All right, pilgrim, Hollywood may have been where Western movie icon John Wayne made his fame and fortune, but he clearly also left a mark – and perhaps a piece of his heart – in Arizona.
The bigger than life celluloid cowboy’s love affair with our state dates back to 1930 and “The Big Trail,” which was filmed near Yuma. He starred in or directed in dozens of movies filmed in Arizona including the classics “Stagecoach (1939),” “Angel and the Badman (1947),” and “Red River (1948),” which was nominated for two Academy Awards and filmed in the tiny town of Elgin in Southern Arizona.
Cotton, Cattle and Cadillacs
But what many don’t realize is that “The Duke” lived as he worked during his free time, spending time out on the range raising cattle and cotton and presumably enjoying another of the state’s Five C’s – climate – as he spent a lot of time here. In fact, State Highway 347 which runs through the town of Maricopa south of the Valley and Stanfield further south, for 28 miles also is known as John Wayne Parkway.
During the 1950s Wayne bought 4,000 acres in the area for about $4 million as an investment and contracted with a local broker to grow cotton. But Wayne was an actor and not a cotton farmer, so he soon partnered with his neighbor and successful farmer Louis Johnson, who worked Wayne’s fields and earned The Duke a handsome profit for years.
Johnson’s widow, Alice, once said that if her husband was able to produce four or more bales (approximately 1 ton) per acre for Wayne, the actor would buy him a new Cadillac, which he reportedly did for years.
But regional water allocations during the 1960s forced the farmers to cycle out of cotton and into cattle, where they also found success. Wayne purchased more land near Maricopa and built a feed lot that could accommodate up to 85,000 head of cattle making it at the time the largest privately held feedlot in the country.
Spirit of ‘The Duke’ lives on
About the same time, Wayne purchased a 50,000-acre cattle ranch near Eagar from the Mars candy family to raise prized Hereford cows, a premium beef breed. The Mars Family called it the Milky Way 26 Bar Ranch, but it quickly became known as the John Wayne Ranch once word spread of its famous new owner. But Wayne wasn’t an absentee owner, however. He spent time in town rubbing elbows among the locals and participated in the town’s annual parade – on horseback.
Wayne and Johnson continued to work together on the cattle operations up until The Duke’s death from lung cancer in 1979. Circle K founder and Arizona businessman Karl Eller purchased the property after Wayne’s passing. Johnson’s son, John Johnson, stayed on to manage the ranch.