When John Scott moved to Montana, his vision for a ranch was as vast as the skies above him. Undeterred by harsh weather and wavering markets, John built one of the largest cow-calf operations and most reputable remudas in the state.
Harsh conditions can either break a man’s will or chisel more definition into his character. Growing up on a cattle ranch m West Texas, John Scott knew some of the old cowboys who scratched out their living when much of the American West was still uncivilized. Pushing into strange new territories, battling hostile Indians, gathering wild, free roaming cattle and surviving natural disasters takes a hard-nosed and sometimes hard-headed disposition.
John still likes to tell stories about those old-timers, and the walls inside his house display many old, black-and-white photographs from that era. Some of them are portraits of his relatives, sitting in stoic poses and looking straight at the camera. Others depict large cattle drives and brandings carried out during the decades that John ranched in Montana. But however faded they may be, those photos offer more details about John’s life than does the man himself.
Seated in his home near San Angelo, Texas, wearing pressed khakis and a starched, light-blue shirt, John sipped coffee and offered simple, matter-of-fact answers to questions about his 83 years of life. But the pictures hung on the wall and the photos and news dippings neatly organized in the family album told a much grander story. Two of his children, John III and Maggie, along with his granddaughter Amanda, joined the conversation to elaborate on the photos and add to John’s short-winded comments.
In 1906, John’s father, John Scott Sr., moved to San Angelo, Texas, and established a cattle ranch nearby in Mertzon. He married Agnes in 1920, registered some of the first American Quarter Horses and raised three boys. The oldest, John, was born in 1923.
Horses were clearly part of young John’s life from the beginning. He learned to ride on a Paint pony named Rex, then he broke his first horse to saddle before he began school at age 8. When John was 12, he helped local cowboy Boon Rainy trail 50 newly purchased geldings from Sweetwater to Mertzon, riding more than 100 miles. By then, there was little doubt that John’s ambition was to be a cowboy and a horseman. “I never even thought about anything else,” he says.
One black-and-white picture in the photo album showed John as a young man, sitting on his favorite horse, a 1934 bay Quarter Horse mare named Minnie Noelke. “She was by Jazz,” John says. “She might have been the best mare I ever rode.” Minnie Noelke’s dam, Bay Noelke 1, proved a standout broodmare. She traced to Peter McCue, Traveler and Hickory Bill. Later bred to Little Wonder, Bay Noelke 1 produced Gaylor. John trained the gelding and used him in cutting, calf roping and steer roping events. In 1949, the team finished fourth in the Rodeo Cowboys Association world standings in steer roping, and they finished third in 1950. “I just worked him a little, and he was ready,” John recalls. “He really wasn’t trained like these roping horses are today, but he wouldn’t get you in any jams.” After high school, John attended Texas A&M University for a year and a half, then enlisted in the Navy Air Corps in 1942, serving as the bow gunner on a bomber as it patrolled the Pacific Ocean.
Shortly after John returned home from World War II, he met June Owens at a picnic in Mertzon. Romance got the best of John, and eventually he asked June to marry him. John’s granddaughter still enjoys the story of how he proposed. “It’s my favorite story,” Amanda says. “He asked her to be his cook. She said, ‘What?’ And he said, ‘Woman, I’m asking you to marry me.'” As gruff as it sounded, June accepted and they were married in 1947. Throughout their 59 years together-she died last year-she often joked that John’s proposal should have warned her about what she was getting into.
A year after they were married, with newborn son John III in her arms, June discovered the cold, hard facts about her husband’s ambitions. West Texas was bone dry in 1948, and John and his dad and brothers were desperately searching for good grazing for their cattle. John had heard good reports about Montana, where land usually sold for $3 an acre.
“It looked like it was never going to rain,” John recalls. “So that country [ in Montana] was mighty inviting to a young man. You just have to figure you can stand that cold weather.” In the fall, in a partnership with his dad and brothers, John shipped 25 horses and 800 cows, mostly breeding stock, on a train to Terry, Montana. The load filled 42 cars. From there, John and a few of his men trailed the stock about 60 miles to the TN Ranch, which comprised the first 10,000 acres the Scotts purchased. When asked about June’s opinion of the move, John laughed. “We won’t talk about that,” he says. “I don’t think she thought much of the move. But she put up with it.”
Their first winter was one of the coldest ever recorded in Montana. A snow storm hit before Thanksgiving and didn’t back down until February. Living 60 miles from town, there weren’t many opportunities to buy groceries, so beans and deer meat was a recurring meal. With no electricity or running water on the ranch, the Texans endured 21 days of minus-40-degree temperatures. When going to the chicken coop to collect eggs, June often found the hens frozen to their roost. John spread hay for his cows every day. He figured the bitter cold was normal for Montana. “I thought, ‘Better get out there and feed them,'” he says. Because the cows were bred in Texas, they began calving in January. None of the newborn calves survived until the temperatures began to warm up in February.
“That year, when the snow went off, we had grass,” John says. “We just went on like nothing happened. It was all you could do.” In the spring, John shipped more cattle from Texas. And by keeping the heifer calves year after year, the Scott herd began to grow. Within three years, the ranch spread across 100,000 acres.
