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William ‘Bud’ Johnson

BudJohnsonI met with Bud at his home on Anderson Valley Way, just north of Boonville, and as I drove up he was practicing his roping on a dummy cow. “I get out here nearly every day to work on it. I’m getting pretty good,” he said with a smile. Bud is a former professional rodeo roping expert.

Bud was born in 1930 in the central Valley town of Arbuckle, California, the second of two children to William Johnson and Anna May Petrie who the previous year had their first child, Betty. “My father was in the Army and had been stationed in Fort Benning, Georgia and while on weekend furlough in Knoxville, Tennessee he met Anna May who was from nearby. They were married at the end of that weekend!”

His parents moved to California in the late 20s and settled in the Central Valley before moving up to Humboldt County near to the town of Alder Point when Bud was 8 years old. His father had always worked on ranches and he now was the foreman on a huge series of ranches owned by the Tooby Brothers, totaling 100,000 acres with 10,000 cows. “In the late 30s, my sister and I rode to school together on a horse, eight miles each way. We had to cross a deep creek and sometimes the water in that son-of-a-bitch would be too high so we’d have to ride an extra seven or eight miles to the bridge. Them horses were pretty well broke by the time we rode them to school a few times. The ranch was in a remote area with nothing but sheep and cows for miles and we had no electricity in our cabin that was built of logs held together by wooden pegs, not nails. There were just five kids in the school and when one graduated the school closed. Some county rule, I think. The two other kids, Cudney and Hornaby, did not have horses and had been walking five miles each way until then.” Bud then attended a school in Blocksburg and he remembers his mother saying then that the U.S was at war with the Japanese.

“We got food stamps during the war and also hunted a lot for food. Everything we killed we ate and we also had a big vegetable garden, canning everything from buckmeat to vegetables and then breaking them out in the winter. My folks and everyone around us were hard-working people. After school most days I would usually have to take a horse or two to the blacksmiths and I’d be told to keep the furnace going while the guy would work with the horses. I would often get told off. ‘You little bastard, it’s too hot!’ I’d much rather have been shooting rabbits at the time. Anyway, that’s when I learned about horse-shoeing, something I have done ever since.”

Bud went to South Fork High School near to Garberville where he had to walk two miles to catch the bus, and then he moved to Fortuna High School where he stayed all week. “I was in a bunkhouse by myself on a farm and I milked the cows before and after school every day, and cleaned the barns out. From the age of 12 I never stayed at home and I would see my folks just a couple of times a year.”

Bud graduated in 1948 but two years earlier he had gone with his father to get a driver’s license so he could drive trucks between the ranches. “Although I had been driving trucks since I was eight I had never driven in town. My Dad pretty much told them I had to be given the license and they gave it to me and then when I left school I went straight on to ranch work.”

“We had some great dogs on the ranch, mainly McNab Shepherds. I had not heard of Border Collies at that time. The McNabs have short, sleek hair but the collies have longer hair and herding can be tough on them on a hot day. Dogs would sometimes get a good kicking from the cattle and we worked them hard but they loved it. You didn’t pet them dogs, they just wanted to work. If you don’t have enough work for a working dog then you shouldn’t have one.”

“I was paid $60 a month by the Tooby’s in those days, and given room and board too. I was in a cabin with about 20 other guys. That was good money then because I was very experienced on a ranch compared to some guys. We had about 300 horses and I’d break ’em and distribute them to the other ranch hands. We didn’t break them until they were four years old in those days (it’s two now), and we never had the round corrals to work them that you see today. I loved breaking horses and herding cattle. It was tough work, in open country around Ridgeville. We would drive cattle for miles, hauling everything we needed on mules. Once we drove 500 head right down Hwy 36 for five days. There was little traffic. We would have about four guys, 8 dogs, and go from dawn to dusk. On one occasion we were driving 800 head of cattle and, as I drove alongside the Wilburn Ranch, Lassie Wilburn introduced herself and invited me in for dinner. We still had 15 miles to go that day so I couldn’t. Then on another occasion I did go in. I just stayed for dinner and left, but soon after we went to the fair together and began courting. We got married in 1949 and lived in Carlotta on the Tooby Ranch.”

