Third Annual

Betty Kunesh Award

Presented by Art of the Cowgirl

The purpose of the Betty Kunesh Legacy Award is to honor women in the west that have left a mark in their families, communities, and the western heritage, just like Betty. Betty Kunesh is Founder Tammy Pate’s grandmother, and the true inspiration for Art of the Cowgirl. We would like to honor other women like Betty with the Cowgirl Spirit through this award.

Applications for 2025 award nominees open June 1!

Betty’s Story

Betty Kunesh, born Alma Elizabeth Williams of Rapelje, Montana, is not only the matriarch of her family, but the true inspiration behind Art of the Cowgirl.  As the grandmother of Tammy Pate, founder of Art of the Cowgirl, Betty instilled a love of horses, art and the western way of life in Tammy from a young age.

The daughter of Inez and Robert Owen Williams, Betty was the second born of eight children.  As homesteaders of Rapelje, her father, a Welsh immigrant who came to the United States at twelve-years-old, mother and all of the children lived simply in an area that is referred to as the Big Coulee, a vast ranch and farmland tucked into the south-central region of Montana.  Driving south of the town of Ryegate, Montana, will find you on a dirt road down the rimrocks into the Big Coulee, where a patchwork of dirt roads, wheat fields and cattle pastures will still lead you to the original Williams Ranch today.

Betty grew up horseback.  She helped her father break horses to ride and drive from a young age, along with learning the duties of keeping the house and caring for her family.  Her aptitude as a horsewoman was matched by her appreciation of the world around her and her ability to convey that in art.  She became a talented artist, her main subjects being the animals and natural world of her beloved prairie.

On July 3rd, 1941 Betty married Eddy Kunesh during the Livingston Rodeo.  Eddy was also a talented horseman from the Big Coulee.  They built their home just south of Ryegate, Montana, the Crazy Mountains to the West, Snowy Mountains to the North and Betty’s beloved Big Coulee a few miles to the West.  Betty and Eddy raised two children, Shirley and Bobby, ranched and raised, trained and sold horses.  Their shared greatest joy was in their grandchildren, and they both made sure they always had the very best horses!  

Tammy, born Tammy Clark, shared a very special bond that continues to this day.  Of all of her grandchildren, Tammy showed the most interest in painting and drawing along with being the best cowgirl she could be.  Betty taught Tammy how to see the beauty if every day things.  Betty was never rich in monetary ways, but her life has been enriched by the every day beauty around her.  That is something she passed onto Tammy, and taught her to capture in not only art, but in how she faces every day. 

Betty’s gift as a mentor was not limited to her family.  Community is something she holds dear even to this day.  In her 101 years she influenced the lives of so many, from teaching all of her girls to cook, sew, paint and appreciate good horses, to doing the same for neighbors and friends, to spending countless days cooking for the community and being a confidant to the ones she holds close to her heart.  Her life was her own Fellowship and was the inspiration behind the Art of the Cowgirl Fellowship Program. 

Grandma Betty passed away July 11, 2023. In honor of Grandma Betty, we continue to honor her life and impact through the Betty Kunesh Legacy Award.  This award is to be given to a woman who has been nominated by someone who they have influenced.  Our hope is to honor those special women who are not always in the lime light: the women who work hard their whole lives leading by example, embracing fellowship and community.  

2022 Betty Kunesh Legacy Award Recipient- Norma Hapgood

2023 Betty Kunesh Legacy Award Recipient- Judy Padgett Elam

Bonnie Jean Huffstetler

2024 Award Recipient

Bonnie is a lifelong cowgirl. Born in 1928 to James and Louise Parker, Bonnie was the daughter of a farmer and sharecropper who came to Texas from Tennessee in the early 1900s. A small community called Ridgeway, in rural northeast Texas, western Hopkins County, was home to little Bonnie and her family. Her first experience with horses was riding the plow horses while her daddy worked in the fields. Later she began riding the plow horses bareback when her dad’s plowing was finished. She spent her childhood exploring the countryside while riding bareback, which she loved.

Bonnie is a true pioneer woman and kindles the Cowgirl Spirit wherever she goes. At age 95, Bonnie should be recognized and honored for her lifetime of hard work and contribution to the western lifestyle. From an early age and throughout her life, she has been well acquainted with livestock, feeding and caring for stock, pastures, and land.

