Don McAlvay: Local Columnist
J. E. “Big” Johnson, who stood 6-foot-4, weighed 221 pounds, was a man of great physical strength. Legends of his feats are still remembered.
Born in 1878 at Gonzales, Texas, Johnson came to New Mexico as a strapping boy of 17 in 1895 and worked on four huge ranches from near present day Portales, all the way to Roswell, ending up on the DZs southeast of Portales in about 1897. Finding he couldn’t mingle his herd of cattle with the DZs cattle, he moved onto the Horseshoe Ranch at the Cuniva some 70 miles northwest of present Clovis. He became the wagon boss.
Many of his old cowboy friends tell how he was able to hold and throw those “mean little ponies” with only his bare hands.
One of the meanest horses Johnson came across at the Horseshoe Ranch was a horse named “Man Eater.” He’d fight a man, run over him, run him out of the corral, and everyone was afraid of him but Johnson.
The first cowboy on “Man Eater” was told to ride a little hell out of his system. When the cowboy went to saddle him, Man Eater charged him, mouth open, and Johnson came between the cowboy and the mad horse and knocked him down with a club. He knocked him down every time he came at them. The cowboy eventually saddled and rode him.
After a few days the horse got considerably quieter.
Dan Dinger Brown was another mean horse that Johnson taught how to respect cowboys.
Johnson’s last job with the Curtis family — which owned the Horseshoes — was taking a herd of Horseshoe cattle to the Lee Biven LX Ranch on the Canadian River northeast of Amarillo.
They watered the herd at Dutchman’s Lake, now called Green Acres Lake.
Johnson in 1913, at age 34, married Georgia L. Hammond, in Melrose. Georgia Hammond was Doug Hammond’s sister and aunt of
Vera Vey (Mrs. Roy) DeGraftenried.
Then Johnson bought 11 sections of land and leased 50 more, near Red Lake southwest of Portales. A drought was the first thing that ever “busted” Johnson and his ranch.
In 1923-24 he went into partnership with Lee Bivins and bought the old Bar-V Ranch of about 200 sections on the Pecos River, some 40 miles south of Ft. Sumner.
Another story repeated many times, tells of Johnson’s run-in with a bull at Juarez, Mexico, a bullfight while attending a cattleman’s convention in El Paso.
Johnson, who was in his later years, walked across the bullring during an intermission to buy beer. With several bottles under his arm, he headed back across the ring to his seat just as an agitated bull was released into the arena.
As people in the grandstands yelled at him to get out, he kept walking nonchalantly until the bull charged him. Johnson put his bottles down, picked up a three-foot pole and slapped the bull on the nose. When the angry animal charged again, Johnson stepped aside and whammed him on the nose again. The bull bawled and ran in the other direction with Johnson kicking him once or twice. The big cowboy bent down, picked up the bottles and returned to his friends. The Americans over there sure did cheer him.
At the Bar-V Ranch he de-horned about 800 yearling steers. He returned to the line camp where he and another hired man were sleeping over. He turned his horse loose and sat down on the porch.
He was not well.
“I just as well turn in,” he said. “If I don’t get any better I’ll get in my little boat (Model T) and go to the ranch.”
Those were his last words. He died on April 4, 1927. He was buried in Melrose.
One son, J. E. “Red” Johnson, lives in Clovis. They will never be another J. E. “Big” Johnson.
Don McAlavy is Curry County’s historian. He can be contacted at: