Home on the ranch
Retired Tonganoxie cowboy reflects
Nowadays, people may think of the American cowboy's life as simplistic, as Hollywood portrays it in movies.
But John Smith's life has been far from simple.
On March 15, 1925, the day Smith was born, he began his life on a Texas ranch, and his future as a cowboy, on the 44,000-acre Smith Ranch, between Childress and Wellington, Texas, near the Red River.
"My grandmother would put a pillow on the saddle horn and Granddaddy would put me in front and he rode in a trot, just riding," Smith said.
Smith stayed on the Smith Ranch until he joined the U.S. Navy. Afterward, he returned to a Texas ranch, this time working for his father on the Ward Ranch in Clarendon.
After marrying, Smith took his wife, Martha, and his work experience to ranches in New Mexico, Colorado, Oklahoma and Kansas. They spent time in Brookville and Sedan before settling down in 1966 on the Tailgate Ranch in Tonganoxie. Smith's parents, the late Frances and T.J. Smith Jr., moved to Tonganoxie at the same time.
John and Martha Smith have three children, T.J. Smith III, Lone Jack, Mo., Jonna Shoemaker, Tonganoxie, and Bruce Smith, Cody, Wyo.
Paul McKie, who owns Tailgate Ranch, first met the Smiths in 1966 when he was buying cattle. John and his father were working for a rancher in Chautauqua County. McKie bought the cattle, and hired the elder and younger Smiths, who had learned their ranch was going out of business.
"Whether I got the cattle, I wanted them," McKie said. "He (John) was the best I ever ran into. I've never had anyone who knew cattle like John and his dad."
Smith's life was more complicated than it may seem.
"He was a cowboy in the old sense of the word," McKie, 76, said. "Unless you know how a cowboy used to be, it's hard to explain what his life was like. John's been on horseback his whole life. He's been outdoors his whole life. It's kind of hard to describe somebody like that."
Had Smith lived 100 years earlier, it's likely his job would have been much the same.
He would have taken the same long rides on the range and changed horses several times per day. He would have eaten the same type of chuck wagon meals baked in a Dutch oven. In short, Smith lived the typical cowboy experience as written about in books.
Kirk Sours, Tailgate Ranch manager, said fellow middle-aged cowboys have told him they wished they could have lived during the time when cowboys truly connected with nature.
Sours said that while he envied some of the characteristics of Smith's "classic cowboy" lifestyle, it's today's blend of being out in nature and modern conveniences that has kept him on the ranch.
"I wouldn't want to do anything else," Sours said.
For five years Smith has been retired from those days of breaking horses and chasing cattle. Until he recently posed for a photograph, Smith hadn't been on a horse in nearly a year. His legs cramp if he sits in the saddle too long.
Usually wearing moccasins that cushion his feet instead of his typical cowboy boots, the 80-year-old native Texan spends his days tending his garden, feeding the cow in the barn, driving the dirt roads around Tailgate, checking for stray cattle, mowing the yard and, as it is August, trying to stay out of the Kansas heat.
"I'm still looking for those golden years," Smith said, with a chuckle. "I don't know where they are. I haven't seen them yet."
Still, because this is a different world from the one in which Smith grew up, every morning leads to a new day for this rare breed of "old-fashioned cowboy."
Born for the ranch
Smith's dedication to ranch life led him to five states and eight different ranches.
But he said he knew this was his calling.
"I liked to find things to do. Whether it was twistin' cottontails out of a prairie dog hole with barbed wire or going swimming in the creek," he said of his early youth. "I knew as a little kid what I wanted to do in my lifetime to be happy and I'd done it."
Smith went from Colorado to Oklahoma, where life seemed better-suited for his young family, he said. For instance, he recalled living in Gardner, Colo., when his oldest son, T.J., was in the first grade.
"Martha had to drive a mountain road eight miles, not paved road, just a gravel mountain road to take him to school and back."
He found a new job in Oklahoma, one located where a school bus picked up their children for school, Smith said.
Still, he said, leaving the mountains was hard.
"There was something about the mountains of Colorado that I'll never forget," Smith said. "I love that more than anything."
Hard-working man, harder lifestyle
Ranching was not the glamorous, laid-back lifestyle seen in movies. It was hard work, especially during Smith's early years. The ranches were larger. The trips were longer. Everything was done on horseback. And, there were interesting experiences along the way.
Smith recalled when he lived in Mountainair, N.M., two pilots were flying along the old Route 66 from Philadelphia to Albuquerque. They needed a place to land for the night, saw Smith's barn and landed in a field.
According to Smith, the pilots thought they had found paradise.
