Updated: Mar 27, 2019
Over the course of his life, John Wayne portrayed a cowboy on screen around 100 times. Even off-screen he stayed in the traditional cowboy garb, often seen with a cowboy hat upon his head and a button-up shirt tucked into his jeans. However, Wayne did more than simply look the part: he did the work of a real-life cowboy.
In the late 1950s, Wayne purchased 4,000 acres of land between Maricopa and Stanfield, AZ. He used the land to harvest cotton, and made frequent visits to check on its production. During one such visit, Wayne noticed that his neighbor’s crop was performing better than his own - at almost twice as many cotton bales per acre. Wayne became convinced that the best way to increase his own cotton production was to partner with that neighbor, a man named Louis Johnson.
From then on, the two worked together as business partners until Wayne’s death in 1979. The Johnsons and Wayne became very close, going so far as to renovate a room in their family home for Wayne to stay in when he frequently came to visit.
Wayne and Johnson also had a running agreement: for each year that Johnson was able to produce 4 bales of cotton per acre, Wayne would buy Johnson a new Cadillac. Johnson reportedly ended up with a new Cadillac every year but one for the entirety of the time the two worked the cotton.
However, government water restrictions in the 1960s made it nearly impossible to stay in the cotton business. Together, Wayne and Johnson transitioned into the cattle business, opening an 18,000-head feedlot and breeding operation that eventually came to cover more than 50,000 acres. As their business expanded, the feedlot grew to 85,000-head, becoming the largest privately owned feedlot in the U.S.
But in 1978, beef prices across the nation began to drastically rise. The New York Times reports that “In the first quarter of 1979, overall consumer prices rose at an annual rate of 11 percent and food in general rose 17 percent. But the price of steak went up 23 percent, round roast soared 72 percent and hamburger rocketed 110 percent.” Consumers across the nation began to boycott the purchasing of beef, and Wayne’s cattle business began to quickly lose money. Unfortunately, Wayne didn’t get a chance to see his business return to success; he passed away in June of 1979.
With the death of John Wayne and the continued beef boycotts, Johnson decided it was time to exit the business. Shortly after, Wayne’s children surprised the Johnsons by asking them to visit the Wayne family estate. Many years prior, John Wayne had purchased a chandelier in Europe, and upon a previous visit to the Wayne Manor, Louis Johnson’s wife thought it was remarkable. In a gracious recognition of the Johnsons’ ties to Wayne, all seven of the Wayne children unanimously voted to gift the chandelier to the Johnson family.
Though his cattle career ended in a down market, overall Wayne was able to run a highly successful cattle ranch and cotton farm. He developed life-long partnerships along the way, and always had a place to stay with good friends when he was on the trail. It doesn’t get much more cowboy than that.
Chance, M. (2015, October 28). Hollywood legend John Wayne made mark on Maricopa. Retrieved from http://www.inmaricopa.com/hollywood-legend-john-wayne-made-mark-on-maricopa/
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