Famous Hollywood movie actor John Wayne has had a long history with Arizona, stretching back to the late 1950s, when the Hollywood cowboy legend bought 4,000 acres of land between Maricopa and Stanfield, southwest of Phoenix. He borrowed and paid $4 million for the land because his tax attorney thought it would be a good investment.
John Wayne financed the cotton crop through the Anderson Clayton Company of Phoenix, one of the largest cotton brokers in the world. Then, lacking time and farming experience, Wayne paid AC Cotton to farm the land for him. It soon became clear to Wayne that the Anderson Clayton Company also did not know how to process cotton.
During Wayne’s many visits to his cotton farm, he noticed that his neighbor Louis Johnson’s farm was doing significantly better than his own. Duke’s farm was struggling, so he called his brokers and asked who was the best cotton grower in the area. They told him it was Louis Johnson. When everyone else got two and a half acres, Louis got four.
Convinced that Johnson was the farmer Wayne needed to make his failing property a success, he called him. Explaining that he could not come to Arizona because he was in the middle of filming, he offered to cover all expenses if Johnson would fly to Hollywood to talk to him.
Johnson agreed to meet with Wayne, and the result of their discussion was that Johnson would manage Wayne’s cotton crop for one year for $14,000. If the farm produced three hens per acre, he would receive an additional $50,000, and if he produced four hens per acre, he would receive an additional $100,000. Johnson produced 4.22 acres that year, earning Wayne more than $1 million.
But success was not without obstacles. During the cotton harvest, bank agents appeared in the field to seize 10 mechanical cotton pickers. Louis marched to the bank and signed a note for about $800,000 to keep the equipment from being taken.
John Wayne was so impressed with his new manager’s success that they decided to merge Wayne’s 4,000 acre farm with Johnson’s 6,000 acre farm and become partners. The 10,000-acre ranch became one of the largest in Arizona.
The two partners made a series of bets that if Louis could produce more than four bales per acre a year, the Duke would buy him a Cadillac. Every year but one, Wayne bought Louis a new Cadillac.
Johnson repaired the bedroom so Wayne could stay in Maricopa while he and his family traveled to Johnson’s residence. Often, Wayne would come over to Louis’s wife, Alice, to help him shave for an upcoming movie role.
Alice said: “I would follow a diet plan called the Diet Watchers Guide, ‘It was kind of like the old-time Weight Watchers program.’ According to Alice, the real key to her weight loss was a custom-designed bathroom where every surface except the ceiling and floor was mirrored. “Wayne always said that being able to see his body from all sides helped him lose weight.”
Although the cotton business treated both men well, federal government cutbacks in Arizona water allocations in the 1960s aimed at preventing Southwestern cotton farmers from putting others in the nation out of business pushed Wayne and Johnson into ranching.
Johnson and Wayne built an 18,000-head feedlot in Stanfield, Arizona, just a few miles from Maricopa, and soon expanded into cattle ranching with an operation in Springerville, Arizona that covered more than 50,000 acres. Wayne named the Arlington cattle operation Red River Ranch Land Co. after the role of his favorite movie actor.
At Springerville, known as the “26-Bar Ranch,” outside of Eagar in the White Mountains of Arizona, Wayne and Johnson focused on raising the highest quality Hereford bulls and then auctioning them off at the ranch near Maricopa. These annual auctions draw hundreds of potential buyers to the area from across the nation. Those auctions were once a big event.
In addition to the Springerville ranch, the ranch near Maricopa has expanded to 85,000, making it the largest privately owned ranch in the United States.
However, in 1974, homemakers across the country, angered by skyrocketing beef prices, staged a brief but powerful boycott, putting Wayne-Johnson’s cattle operation in jeopardy. We lost millions, Alice Johnson lamented. “It was amazing that Louis could go to bed every night, close the door and not worry about anything.”
To counter the fall in cattle prices, John Wayne and Louis Johnson reduced their number of cattle to 8,500, but the bankers were not about to let Wayne go out of business. Bankers insisted he was starting to buy cattle despite his poor credit. They told Wayne to keep buying cattle until they told him to stop. Wayne and Johnson began buying in January 1975 and by June had increased the operation tenfold from 8,500 to 85,000 head of cattle.
The partnership between the two men ended in 1979 when John Wayne finally succumbed to cancer, but many residents of Maricopa and Springerville still have fond memories of him.
Red River Ranch in the small community of Maricopa Wayne often drove through downtown on his many tours, stopping at local businesses. No one rushed him for autographs when he stopped. He was one of the townspeople. He loved children and would stand for hours signing autographs for them.
Wayne also frequented his favorite drinking spot, the Table Top Tavern near Stanfield, Arizona, and spent time with local farmers.
When Wayne died in 1979, Louis Johnson decided it would be best for him to get out of the cattle business as well. Wayne’s kids were going to sell the Duke division, so he decided it was a good time to get out of the business rather than be stuck with a partner we didn’t know.
When Wayne’s children were auctioning off items from the Dukes’ estate, they surprised Louis and Alice Johnson by inviting them to their father’s California residence. Alice had first visited there many years before, falling in love with a fancy chandelier that Wayne had bought in Europe. “It was so strange to see such a beautiful chandelier in his house, it just didn’t suit his personality,” Alice said.
When they arrived at the estate sale, the children said they were going to vote on giving the imported torch to Alice, and all seven voted yes. “I was so happy I danced on the kitchen floor,” Alice said.
Louis Johnson, Wayne’s cotton and cattle partner, died of cancer in 2001, and Ellis, in his 80s, remarried a few years later.
From 1976 until his death in 1979, John Wayne partnered with his close friend Charles “Chuck” Kenworthy in an attempt to find the lost Dutchman’s gold mine treasure in Arizona’s Superstition Mountains. Kenworthy believed that the mine and the treasure were buried underground just north of the Charleboise (Charley-Boy) spring at the top of Charleboise Canyon.
Wayne became a contributor to Kenworthy’s Heart Quest expedition, and he was eager to accompany Kenworthy to Superstition Mountain to help with the work. But Wayne was under a doctor’s care at the time, and he had to get updates and progress reports from Kenworthy while Duke rested and oversaw operations at his ranch in Maricopa. John Wayne was still deeply interested in the Superstition Mountains quest when he died in 1979. on June 11.
John Wayne once said that despite all his acting and film credits, some of his fondest memories are of the years he spent farming and ranching in Arizona. Red River was Duke’s personal favorite movie, and his ranch in Arizona allowed him to become the real-life rancher he portrayed on the silver screen.
Author: Matthew Roberts