More than five decades in the saddle gives a cowboy broad perspective and certainly an opportunity to see ample changes in the profession and industry served.
Couple bounteous generosity and diversity with desire and record of assisting others throughout the Flint Hills, this cowboy received semblance recognition for his honorable lifetime achievements during the recent Flint Hills Rodeo Parade.
Larry Johnson, manager of the massive Mashed O Ranch on the Morris-Chase County line between Strong City and Council Grove, was Grand Marshall of the 77th annual parade from the fairgrounds at Cottonwood Falls to the Strong City rodeo grounds.
Appropriately and prestigiously positioned right behind the color guard, Flint Hills Rodeo Association directors, and broncs and mares with colts from the Cervi Rodeo Company Born-To- Buck program, Johnson congenially acknowledged packed street side parade watchers from an open top antique surrey pulled by a grey Quarter Horse gelding reined by close friend-rancher-horseman Bob Avery of Olsburg.
“I always wanted to be a cowboy and finally got a horse when I was a junior in high school. I’ve had a great life as a cowboy, working on a ranch with cattle and other top Flint Hills cowboys.
“It’s truly been an experience and a ride like no other. I wouldn’t trade it for anything,” admitted Johnson, as he reflected his true life saddle experiences that most can only dream about.
Growing up at the edge of Manhattan, Johnson attended the College Hill School and was a member of the College Hill 4-H Club. But, his fondest memories of those juvenile days were those times helping family with their farming and ranch operations.
“I spent lots of time with my grandparents in the Tuttle Creek Valley; they were one of the last families to be moved out of the Stockdale area before Tuttle Creek Reservoir went in,” remembered Johnson.
“I also went over and helped my uncle who farmed and ranched north of Belvue. I’m thankful I had family to help and learn about the cattle business,” Johnson appreciated.
Owning a horse cost money, but finally, after years of pleading with his parents, Johnson was able to buy Lady, a buckskin mare from John Wegman at Wheaton.
“My Grandpa helped me get that horse, but I had to pay for her. I was finally a real cowboy. I rode Lady at Manhattan Roundup Club events and showed her in the Pottawatomie County Fair,” Johnson said
“An interesting thing about Lady was that she was originally owned by my future wife Linda’s uncle. However, at that time we hadn’t yet met. At the 1967 Pottawatomie County Fair, I did get to meet the Hubbard family, and they recognized Lady as the mare that their Uncle John had once owned. It was five years later after that chance meeting that Linda and I were married. What a great ride that has been,” said Johnson, as he smiled widely.
After graduating from Manhattan High School, Johnson attended Hutchinson Community College for two years. Following a short stint working in construction, Johnson volunteered for the draft and served two years in the United States Army.
“I had trained as a bulldozer operator in Fort Leonard Wood, and then went to Vietnam, where fortunately I worked in an ammunitions base, and didn’t have to be on the front line,” he said.
Johnson’s original cowboy mount was replaced by a grey gelding appropriately called Grey. “Through the (top cowboy) Ernie Love, I was able to acquire Grey from Gene Helms (another well-known cowboy). When I went into the service, I left Grey with Bob Avery and Wally Olson to use on their ranches near Olsburg,” Johnson said.
Following his time in Vietnam, Johnson worked for the Laflin Ranch near Olsburg. In the fall of 1971, he returned to school, and in the summer of 1972 married Linda Hubbard. Johnson completed his degree in animal science and industry, graduating from Kansas State University in 1974.
“We moved to El Dorado, where I worked for Dale Engler at the Ramsey Ranch, an Angus operation, and then in 1997, we relocated to Netawaka, where I worked for Dean Spencer, who had a Hereford herd,” Johnson said.
In 1980, Johnson came to his present position managing the 14,000 contiguous acres Flint Hills ranch. “It was a straight Hereford deal then, and continued that way until Bill McDonald’s daughter, Gena, took over management, and we started using Angus bulls.
“It’s done nothing but get better every year, yet we still breed some Hereford bulls back on the black whiteface cows,” Johnson verified.
Today, there are 700 “mother cows” on the ranch. “And, we summer graze 900 to 1,200 yearlings double stocked for 90 days,” he added.
Assisting with Mashed O Ranch operations are Johnson’s longtime cowboy workers, Bob Rohloff and Keith Mahaney. “Bob and Kenny Wilkerson were here when I came, and after Kenny left in about two years, I hired Keith. I’ve only hired one man in 34 years,” Johnson commented.
Cowboy is his profession, but farrier has been an important sideline income for Johnson. “Lex McCleen was shoeing our horses when I was at the Ramsey Ranch, and I learned the trade from him. I never went to any farrier’s school, or anything, just started shoeing my own horses, and then other cowboys began asking me to do there’s too,” Johnson said.
“I spent most of my weekends during the late spring and summer shoeing horses for more than 30 years. I’d usually do about 300 horses annually, about a 100 head with two resets each a season,” he calculated.
“I’ve cut way back now. I shoe my own and just a handful of horses for other cowboys,” Johnson said.