Not long afterwards, Bud and Lassie went to a rodeo and Bud entered the bronco-riding competition — and won! “It was $169 in prize money and I thought, ‘Jesus Christ, why am I working for a living?’ I started to go to lots of rodeos and seemed to win some money every time. I began to get well known and when people said, ‘How’s it goin’, Champ?’ it made me very proud. I quit my job and was signed up by the promoter to join the rodeo tour. They paid my food, lodging, expenses, and entry fees and I became a professional rodeo guy.”

Bud traveled all over the country with the tour, from Madison Square Garden in New York City to all the big rodeo shows from Wyoming to Oklahoma to Chicago. “I was pretty handy, I guess. For a time I would ride bulls and horses but when one of the top guys told me that bull-riding would always leave me ‘sored up,’ I quit that part and soon after my bronco-riding had improved 100%. I had learned a lot from all my years breaking horses on the ranches and I felt I could compete with the best of ‘em, all the big names — K.C. Tibbs, Jim Shoulder, and the Lendermans, Bud and Bill.”

A number of people know Bud not so much through his rodeo and ranch work but through his music. “My dad got me a guitar when I was 8 for $3 and I learned to play from hanging out with a couple of kids who were from Oklahoma and Arkansas and their families were always playing music around their houses. We played in bars for a kitty that would be passed around. When I was 16 or so I paid $65 to catch the train from Northern California to Knoxville where my grandmother lived and I got a job playing at a barn dance all summer and had a great time but I kept thinking about my life on the ranch working the horses so I returned and my music was shelved for years. Then once I joined the tour and money was coming in, the music remained in the background as I started to buy property with my winnings.”

Bud had worked for the Christianson Brothers out of Eugene and then moved to the tour promoted by Max Barber out of Williams, Oregon. “I was on the road all the time and they liked having me as I could be depended on to do all the jobs that needed doing. I remember Max telling me to make sure the horses got plenty of alfalfa hay because it made them ‘buck higher and fart louder.’ He was a great guy who took care of me and I was very sad when he was shot and killed in an alleyway in Reno.”

To supplement his earnings Bud applied for and got a job as a Mendocino Trapper based in Ukiah. “It was fairly central to the locations of many of the rodeos so we moved the family — Lassie and I now had two daughters, Kelly and Christy — and settled in Potter Valley outside Ukiah in 1957. A little later we went out to Westport on the coast for a few years and lived in a cabin on a bluff over the ocean. At some point Lassie and I split up and she moved to Texas with the girls where her mother bought her a ranch. Kelly returned to live here when she was 12 whereas Christy was with both of us at different times. She died at 36 in the line-of-duty as a narcotics detective.”

“I needed to get out of the fog on the coast and had hunted and trapped in Boonville many times so I knew I’d like to live there. Around 1959 I bought 5 acres for $5,000 at Con Creek, just north of what is now the local Museum and elementary school site. Then I got to hear that the new Highway 128 was going to run right through my property and although I was pissed off I sold the land for $45,000. With a chunk of the profit I then bought 12 acres on Ornbaun Road, next to where the airport is now, it is called ‘Kelly’s Place’.”

In those days the Valley had many bars and lots of people working in the logging industry. “Those Arkies and Okies may not have had a pair of socks sometimes but they knew how to work hard, and how to have a good time in the bars. I was in The Boonville Lodge getting drunk one night and I got talking to Shorty Rawles who had 12 acres that had been cut off from the rest of his property between the new highway and Anderson Valley Way. I offered him $10,000 for it and he said, ‘bully’ and the deal was done. I moved my parents on to that property but my Dad died after just a year when he had a heart attack when hog-hunting on Elkhorn Road. My Mom stayed on alone but it got tough for her so I moved in to keep an eye on her. I finally quit the rodeo business as my knee had been giving me problems — an injury I got many years earlier when bull-riding. I had earned a lot of money and didn’t need to keep going so hard.”

