The Duke and I |

When I was 22, I quit a cowboy job that paid $650 a month to take a job as an editor at a major ranching journal. I was hired in October to work at purebred auctions, taking photos, writing sales reports and selling advertising, which I hated and was not good at. I couldn’t sell tofu lasagna to a hungry vegan.

My territory included Southern California, Arizona, Utah and Las Vegas, Nevada. I was a contract worker, which meant I got 33% of all my ad sales, but I had to pay all my expenses. My two best accounts were an auction and the 26 Bar Ranch in Arizona. That’s how I found myself on Thanksgiving weekend in Stanfield, Arizona at a cocktail party 10 feet from the Duke himself, John Wayne.

I have met many personalities at cattle sales over the years. I had a great chat with Mel Gibson, traveled with Mrs. David Rockefeller, worked at Wayne Newton’s Arabian horse sale, and met dozens of professional athletes whose financial advisors told them how purebred cattle was a great tax deduction. But the highlight was attending John Wayne’s Hereford sale for several years. Adding to the special feeling was that 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 attended, so I assumed that was what it was going to be like to be a field editor.

When you mentioned the name 26 Bar everyone thought of The Duke, but it had a partner in Louis Johnson who was one of the most astute people I have ever met. Legend has it that the Duke had invested in cotton farms, but everyone he partnered with took him to the cleaners, so he asked around, “Who’s the best cotton grower in Arizona? ?”

Louis Johnson’s name kept popping up, so he partnered with Louis for farming, a huge feedlot that was named the Red River Feedlot after the one of The Duke’s greatest films, and a purebred Hereford operation that quickly became one of the largest and most successful in history. Their annual bull sale tops the list of highest average sales in the country.

I must admit that I was not blown away by my first impression of The Duke. He always seemed to be holding a cocktail glass (which I’ve never seen him drink from), he had low heels on his boots that made him walk a bit oddly, and he was wearing high pants. But the more I watched The Duke, the more I felt sorry for him because everyone wanted a piece of him, whether it was an autograph or a picture with him after the sale. The sale took place in a huge quonset hut with 26 bars painted all over it. The Duke remained at auction for the duration of the sale and I once asked my friend Skinner Hardy how was it to be at auction with John Wayne looking over your shoulder? Skinner admitted it was a bit intimidating…and I’ve never seen Skinner be intimidated by anything or anyone.

Louis Johnson was a great businessman and marketer, but he wasn’t solely responsible for 26 Bar’s success. When you arrived for sale, all the bulls were tethered as they were in Denver or Fort Worth and each animal was beautifully groomed with their horns and hooves polished to a brilliant shine. And keep in mind that most of these bulls were range bulls, not herd bulls. The man responsible for making all the bulls perfect was Marvin Meek, who shepherded 26 Bar for 20 years.

Meek worked his magic on all the cattle. He trained some of the best cowdogs I have ever seen, was a genuine, unerring cowboy, and had an unparalleled ability to groom cattle for sale. I remember browsing the outdoor stalls at 26 Bar with a friend who gazed at the beautiful row of bulls and said those timeless words that I’ve never forgotten: “Fat is always the best color.”

For me, Marvin Meek will always be the real John Wayne.

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