Memories of John Burton (1923-2016)
By Steve Moreland, September 9, 2016
John Burton has been a special friend for most of my life. In fact, looking back over the years, probably it was my dad and mom (Bob and Elaine Moreland), my Grandma Grace Moreland, and John Burton who were the four people who influenced me the most.
John was always an adventurer. He did things his way. John told me one time of a visit he had with another rancher. This other gentleman was a fine rancher, and one that everyone looked up to, including John. They were good friends. The other man told John of several “rules to ranching” that he had used successfully through the years. John listened with attentive appreciation, and then replied by saying, “Well, those sound good, but I only have one rule to ranching.” The other gentleman inquired, “And what would that be?” John replied, “My only rule to ranching is that I don’t follow any rules.” That would be an understatement.
My first memory of John Burton is back in 1956, when he and his family moved to their new ranch just south of the Niobrara, between Merriman and Gordon. Our family had gone to their place for a Sunday dinner and visit. I would have been four years old at the time, and John and Ardith’s kids, Velvet and Mitch, were younger than me. My dad and John had gone to high school together at Curtis, Nebraska in 1941.
When we entered their home, black and white photographs on the wall immediately captured my interest. One was of John on a saddle horse holding the halter rope of a pack horse. They were standing on a rock ledge overlooking the Grand Canyon. Another picture was of a large gathering of loose horses with dust spiraling over the herd. My memory is of John telling Dad a brief story of each photograph. In 1947, when he was 24 years old, he had ridden horseback leading a pack horse with another spare horse in tow from his folks’ ranch northeast of Ellsworth, Nebraska all the way to the Grand Canyon in Arizona. The horse picture with the dust hovering over their heads was taken a couple years later when he was a cowboy in Nevada on a big open range cow outfit, where they still sent out a chuck wagon. The cowboys of that area did things with buckaroo methods. John caught on to some of their ways, and I would make a bet that he had the first pair of chinks in Cherry County. Chinks are like leather chaps, only they stop just below a rider’s knee. They have fringe, and are more geared for warmer weather than are regular leather chaps or leggings. Back in the earlier days of the American West, you could tell where a cowboy was from by the kind of gear they wore and used. This is not the case anymore.
Burtons' home was fairly primitive, even for those days. It was a small two or three room house, with outdoor facilities at the end of a path out back. They did have water in the house, but it was a hand pump over a metal sink. It came out cold, and had to be heated over a wood stove if hot water was needed. Their buildings were a couple miles from the river, and seemed to be in prime rattlesnake country. John gave his wife Ardith a pistol for a Mother’s Day gift, and before that first summer was over, she had shot 36 rattlesnakes. Dale Cady, a neighbor, told of going to an auction on that ranch, before Burton’s moved there. One of the auction items was a two gallon crock that was full of rattlesnake rattles.
Burtons started coming to the Merriman Methodist Church, and we had a lot of fun Sunday afternoon get-togethers through the years. Velvet and Mitch were members of the Future Ranchers 4-H Club, as were our family and other local kids. Each month we would have a Sunday afternoon meeting at a different ranch. Sometimes there were cattle to be judged. Each 4-H member had to give a demonstration once per year. John helped his kids give horse packing and camping-type demonstrations that were very interesting and inspiring.
At County Fair time in August and again at the Stocker-Feeder calf show in October, our club would congregate in Valentine. As it was 60-90 miles away for most of us, this would always be a one or two-night stay in town. For many years, the ladies and girls would stay in Alice Snyder’s basement, and the men and boys would stay in Harry Spall’s basement. On one occasion, my fun-loving cousin Ken put little kid’s building blocks in John Burton’s pillow. After the lights went out, and John settled in for the night, Ken casually mentioned, “Boy, these pillows are lumpy.” John said his sure was.
He was one of my main childhood heroes. Through the years, I have been privileged to accompany him on several adventures. One Saturday in the fall of the year, right at noon, there was a knock on our door. Dad got up from the dinner table to see who was there. It was John. He said, “I came to borrow your boy.” (Long distance phone calls were expensive in those days, and were not used any more often than absolutely necessary.) John went on to explain that he had been to the Gordon Livestock Auction the previous Thursday, and had purchased sixteen horned Hereford bull calves weighing about 400 pounds each. He needed to brand, castrate, and dehorn these calves. Since he didn’t have a squeeze chute or any mechanical way of accomplishing this task, he needed a roper to catch these calves for processing. I was only ten or eleven years old, and while I had aspirations and the desire to be a cowboy, I really wasn’t that good of a hand.