Bud kept sheep on many acres throughout the Valley, having as many as 7,000 at one point, some in partnership with the Rawles family, spread out at places like Horse Haven, Guntly Road, Reilly Heights, Robinson Creek, and the Piper Ranch on Mountain View Road. “I had about eight dogs at any one time. I have a very good dog now. Bo is his name but he has slowed down a lot. I’ve had some great ones, Arkie comes to mind. He could herd even the most difficult of wild goats out of a pasture if they were eating the sheep feed and had to be moved. I also had a great horse, Yeller, who died aged 26 after working with me virtually every day of his life. We won the roping title three times, last time in 2008, and I wanted to get one more ‘Buckle’ this past year but it was not to be.”

Bud was still trapping, the sheep business was bringing in decent money, and by around 1960 he had begun to play music again, “along with some pretty handy musicians. We worked gigs at various County Fairs and eventually I hooked up with various recording stars such as Glenn Campbell, Buck Owens, and a young Merle Haggard who was in Buck’s band before he ran off with Buck’s wife! One time I went to Nashville with my guitar and went into the studio to play with Glenn Campbell and I played the ‘Grand Ole Opry.’ I would sit around with Glenn and come up with songs, and he still calls me if he’s in the region and I’ll go and play with him and his band sometimes. He’s a fabulous guitar player and singer. In recent years I have played local gigs and the Mendocino County Fair with Dean Titus’ band. He used to work for me when he was at High School. I used to kid him that he was the only person I knew who would sit on a wool pack and try to pick it up at the same time. He’s a good kid.”

During the mid-60s Bud was married for a second time, “to a real crooked gal. She stole money; she was a thief and a bad drinker and I’d try to figure out how she could take people for their money, but I somehow was with her for eight years.”

In 1974, he bought a bar in Ukiah called ‘Cliff’s Place. “I was having a few beers and shooting pool with the owner who was complaining about the cost of running the bar and the problem of his wife running the bar and flirting with male customers. He figured if he sold the business he would solve all his problems. He didn’t know the facts of life I guess! I bought it for $30,000 and called it the ‘Happiness Is.’ It was a very different sort of life to what I’d known ever before but we did well for five years before I sold it to four loggers in 1979 for nearly ten times what I’d paid.”

It was while at the bar that Bud met Vicky, a customer, who became his third wife in 1977. “I’d known her folks for years. Her father promoted small-time rodeos with smaller horses than the ones I normally rode, the 1400-pounders. It was like riding Shetland ponies and I made some easy money. But the bar scene was rough and I began to drink a lot so with Vicky not being a drinker it was a good move to sell when I did. I went back to rodeos and Vicky competed in roping and ran barrels. She was one of the best and still competes today, as does my daughter Kelly and granddaughter Amanda. Vicky has been great for me. She understands me. We have two boys, W.T. who is now 28 and works at Starr Auto in Philo and for the County Roads Department and Houston who is 20 and works at Maple Creek Winery in Yorkville.

After selling the bar, Bud also quit trapping and concentrated on the sheep business in the Valley and several hundred head of cattle in Willits. “The livestock industry has always been up and down with many difficulties. I also did some horse trading for a few years but the market is no good these days. I used to buy horses cheaply in Texas, keep them for a few months and then sell them for five times the amount.”

Fifteen years ago Bud had a heart attack. “I had just told someone that I was in as good a shape as any guy my age could be and then a couple of days later I had the heart attack! I was shoeing about ten or so horses. I was doing the last one and thinking I was nearly done and could show that place a clean ass and go. Suddenly my chest began to ache, spreading to my shoulder and arm. My eyes were not right either. Fortunately a shepherd was nearby and he took me to the Doctor in Cloverdale and then to Healdsburg. There was a big vein blocked and luckily at the hospital they had a ‘clot-buster’ and saved me. I fully recovered and these days I am in pretty good shape and can still shoe about four or five horses a day.”