Close connections to the Flint Hills and the cowboy way of life, Johnson was a natural to assist with coordination of the Flint Hills Rodeo. “I served on the rodeo board for 21 years, and I still help out every year. I don’t go to all of the meetings, but when it’s time for the rodeo, I’ve been helping smoke brisket and serve meals for the workers and the contestants,” Johnson said.
Father of two grown daughters, Johnson said, “Emily and Marla were in 4-H, participated in club activities and the county fair. Emily is now in food quality control in Washington state. Marla is married, has our two grandchildren, a five-year-old boy and a two-year-old girl, and works in telecommunications.”
After teaching third and fifth grade classes for 33 years, taking off when the daughters were younger, his wife Linda has been retired for three years. She keeps busy with volunteering for church and community activities.
Johnson has also served in numerous community and agriculture leadership roles including the Morris County 4-H Foundation, which he was recently elected as president.
During his career, Johnson indicated the most drastic industry changes have come in cattle weights and values. “My first year, our calves weighed 430 pounds coming off the cows in the fall, and last year they averaged 650 pounds the last week of October. Our fall calves, we still keep 60 fall calvers, weighed 840 pounds the second week of July last year,” tallied Johnson.
“Most of our calves sell private treaty to repeat customers in Nebraska and Iowa. We fed cattle a couple of years, but it works better to sell them right off the cows,” he added.
As weights have come up, so have cattle prices. “We appreciate the higher markets, but our inputs have gone up sharply, too. What worries me is that Sally Housewife isn’t going to pay $4.95 cents pound for ground beef, and $10 for steak. She’s going to pull the plug sometime. The overseas demand is what keeps the price up, and I hope that can continue,” Johnson evaluated.
Over the counter beef price increases have even had an impact on Johnson from another angle. “I’ve been smoking a lot of brisket and other beef cuts for family gatherings and even public events for a number of years. When brisket that used to be 69 cents, is now $10, that even makes me take a step back, too. I can smoke a $3.98 chuck roast and get along fine,” contended Johnson, admitting the industry merchandizing of lower quality cuts at higher prices has been a boost to the markets.
Horses have always been key to Mashed O operations, but there’s been changes in philosophy there too from some aspects. “I’ve had several good horses over the years, and I’ve raised a number of colts that have made ranch horses. I have three horses now, and in the spring we still rope and drag all our calves to the branding iron fire,” said Johnson.
“But, often now when a calf or a cow needs doctoring, we’ll use the vaccination gun. That’s probably not the real cowboy way, and I looked at it differently 20-30 years ago, but it’s a lot easier now than roping and tying them down. Easier on me and the cattle, too, really,” said Johnson, who has done some jackpot roping and been on successful ranch rodeo teams.
“I never was into competition that much, but I used to really liked to rope in the pasture. I used to check everything on horseback,” added Johnson, who now even has a four-wheeler for occasional cattle pasture counts.
Land values have skyrocketed as well during Johnson’s tenure. “There is going to be some adjustment in all of these high prices at some point, and I just hope too many people aren’t hurt when it happens,” he inserted.
Concerning the Flint Hills, Johnson has always been most conscientious in care for the historic native grasslands. “We are on a regular spring burning program to help control invasive plants, while improving grass quality and grazing cattle gains. We also do a lot of spraying and hand work to control brush and weeds,” he verified.
In his time on the Flint Hills Rodeo Board, Johnson has viewed drastic revolution as well. “When I went on the board, the bleachers were nearly full every performance with a full slate of contestants in every event.
“Now, there are too many activities for the general public; we have a hard time drawing a crowd to the rodeo. There are sometimes just a few contestants in the rough stock events. We had more added money to the payback, so that seemed to help bring in more cowboys this year,” Johnson evaluated.
While gate receipts virtually paid the bills and returned a profit four decades ago at the rodeo, Johnson said, “The cost to contract rodeo livestock, specialty acts and all that goes into the rodeo has skyrocketed. Even with tickets higher priced than ever, it’s impossible to come out without major sponsors. Our generous sponsors are what keep the rodeo going. If we’d lose our sponsors, it’d be almost impossible to have a rodeo.”
Change is taking another angle in this cowboy’s life. “We’ve bought a home on a small tract near Council Grove, and I’m planning to retire by the end of the year,” Johnson announced.
But, he’ll still be a cowboy. “I plan to keep at least one horse. I have a nice little sorrel mare called Sis that I can ride to do some day work and help ranchers when they call. I have a harness and a cart I built, so I intend to do some driving with her, too,” Johnson said.
Likely a few horses will be shod by Johnson each year, and he looks forward to building steel and woodworking projects in the shop on the newly acquired property. He has constructed numerous cattle feeders, trailers and the like in the ranch shop during his manager career.
“We intend to stay involved in community and ranch activities around, and we’ll have more time to visit our children, and other family members. We do like to travel and are looking forward to a trip to Sweden to visit my father’s family. There’ll be plenty to keep us busy,” Grand Marshall Larry Johnson insisted.
Truly, this Flint Hills cowboy has had a grand life.