I felt honored to be chosen in this regard, and it didn’t take me long to finish my dinner and jump in the pickup with John. We got back to his ranch, and he saddled his faithful old mare, Dixie. As mentioned before, my roping ability wasn’t super great. It took me several loops to catch each calf. I wasn’t adept at catching both hind feet, so it was always quite a chore for John to get the critter thrown to the ground. While John sat on each young bull’s neck, I would get off the horse, and give the reins of Dixie to Velvet. She was two years younger than me. I would trade places with John, and I’d sit on the calf’s neck, trying to hold that end of the calf down. John would put both of the calf’s feet in the loop, and take an extra half hitch for good measure. With the horse holding the rope tight, John would do the necessary tasks on each calf. Dehorning was the hardest part, trying to run the dehorners with the calf lying on the ground. It took all afternoon, but we got all sixteen calves processed. I had caught the first fifteen calves by only one leg, and some of them were even “high-hocked,” which makes tailing them down that much harder. On the very last calf, I managed to catch both hind legs. John excitedly hollered out, “Hold tight, keep both those feet, and give an old man a break.” I hate to admit it, but one leg got out of the loop, and the last calf was equally as hard to throw as were all the rest. It was a fun afternoon, which I really enjoyed. I spent the night with Burtons, and rode to church with them the following day, where I reunited with my family.
One summer Sunday after church, several families in several cars caravanned down to the Snake River for a picnic. The end of Highway 61 south of Merriman was just south of where the ETV tower is now located. Beyond that was just unmarked unmaintained Sandhills two-track trail road. All the vehicles in the caravan were just regular two-wheel drive cars at the time, except John Burton had a cute new little 1966 Ford Bronco, which had four-wheel-drive. The road down to the Clifford Bridge was sandy and hard to negotiate. One particular sandy pass got every car stuck, and John emerged the hero of the day when he was able to pull each of the other six or seven cars through to better ground.
John Burton has inspired me in many different ways. He was probably the most self-sufficient and adaptable person I’ve ever known. He could improvise better than MacGyver. Some of his best laid plans would go awry, but he would bounce back with a whole new scheme that would eventually accomplish the task. John was fun to visit with, as he was quite a thinker and philosopher. Our conversations were always mentally stimulating.
I’ve been privileged to get to work cattle with John Burton on many occasions. In August of 1966, I got to drive his team of horses from his ranch northeast of Ellsworth to his ranch on the Niobrara. Mitch, who is five years younger than me rode along in the wagon. John drove a small Allis-Chalmers tractor which pulled a four-wheeled hay-sled, with a two-horse sweep tied on it. This sixty mile expedition took two and a half days, and it rained two and a half inches during the trip. We pulled into the old U Cross ranch just before noon, during a heavy downpour. The crew at the ranch invited us to eat dinner with them, which is a fond memory. Maxine Fiss, owner of the ranch, and her two sons were also there at noon that day. The rain had let up by the time dinner was over. We re-harnessed our team to resume our journey, and the regular crew at the U Cross rode out to brand some late calves. There were fourteen mounted riders that rode out the gate, and one man led a saddled horse for John Kime. He was the ranch manager, and he was driving a pickup with branding irons, firewood, and other supplies. There were no extra neighbors involved. All of these riders were regular members of the crew, and they would normally be haying except they’d been rained out. All the haying at that time was done with the use of draft horses. This experience is a special memory to me.
In November of 1982, I helped John Burton, Mitch, and Mitch’s wife, Kelly, trail 316 calves from the south ranch to the north ranch. These calves had only been weaned for two weeks. The snow was deep, and it was a sixty-mile six-day trip. I helped for the first three days and for the last day, having to tend my own outfit for a couple days in between. Overnight accommodations consisted of sleeping on the ground with a tent for a roof. It was somewhat of a tough trip through paradise, but the mission was accomplished. We only had one horse each, and they got pretty tired.
In 1997, my wife Carol, and our three kids, Will, Tiffany, and Brock made arrangements to ride mules to the bottom of the Grand Canyon. After we were booked for the trip, I called John Burton to see if he’d like to go. He immediately jumped at the chance. When I told him we’d be riding down to the Phantom Ranch on the bottom of the Canyon on November 8th, and riding back out on November 9th, he said that would be fifty years to the day from when he’d ridden his own horses across in 1947. This was a great trip for all of us, and made especially so because the timing was perfect on the 50 year anniversary for John.
John’s wonderful wife Ardith died in 1995. He married another fine lady, Ruth Chaote from Benson, Arizona in 1999, and she has fit into John’s life and the local community very well. John Burton has been a special friend for nearly all of my life, and I treasure the memories.