“I have always loved this Valley. I got lucky living here. We raised two kids here, although to do that these days it may be harder. Our kids are clean and have turned out OK. I don’t really drink anymore, apart from with dinner or just one or two, and I never go to the bar for a night of drinking. I used to know everyone around here, the loggers, the ranchers, but not any more. Still, these days many people will say, ‘Hi, Bud,’ and I have no idea who they are. I did go to the Senior Center the other evening for the first time and saw a lot of people I know. It was a very good time and I’ll go again.”

I asked Bud that if he were the Mayor and had the power to change anything, what would he change about The Valley? “I have no grief with anything around here. Besides, we already have a Mayor. That’s what I call my buddy, Wayne Hiatt!”

I asked Bud for his responses to various Valley issues.

The Wineries? “Other than them taking my water they are ok, I have nothing against them. I haul grapes for some of them and so it brings in a little extra income.”

The AVA? “Vicky reads it all and likes the local stuff. I’m not a big reader but she lets me know if I need to know something.”

Tourism? “Well there’s a lot of ’em and they are all taking pictures. Of what? I must have missed something all of these years.”

I posed a few questions from the list originally devised by French Interviewer and Culture Expert, Bernard Pivot, featured on TV’s “Inside the Actors Studio with James Lipton.”

Favorite word or phrase? “I like to call someone a ‘little bastard.’ My son, W.T., once told a friend that the guy couldn’t call him a little bastard as he’d seen his mummy and daddy get married!”

Least favorite word or phrase? “The f-word”

What turns you on creatively, spiritually or emotionally? “Playing guitar. It is hooked up all day and night, right next to where I like to sit. I practice a lot so I can still step out and play at any time. I had to learn how to play again without a finger when some nylon rope cut it off. It fell on the floor and I was going to put it on ice and see if it could be sewn back on but the dog got to it first and ate it!”

What turns you off creatively, spiritually or emotionally? “Kids not working hard. In my day we would see what was needed and we’d just do it. Kids today don’t seem to help people unless they get paid.”

Sound or noise you love? “The sound of nature when I’m out riding a colt in the hills and woods.”

Sound or noise you hate? “God dam motorcycles.”

Favorite curse word? “‘Shucks’ or ‘Son of a biscuit’.”

Film, song or book that has greatly influenced you? “Songs by Ernest Tubbs in the 40s.”

Favorite hobby? “Roping and shoeing. That’s not working to me. You hold a horse like you’d hold a woman. If you don’t they will pull away just the same. It’s not about strength; it’s about both of you relaxing. I am still learning about shoeing, even though I’ve done it since I was 7 years old. Roping too. I practice every day.”

Profession other than your own you’d like to attempt? “I always wished I’d been a great guitar player. I’m still learning.”

Profession you’d not like to do? “Hospital worker, or any job involving ‘babysitting’ adults.”

Happiest day or event in your life? “Anytime I won a roping competition.”

Saddest? “When Yeller died at 26 I was very sad. I’ve lost a few other good’uns and it is always sad. Bucky and Hammerhead come to mind, both great horses.”

Favorite thing about yourself, physically/mentally/spiritually? “I have a lot of friends and a good sense of humor. I love to sit around with them, all of us telling a bunch of lies! That I strive for perfection in music and horse work, knowing and reading people and animals is crucial in both of these and I do pretty good at ’em.”

Finally, if Heaven exists, what would you like to hear God say when you arrive at the Pearly Gates? “Welcome, Bud. You done your best.”

(To read the stories of other Valley Folk, visit the archives at Next week the guest interviewee will be James Monroe ‘Bo’ Hiatt.)

One Comment

  1. Shirley Chisum July 6, 2021

    Enjoyed reading about your life. Have known you since you married Lassie. Her mother taught school at Hoaglin Valley when I was in 2nd grade. Sound like you have lived a good life because you did what you were good at, and you have a great since of humor. God bless and keep smiling.

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