in horse shows, youth rodeo events, team roping, barrel racing, equipment shows or private parties.

Boardman admits it's his dream life, but his life wasn't always so dreamy. Their first agricultural business, with partners, failed when they found out one of the partners was involved in some illegal activities. The event left them mired in the court system and eventually penniless and without a home.

Donna Boardman remembers that as a particularly hard time for them, especially considering that they had two small sons at the time.

"It was a huge emotional setback. We were left without a home, without a business and, at that point, without a future, we thought," she said. "But we were lucky. We had close friends and family that we relied on. We couldn't have made it without them."

'You can't do it' a challenge

Donna Boardman said her husband's cowboy ways came through.

"He has the mindset of a cowboy," she said. "He's very independent and he achieves whatever he sets out to achieve. Those are the things that pretty much describe Mark. There are very few roadblocks that he doesn't find his way around."

But Mark Boardman said his family was familiar with adversity or people telling them they couldn't make it.

"People were always telling me I couldn't make a living baling wood or we don't know enough to run an arena," he said. "'You can't do it,' to me, is a pretty good challenge."

They started again in 1982, running a cattle farm and raising alfalfa in Illinois; 1983 brought more trouble with the drought, which Boardman said devastated the farm.

"I didn't have anything, so everything I lost was borrowed," he said.

A year later, he let the farm go and started his baling business in Cairo, Ill., on rented property. Then in 1987, they bought the property where the business is now on what was just then a field and moved the business there. Some bankers told them that they couldn't make a go of it, but they found one to loan them the money to build the farm.

"We always swim upstream," Mark Boardman said. "We saw a vision that nobody really saw. I've been independent since I was 10 years old. My mindset is that we can make it or we can't. But it will be me that determines that."

Dr. Linus Huck, the Boardmans' veterinarian for the past few decades, admires them for their resourcefulness and refusal to give up.

"That's a heck of a family," he said. "They all stuck together. They saw their share of adversity. Mark and those boys are real cowboys. They typify to me real cowboys. They're clean-cut gentlemen who aren't afraid of hard work."

The Boardman sons now travel the professional rodeo circuit but help out with the business when they're home.

'Not in my front yard'

Today, Flickerwood Farms is engaged in several aspects of the agricultural industry, the breeding, raising and feeding of cattle; the packaging and shipping of livestock bedding and the development and delivery of hay and feed for a variety of livestock needs.

They began showing horses in the late 1980s. Both of their sons -- Cimarron and Kadin -- began to show an interest in horses at that time, as well. The boys then were introduced to roping livestock. Boardman built a practice arena by their house. Two lights went up for lights. Then four more poles went up.

"What are those for?" Donna Boardman remembers asking.

"For the announcers stand," Mark Boardman said.

Donna Boardman said she replied that a practice arena didn't need announcers stands.

"Then Mark said they might have some activities that might need an announcers stand," Donna Boardman said. "I said, 'Not in my front yard.'"

They decided to build an arena on property adjoining their agriculture business. But a banker friend told them that if they were going to do that, they might as well build an arena and host events, something that would fill a need as well as possibly be profitable.

The arena has thrived, and Boardman said this year the arena was booked 48 of 52 weekends.

"It's staggering," Mark Boardman said. "And I don't think people realize the impact we have on the economy. People who come here from all over the Midwest stop and buy food, stay in hotels, basically just spend a lot of money here."

Home away from home

Their customers also love the arena.

"It's my home away from home," said Dale Schmidt, who sells construction equipment when he's not practicing his roping three times a week at Flickerwood. "They've gone through a lot for that place and we appreciate it. If it wasn't for them, when it was wintertime we'd be done unless we liked roping in the rain and snow."

Terry Clark runs a well-drilling service in Cape Girardeau when he's not at Flickerwood.

"It's just a great place for me to go and relax and have fun with the horses," he said.

Both Boardmans say the success of Flickerwood is especially satisfying considering all they've overcome.

"You can't choose the things that happen to you," Donna Boardman said. "But that's what makes our success so gratifying. But it's never been about money. We could have gone and worked at P&G and come out with far more money. This is our life on our terms."

Mark Boardman said if he had listened to those who said he couldn't do it, he would have given up a long time ago.

"I'm too stupid to think they're right," he said.

smoyers@semissourian.com

335-6611, extension 137

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