Johnson Ranch: From the plow to the track
He forfeited a plow and the fertile soil of the Red River Valley for the open range and cowboy’s life in northwestern South Dakota. At the age of 14, the son of Norwegian immigrants, Oscar S. Johnson saddled up and left what his son John G. Johnson calls “the best farmground in the country” – near the town of Fairdale, North Dakota, not far from Canada. He joined Chris Potter’s cattle drive to the North Grand River in what is now Perkins County, South Dakota.
The trip, using modern roads, is 390 miles.
John, of Shadehill, South Dakota, said his father, who never attended school, “headed and tailed three horses on three different trips that followed that same route.” All before his fifteenth birthday.
Born in 1859, the oldest man buried in the local Rosebud Lutheran Church cemetery, Potter settled about 9 miles south of the town of White Butte, South Dakota.
Within months the Smebakken and Amundson families would also hire the young Johnson to cowboy and guide them in separate trips from northeastern North Dakota to the North Grand River of South Dakota. Both of those families then established ranches in the same area. All were related, and so for several miles up and down the North Grand River, family members settled in and made homes.
“When dad trailed those cattle he stopped at Fort Yates to load them on a ferry (to cross the Missouri River). Someone asked dad, “how did you get those wild cattle on a ferry?” Dad said “by the time they came all that way from Grand Forks they weren’t wild anymore.”
When Potter, who first brought Johnson south with him, died in 1931, Johnson inherited the bachelor’s place and moved his wife and children including new baby John to that settlement.
“All four of my grandparents came from Norway,” Johnson said. Today, at 86, he and wife Shirley live within a few miles of his grandfather’s home place.
His mother, Hilma Sandwick, at the age of five, arrived at the forks of the Grand River after a three-week trip from Deadwood.
“They took three wagons. There were five kids, their parents, and the grandpa,” Johnson said.
He heard the story of his mother gazing at the “pretty rocks” in the Moreau River when they crossed it, about halfway to where they would eventually settle.
Later Mrs. (Sandwick) Johnson would put in her order for flour, sugar and salt in the spring and fall of each year when the wagon traveled back to Deadwood for supplies.
The spring of 1949 brought a flood that washed away Johnson¹s straw shed, used for fall calving cows. While no other ranchers were doing it at the time, Johnson calved a small part of his herd in the autumn to help cash flow so he wouldn’t have to borrow money in the summer, Johnson said.
The cows, calves, shed, hogs and more washed down the river when an ice jam upriver broke.
When the cattle washed away, the fall calving venture was over. “My folks never got a penny from the government. My mother wouldn’t have taken it anyway, she was a pretty proud woman,” he said.
Oscar’s good Hereford cattle were recognized at the salebarn in Lemmon, where cattle were shown in pens during the annual Anniversary sale.
In addition to raising cattle, Oscar found extra work whenever possible.
“One summer when my dad had little kids he was working on a threshing crew up at White Butte (about 9 miles north of home). He knew mother was getting out of groceries so he went to the store before it closed and then walked from White Butte to home to bring mom her staples.” Johnson said his dad then turned around and walked back to White Butte, arriving just in time to fire up the steam engine at daylight for a full day of threshing. “He couldn’t take the team because then they would be tired out. They were needed for work the next day.”
Johnson recalls one summer during the thirties that there was nothing but thistles to put up for hay. “We wrapped our legs with gunny sacks and stacked thistles.”
The cows were “pretty tough,” in those days, and ate the thistles that winter, along with straw “if we could afford it,” he said.
Johnson said he learned an important lesson during the ’30s. “Cheap isn’t always worth it. You get what you pay for.” After using cottonseed cake with good results, Johnson was enticed by a cake salesman that offered a less expensive version. “It was sawdust,” he said.
Another lesson learned hard was to sell cattle during extreme drought. “Dad always told me, if you have to put cattle out, don’t send them out of state.” Johnson said he didn¹t heed his dad’s warning and sent cattle west to Wyoming during a drought in the 1980s. “We didn’t owe anything against them but by the time we got them back we owed $80,000 on them; that is almost what they were worth. I’d never do that again. I’d sell them.”