As a young adult, Bonnie married Jack Huffstetler and moved to a neighboring town in Hopkins County, Sulphur Springs. Their family grew as they raised two daughters and one son. In the early 1970s, when the dairy business was at its’ height in northeast Texas, the couple began operating a small business of raising and selling dairy calves as replacement heifers.

Upon being widowed in 1987, knowing she needed to provide for herself going forward, Bonnie, at age 58, began to grow the cattle operation on her own. She spent hours in the offices of local veterinarians asking questions and gaining knowledge about how to recognize an illness and the best treatments. She built relationships with local ranchers.

One of the highlights of her Cowgirl days was the summer she spent working on a ranch with fourteen cross-fenced pastures. She loved every minute of bringing in the cattle on horseback, through the chutes and into the corral for working.

For over 25 years by herself, Bonnie raised, sold, and traded cattle on her own property. On the edge of her circle drive, she would meet buyers under the eave of a small barn where they would pick out calves and negotiate prices.

Bonnie also rose to the occasion in the sale barn. However, her first attempt at backing her gooseneck trailer up to the loading chute was a disaster. The onlookers (locals of the opposite sex) gave her a tough time. She told herself and them, “This won’t happen again.”  On the next trip, she backed up perfectly! Enough said. When her cattle entered the sale barn ring, the auctioneer often announced, “These are Bonnie’s cattle.” Bonnie was known for raising the best cattle and had a reputation for holding her own. The price immediately went up!

Serving as a mentor, Bonnie made sure her children worked alongside her learning everything they could about cattle, horses, and growing food for the family. Leading by example, showing a strong work ethic and the fun of fellowship, she not only passed on her character and her love and knowledge of cattle and farming to her three children, but to her seven grandchildren and fifteen great grandchildren. Every single member of her family was present and attended her 95th birthday party held in her honor.

For Bonnie’s 95th birthday, she had a couple of requests. She wanted to have a party and have every grandchild and great grandchild dance with her. That would be twenty-two dances – and she danced every one! Her second request, at 95, was to ride a horse. Now, that sounds like a Cowgirl.

Please help us congratulate and honor Bonnie.


2023 Award Recipient

Judy Elam was born May 8, 1947, in Modesto, California, the daughter of Don and Lenora Padgett. Judy loved school and rumor has it, she was quite the social butterfly! She graduated from Sonora High School in 1965 and attended Modesto Junior College.

On May 11, 1970, she married Ken Elam, now married for 52 years! Their daughter Lisa was born in 1976. Family is an important part of Judy’s life. 

In the early 80’s, they moved to the country and discovered their love for horses and cattle. According to their daughter, Lisa, “from that time on, it was about Gymkhanas and Cattle Penning on weekends.”  The mid 80’s found them living in LaGrange on a local ranch until an opportunity to move to Hawaii came up and they took it. When that chapter of their life closed, they returned to LaGrange and the western lifestyle they loved. Judy worked but spent every spare moment helping Ken on the ranch and at local brandings. In the 90’s they welcomed two granddaughters, Tami and Katelyn. By the early 2000’s, they were spending summers ranching in Sprague River Oregon and winters in California. They now have two great grandsons, Angel and James. Their most recent move brought them back to a ranch between Sonora and Oakdale, CA. They spend most of their time helping their vast network of friends with cattle drives and brandings.

 Judy lives and exemplifies the western lifestyle. At 76, she works almost daily, side by side with her husband Ken, working cattle, and is much-sought-after-help at cattle drives and brandings. Judy loves roping calves but is also quick to offer help pushing cattle down the chute or administer shots. Although she may have the shortest legs in the crowd, she is usually found on one of the biggest horses. Judy approaches work and life with a “What can I do, how can I help” attitude and, like always, accompanied with her beautiful smile.

Judy supports the cattle industry, local events, roping, and cattle penning events and is always quick to support a fundraiser for someone in need or to pass on information on a lost or found pet. She is very active in her local Mid Valley Cowbelles unit, helping support the beef cattle industry and her heritage through information booths, educational demonstrations in classrooms, and fairs and social media. Judy was the first Cowbelle of the Year for the Mid Valley Cowbelles. 

