The Duke And I
By Lee Pitts
At the tender age of 22, I left a cowboy job paying $650 a month to take a job as a field editor with a major livestock newspaper. I was hired in October to work the sale ring at purebred auctions, take photos, write sale reports and sell advertising, which I hated and was not good at. I couldn’t sell tofu lasagna to a starving vegan.
My territory included southern California, Arizona, Utah and Las Vegas, Nev. I was a contract worker which meant I got 33 percent of all my ad sales, but I had to pay all my own expenses.
My two best accounts were an auction yard and the 26 Bar Ranch in Arizona. That’s how I found myself over Thanksgiving weekend in Stanfield, Ariz., at a cocktail party standing 10 feet away from the Duke himself, John Wayne.
I’ve met a lot of personalities at cattle sales over the years. I had a great conversation with Mel Gibson, traveled with Mrs. David Rockefeller, worked Wayne Newton’s Arabian horse sale and met dozens of professional athletes whose financial advisors had told them what a great tax write-off purebred livestock were.
But the highlight was attending John Wayne’s Hereford sale for several years. Adding to this special feeling, we always stayed at a resort called Francisco Grande which had been a spring training camp for the San Francisco Giants. Keep in mind, this was only the second sale I’d attended, so I assumed this is what it was going to feel like being a field editor.
When one mentioned the name 26 Bar, everyone thought of the Duke, but he had a partner in Louis Johnson who was one of the shrewdest people I’ve ever met.
Legend has it, the Duke had been investing in cotton farms but everyone he partnered up with took him to the cleaners, so he asked around, “Who is the best cotton farmer in Arizona?”
The name Louis Johnson kept popping up, so he partnered with Louis on farming, a huge feedlot named the Red River Feedlot after one of the Duke’s biggest movies, and a purebred Hereford operation which quickly became one of the most prominent and successful in history. Their annual bull sale topped the list of having the highest sale average in the country.
I gotta admit, I was not blown away by my first impression of the Duke. He always seemed to be holding a cocktail glass (which I never saw him drink from), he had undershot heels on his boots making him walk a little funny and he wore high water pants.
But the more I observed, the more I felt sorry for him because everybody wanted a piece of him whether it was an autograph or a photo with him after the sale. The sale was held in a huge Quonset hut with 26 Bar painted all over it.
The Duke stayed on the auction block for the entirety of the sale and I once asked my friend Skinner Hardy what it felt like to be auctioneering with John Wayne looking over his shoulder? Skinner admitted it was a bit intimidating and I’ve never known Skinner to be intimidated by anything or anybody.
Louis Johnson was a great businessman and marketeer but he wasn’t the only person responsible for the success of 26 Bar. When you arrived at the sale site, all the bulls were tied up like they were at Denver, Colo. or Fort Worth, Texas and every animal was beautifully groomed with their horns and hooves polished to a bright luster.
And keep in mind, most of these bulls were range bulls, not herd sires. The man responsible for how perfect all the bulls looked was Marvin Meek, who was the 26 Bar herdsman for 20 years.
Marvin worked his magic on all livestock. He trained some of the best cowdogs I’ve ever seen, was a bona fide, surefire cowboy and possessed an ability to prepare cattle for sale which was unmatched. I remember walking the outdoor stalls at 26 Bar with a friend who looked at the beautiful lineup of bulls and uttered these timeless words I’ve never forgotten: “Fat is always the prettiest color.”
To me, Marvin Meek will always be the real John Wayne.