John and Shirley (Schakow) Johnson and their boys Gary, Bob and Mike together ranched and raised and trained horses while the boys became men.
Today Gary oversees the cattle, along with wife Jodi (Ingebretson) and their daughter Lexi.
“I always just liked to ranch,” says Gary, the soft-spoken husband and father who handles the day-to-day oversight of the horses while younger brother Bob, travels to horse races throughout the year.
Bob is married to Shilo (Sortino) and has one daughter, Katelynn and a stepdaughter Cheyann.
Mike lives in nearby Hettinger, North Dakota, where he works as a salesman. Linda is his wife and he has two daughters, Sam and Annie and a son, Lance. Sam and Lance are both involved in local ranching operations.
Horses have always been a crucial aspect of the Johnson ranch.
When John was a kid, they used three teams of horses to mow hay. Then they raked it and stacked it using workhorses, and built fence around the stacks.
Oscar raised horses for the Army, using Thoroughbred stallions provided for him. Starting with Morgan mares that served well for working or saddle horses, he eventually produced speed when he crossed them with the government studs.
“The remount horses were blooded horses. They had to pass inspection before the Army would buy them.” Johnson remembers trailing horses about 20 miles northwest to the railroad at Lemmon, to ship horses.
Cattle for sale were usually trailed to White Butte, another railroad shipping point.
Soon the Army stopped buying horses and John started racing those fast horses with neighbors at local fairs.
“Miles City, Montana, was the first place I entered a real race. I won darn near all the races and after that people started bringing me their horses to train,” Johnson said.
Today a fully functioning training stable houses horses of all ages and stages of training.
To the east of the barn, mares and foals don’t think about their destinies. They just do what horses do. Young horses in training can be seen in large pens to the north of the barn. The Johnsons keep up a track and exercise equipment.
They are one of a few outfits in the state that regularly wins both Thoroughbred and Quarter Horse races throughout the country.
John’s son Bob is one of the region’s premier trainers and was recognized for his 1,000th win in Canterbury Park in 2008, and named the winner of the 2017 Challenge Championship (see sidebar.)
Bearing the legendary rafter JJ brand, No Brakes Now, a 26-year-old stallion has given the Johnsons a lot of good all-around horses. His offspring can be found in arenas and on ranches around the country. Just 10 of his offspring recorded total career earnings of nearly $200,000.
Hasta Be Fast is now the main stallion standing at Johnson Stables with offspring showing exciting potential, said Gary. He has sired both top arena horses as well as winning racehorses. His offspring are barrel racing winners from the futurity level to the professional level.
Eyes On The Prize, ridden by Mazee Pauley of Wall, South Dakota, was the 5-State Breeders Barrel Futurity Amateur Winner this year. Other Hasta Be Fast offspring, Whatcha Looking At, owned and ridden by Kalie Anderson and Hastabeflickn Fast, owned and ridden by Becky Amio are succeeding in the barrel pen.
Action photos of Hasta Be Fast himself, a 2005 sorrel stallion, winning races in Fort Pierre, Aberdeen and Yellowstone Downs can be seen on the Johnson Stables website, johnsonstables.net
Another son, Faster Than Hasta (speed index 102) is the top runner by Hasta Be Fast with earnings of $135,718. (See Bob Johnson story.)
His accomplishments include:
2016 Minnesota Stallion Breeders Futurity Champion
2016 Prairie Meadows Juvenile Challenge Champion
2016 North Central QHRA Futurity Reserve Champion
2016 Minnesota Year End Open Champion
2016 Minnesota Year-end 2-year old Open Champion
2017 Prairie Meadows Derby Challenge Champion
2017 Adequan Derby Challenge – Second Place
He’s following the footsteps of his older brother Hastabealeader, (si 112), 2016 Minnesota Year End Distance Champion and earner of $118,534.
Each year, Johnson-sired or trained horses earn enough plaques and awards to fill another display table in John and Shirley’s home.