Judy Padgett Elam lives a life of honest, hard work that she truly loves. Congratulations to Judy for receiving the Betty Kunesh Legacy Award.

Norma hapgood

2022 Award Recipient

Norma Hapgood is not, make that NOT, a good little woman who likes to putter around the house.

Even at age 97, Hapgood is probably outside working in her garden, feeding cattle or helping out riding horseback. But some things have never come naturally. Riding and being outside is something that’s come naturally, something that started early.

“I always rode with my dad. I didn’t like inside stuff,” she explains with obvious pride. For more than 91 years — “I don’t know where that time went” — she’s lived in Modoc County’s Surprise Valley. Her parents, Roy and Vida Hanks, had a ranch outside Fort Bidwell.

“I am not a cook,” she emphasizes. “ ‘Bout the first breakfast I cooked was after Hilyard passed away,” she said, referring to her husband, who died in 1995. “No, no, being indoors, that’s not me. I avoided the house.”

“We had a little starve-out place,” she said of the family ranch, where they ran cattle and had milk cows. The fourth of seven children, she helped with all the chores, including milking cows and selling the cream — “I’ll tell you what. I know how to milk a cow” — and thrived spending time horseback. “I’m sure I rode more than a million miles. I’ve spent many an hour horseback and I’ve loved every minute of it. I always had a saddle horse. I didn’t always have a saddle,” she quips.

During good weather she and her sisters and brothers rode horseback to school. “That was the fun thing in my life, my horses. I’ve had some good horses. They were tough, tough horses.”

Life got tougher when Hapgood was 12 and her mother died. “Life changed after that I’ll tell you.”

Still, she enjoyed her growing-up years. Hapgood was part of the Fort Bidwell baseball town team, one that included boys and girls, and later played catcher for her fast ball pitching daughter Jeanne. Baseball is still a favored pastime. She watches San Francisco Giants games on television and admits to sometimes falling asleep. She is a loyal fan but, living so far from San Francisco, she has never attended a game.

More than baseball, Hapgood likes dancing. She found a dance partner after graduating in 1942 from Surprise Valley High School in Cedarville, the valley’s largest town. While working at the grocery store, she met Hilyard Hapgood, who made periodic town visits from his family ranch at Calcutta, 40 miles away on the present-day Sheldon National Wildlife Refuge in Nevada. She doesn’t remember the details, “but I’m sure it was at dances” where their romance blossomed. “Hilyard, he could dance,” she tells with a schoolgirl grin. They were married in 1944 and lived at Calcutta.

“We rode every place,” she said, recalling cattle drives and the winter they gathered 40 head of pinto horses for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, drove them from the Sheldon to Cedarville then, a day later, over the Warner Mountains to Alturas. “The snow was so deep it was at my stirrups. Talk about cold. We had icicles on our horses’ noses.”

Winters were spent at different places until 1949, when the Hapgoods bought the house that’s still her home and added neighboring ranches. During their peak years, she estimates the family owned about 2,000 acres, ran about 500 head of cattle and raised hay on 500 acres. Her “work-alcoholic” daughter and son-in-law, Bonnie and Joe Erquiaga, have taken over management of the ranch. Her grandson, Jeff, a veterinarian in Colorado, provides the family with Red Angus bulls for breeding. “We’re really proud of our cows,” said Hapgood, who’s also proud of her family. “Everybody knows how to work and everybody can do each other’s jobs.”

She’s been hobbled by two hip replacements and two shoulder surgeries — “I can’t throw a rope,” she moans — but still takes on chores. “I get up at 5 o’clock and get to work.” Asked if she still rides horseback she answers, “Oh heavens, yes,” although she confesses to needing help getting a horse saddled and steps on a bale of hay to climb aboard.

Hapgood, who wears a perpetual smile and is firecracker sparkly, has no complaints.

“Nobody had a better life than me. There’s no part of ranching and my life I don’t like. Made us a living. We worked hard. We were up early and worked late. Think of the fun times we had,” Hapgood reminisces. “I’ve really liked every day of it. I’d like to go back and do it again.”