"They thought, 'shoot, ranch life.' They'd set those planes down, they'd barbecue something, somebody'd be playing guitar like the movies. That's what they expected," Smith said of the pilots. "We weren't like that. We weren't like that at all."
In his younger years, Smith often traveled up to two weeks on horseback before returning to headquarters.
The work could be dangerous -- and dirty.
He rode amid rattlesnakes and prickly-pair cacti. He's broken his legs from his horse falling when he was riding. He worked through the dust bowl of the 1930s.
"I've seen three days in a row you couldn't even see the barn," Smith said.
Aches and pain just part of the job
Working with any animal could be hazardous.
"I went through everything that could happen to you on a horse that was bad," Smith said.
Smith has been scalded, or blistered, in the saddle. He's been bucked from horses. A rodeo bull even threw him, landing Smith on his head and temporarily leaving him blind.
"Every time you get on a horse, there's that potential to be injured," Sours said. "I've hit the ground many times, but not as many as John."
But, Smith said, even if it meant working through pain, he always put himself right back in the saddle because that was the only transportation home.
"Where you're changing horses two or three times a day, in the saddle all day in this kind of weather you're going to get scalded," Smith said. "Nowadays, you load your horse in that trailer behind your pickup, and you drive over here several miles and unload him and you use him 30 minutes and you load him back in that trailer and then you go home. There's a lot of difference."
Hard work 90, romance 10
According to Sours, a romantic connection between a cowboy and nature exists, but it only composes about 10 percent of the job. Hard work makes up the remaining 90 percent.
"There is that romantic ideology of it, but that kind of wears out after three days in the saddle," Sours said. "And it gets to feel pretty good to sit in a pickup truck."
But for Smith and his father, three days on horseback might have seemed like a walk in the park. McKie recalled Smith's father telling him that every year from when he was 12 years old until he got married, he didn't sleep more than two weeks in his own bed.
Though there was a 20-year gap between Smith and his father's lifestyles, they lived similar lives.
Smith said he enjoyed life on the range.
"You pull out that chuck wagon, you might not come back to headquarters for two weeks," Smith said.
And the food cooked on the range, he said, was incredible.
"I don't know what it was, but to me whether it was a gas stove, electric stove, what have you. There is nothing in the way a steak, biscuits, dried fruit, like what's cooked in a Dutch oven."
Bigger ranches, such as the 44,000-acre Smith Ranch, were more common in Smith's early days of cowboying because of the vast undeveloped areas of land.
"You can ride all day and never leave the place. Some of them I imagine two to three days," Sours said of the large ranches. "We're close enough here that we can ride across in 40 minutes."
Cowboying may not have been the glamorous profession portrayed in movies, but it was a profession Smith clung to.
"I knew as a little kid it had to be horses and cows. It's been up and down. There've been bad accidents and others went smooth, pro and con," Smith said.
Cowboying was a profession at which Smith worked hard. And that has not gone unnoticed.
"He just lived in a different time, in an earlier part of the cattle business, just a much harder time," McKie said. "You can see it in his face. His face has been outdoors every day."
McKie credits the success of his Tailgate Ranch to the hard work of Smith and his father. Tailgate Ranch opened in 1962, but McKie said the ranch didn't "have much luck" until Smith arrived in 1966. Since then, the ranch expanded from 160 acres to more than 2,000 acres today.
"He's hardworking, loyal, he's a wonderful man," McKie said of Smith. "To me he's made our ranch. He's the reason I can sit in an air-conditioned room. And he's older than I am."
Technology, like any other field, has changed the ranching industry.
"It was all horseback. There were no pickups involved," Smith said of his working days. "You had a horse wrangler and he would have 80 or 90 horses and he'd move them right along from pasture to pasture. All he had to do was keep them horses grazing when you needed to change horses."
In addition to pickup trucks, cattlemen have better tools today and more scientific knowledge, such as when it comes to genetics and breeding, Sours said.
But in a modern business identified by pickup trucks and four-wheelers, some cowboys, such as Sours, still prefer to push cattle with the good old-fashioned horse.
"A four-wheeler can't think like a horse does," Sours said. "A horse can feel what you're thinking. He can move easier. I know that's the same way John came up thinking."
Into the sunset
Smith's life has not been simple, or necessarily safe.
"All the things that happened to me, I shouldn't have lived more than 45 years old," Smith said. "But the good Lord was there to help me."
For Sours, the aging Smith is the beginning of the end of an era.
"He's the last of the old-school cowboys," Sours said.
After a lifetime of working harder than most other men Smith hung up his saddle from the life he knew he would love from the beginning. He has no regrets. He knew it was just time.
"My old body's been used up," he said. "But every morning I get up, get my clothes on. I got another day."
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