The Big Picture
In 1959, John and June purchased a ranch of their own on the Crow Indian Reservation near Billings. Within 10 years, they owned 160,000 acres near Billings and a 120,000-acre spread near Miles City. Their ranching operation, eventually named the S Ranch, was one of the largest in Montana. They ran 10,000 mother cows, built a feedlot that held nearly 30,000 head (half of them were Scott cattle), employed 25 cowboys, ran a remuda of about 100 horses and began farming thousands of acres for wheat and alfalfa.
John held several large cattle sales over the years, but none of them matched his sale in 1969. The 5,300 head grossed more than $1 million, a record amount for a one-brand, single-owner cattle sale.
The growth and success of the S Ranch wasn’t merely some stroke of good luck. The hired help and the Scott family worked hard, and always out in front was John. Rather than taking time to admire accomplishments, the Montana rancher was always pushing, planning, studying and building. He usually slept for only four or five hours, and his children remember times of working throughout the night if the moon was bright enough. John kept a close eye on cattle futures prices and was constantly working on his own figures and charts. “It was always important to me to have it where I could liquidate enough to pay the bank off,” John says. “I’ve never had a foreclosure, and I’ve never had a banker count my cattle.”
Buster Welch, who often worked with John later when the cattleman moved back to Texas, describes his friend as a ranching intellectual. “He’s the best cow man I’ve known since I’ve been running cattle on my own,” Welch says. “There never was a time that I worked cattle with him and didn’t learn something.” All along, there was June, not only helping with ranch chores and raising their four children, but also providing balance to John’s focused, hard-nosed disposition. “When Mom and Dad moved to Montana, she felt like she was in the middle of nowhere,” recalls Maggie. “And later, my dad would leave on trips and have to be gone for days or weeks at a time. But she was very good with us during those times. She was funny. She was the kind of person that people loved. Everyone’s face would light up when she came into a room.”
It’s in the Blood
Over the years, the S Ranch’s horse program continued to improve. The herd descended from stallions such as Billy Van Vactor, Texas Gill, Desecho and Depth Bar Ray. Later, John bred to studs such as Sago Frost, Crusader Bar, Sure Fine and Eddie 40.
The remuda took yet another step forward in the early 1980s after John paid $86,000 for a yearling colt named Doc O Dynamite, by Doc O’ Lena and out of Gay Bar Dixie. The horse sired a number of top ranch broodmares and geldings. His performing offspring primarily cutting horses, have earned more than $850,000.
In 1984, John and June moved back to Texas, settling east of San Angelo on the Concho River. They left ranching operations in the hands of their four grown children, John III, Maggie, Sissy and Jim Bode. Meanwhile, John and June oversaw a growing performance horse breeding program. In 1993, John purchased a colt named Paddys Irish Whiskey. Sired by Peppy San Badger and out of Doc’s Starlight the horse earned more than $12,000 in National Cutting Horse Association competition and sired many outstanding horses while the Scotts owned him. Since then, Paddys Irish Whiskey has become a leading sire whose foals have earned more than $800,000 in cutting, reining, working cow horse, barrel racing and roping events.
In 1997, John bred several of his mares to an up-and-coming sire named Peptoboonsmal, an NCHA Futurity champion. The cross resulted in three 1998 fillies that went on to greatness—Meradas Boonsmal, a multiple NCHA-event champion who has won more than $90,000; Boonsmal Doctress, who has won many prestigious NCHA cuttings and earned more than $210,000; and Freckles Lena Boon, who won the NCHA Non-Pro Super Stakes and earned nearly $260,000 during her show career.
During the years John spent breeding, breaking colts and showing cutting horses, he still found plenty of work to do on both his ranches and on neighboring outfits. He was still going fullbore well into his 70s. Cutting trainer and rancher Shannon Hall recalls riding alongside John several years ago during a branding on Buster Welch’s ranch in Rotan, Texas.
“We came up to a canyon,” Hall remembers. “It must have been 50 feet deep and pretty much straight down and then straight back up the other side. I was riding behind John. When his horse came up the other side, it started to come over backwards. As soon as John felt that, he turned loose of that horse and slid over the cantle and down its hips. As that horse’s front end came back to the ground, John squalled like a banshee Indian, slapped it on the butt, and then grabbed its tail with both hands. That horse lunged up that canyon wall, and they both made it to the top.
“It was the durnedest thing I’d ever seen.”
In 2000, John decided to downsize his horse herd and held a dispersal sale at his Billings ranch. Buyers came from 30 states, and 243 horses sold for $3.45 million, an average of $14,200. Paddys Irish Whiskey brought the highest bid, selling for $560,000 to the Four Sixes Ranch. The ranching business is never predictable. Periods of prosperity can be surprising, and drought years seem to drag on mercilessly. Last year was another one of those tough years, but the dry conditions and skyrocketing costs were nothing in comparison to the loss of June, who died in September. One month later, John suffered a heart attack. These days, things move at a quieter, slower pace. Maggie and Amanda live in San Angelo with John. June’s passing left an incredible void. John III, Jim Bode and their families continue to manage cattle and farming operations in Montana, while the S Ranch horse breeding program remains in Texas. John stays involved with the horses and has bought several Freckles Merada mares. He looks forward to breeding them to Boonsmal Colonel, the current ranch stallion who is by Peptoboonsmal and out of a daughter of Bob Acre Doc.
John’s eyes still light up when he talks horses. There’s something special about hard-working, dependable ranch mounts. They earn a deep, unspoken appreciation from their riders—especially from an old cowboy who has ridden them throughout his live and through all kinds of territory.
This article was originally published in the June 2007 issue of Western Horseman.