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John Wayne

Alice Johnson-McKinney stays on independent path

Alice Johnson McKinney at the Stanfield homestead where she has lived since 1969. Photo by Victor Moreno

Alice Kulbeth Johnson-McKinney first traveled from Arkansas to Arizona in 1955 at age 15.

“My dad had a heart condition, and the doctor said, ‘If you lived in a warmer climate and didn’t work so hard, you could increase your life expectancy.’ He had a brother that worked for the mines in Globe, so we sold the house and everything and moved to Arizona.”

It was just the beginning of a remarkable life that included picking cotton, performing country music, waitressing, flipping houses before it was cool, marrying four times (twice to the same man), being caretaker to ailing spouses and standing centerstage in one of the most iconic friendships in Pinal County history.

“Oh, she’s a great lady,” said Paul Shirk, president of the Maricopa Historical Society. “And she has so many stories. Every time I talk to her, I hear a story I haven’t heard before.”

People like to ask her for stories about John Wayne, but she likes to share the full history as much as she can while she’s still here and can remember the details.

“There’s not too many of us left, the older farmers,” she said. “We’re getting old and passing on.”

In the 1950s, Johnson-McKinney’s father was a logger and took a little time to land a job with the Globe mining companies. Back in Arkansas he had played fiddle in a country band that also included 11-year-old Alice on upright bass and her little brother Larry playing mandolin/guitar. They had a regular gig on a local radio station. Based on that youthful experience, Alice and Larry landed jobs in Arizona before their parents did.

She marched into a Globe radio station and said they wanted to play on air and get paid.

Johnson-McKinney keeps a collection of family photos, including this one of her and her brother when they were a musical act in the 1950s.

“She said, ‘We can’t pay you unless you get sponsors,’” Alice recalled. “So, I went to town to a men’s store, and they said they’d be a sponsor. And I went to a furniture store, and they were a sponsor. We went back to the radio station, so they gave us a 30-minute program on Saturday mornings, and they paid us.”

She also landed a job as a car-hop at a foot-long hot dog place in Chandler.

Johnson-McKinney lasted in Globe through six weeks of school before deciding to return to her grandparents in Arkansas and finish high school in a school with more amenities. She also picked a lot of cotton on their small farm, up to 300 pounds a day while daydreaming of being a movie star. After graduation, she returned to Arizona.

When she was 19 and Larry was 14, they went to California to make a record. While waiting for their own recording session, Alice ended up recording two lines of a commercial for a clothing outlet because the chosen model could not fake a southern accent. They drew the interest of a talent scout, but their parents were not prepared to quit their jobs in Globe.

By 1965, Alice was married and divorced with a 6-year-old daughter, Becky, when she was waitressing at Copper Hills Restaurant in Globe. The owner, local icon Danko Gurovich, set her up on a blind date with a much-older, well-to-do farmer named Louis Johnson. It definitely was not a meet-cute.

John Wayne and Louis Johnson at their annual cattle sale.
Alice knew John Wayne during the last decade of his life through his friendship and partnership with her husband Louis Johnson.

“I was supposed to meet Louis at Durant’s Restaurant in Phoenix. It’s an hour and a half drive from Globe, and I never had gone on a blind date, so I just decided not to go. I didn’t show up,” she said. “Well, apparently he had had John Wayne fly over and was with him at Durant’s. Louis was really embarrassed and took a lot of razzing from the Duke because I didn’t show up.”

Johnson and Wayne had been partners growing cotton in Pinal County since 1958. Widely dubbed the best cotton farmer in the state, Johnson grew up picking cotton in Arizona and bought his first acres near Stanfield for $50 an acre when he was just 19.

“The Anderson Clayton Company would buy the land for you,” Johnson-McKinney said. “You would agree to use his gins, and then you just paid them back.”

Johnson and Wayne eventually combined their neighboring properties, and Johnson managed the 10,000 acres.

By 1965, when Gurovich tried to be matchmaker, Johnson and Wayne were moving into the cattle business after the federal government cut back on water allotments for cotton. Able to grow cotton on only a section of his land, Johnson created a feedlot.

He and Wayne put together 50,000 acres for a grassland ranch near Springerville in Apache County and bought purebred Herefords, paying over $100,000 for a single bull. Wayne and Johnson were in the middle of the effort to construct the 26 Bar Ranch when Alice came into the picture.

The day after that failed blind date, Gurovich pushed Alice to call Johnson and apologize. “Out of sympathy, I made another date with him because he asked me to bring Becky along. So, I said, ‘That’s pretty smart.’”

The 26 Bar Ranch sales barn on White and Parker Road. Photo by Kyle Norby

That first date was to the ranch he and Wayne were putting together. “Everyone” had told Alice how smart Johnson was. While that was not her first impression, she said she soon learned “everyone” was right. Johnson was intelligent, wise and a heck of a farmer.

“He wasn’t a big man, but his heart made up for it.”

She dated Johnson for a while, but Becky’s father came back into the picture. She decided to try marriage with him again for Becky’s sake. Not only did it break Johnson’s heart, but it didn’t take. “You should never marry a person a second time, because the problems are still there.”

When she divorced again, Johnson was waiting for her.

“We were very compatible,” she said. “Before we got married, we talked about a lot of things. It seemed like everything that suited him suited me… We were able to converse about everything.”

Johnson-McKinney said a level of trust built because she would never take money from him while they were dating. “I had a job and I was able to pay my bills and I had my own house.”

She also worked at a bank for a time and at Roosevelt Lake Estates, where she waitressed.

She married Louis Johnson in 1969, and they moved to the ranch between Stanfield and Maricopa, where they were surrounded by cotton.

Alice and Louis Johnson

“When I first came here in ’69, I don’t think the road had been paved that many years,” she said of Maricopa. “It looked like Stanfield. It had a bar and a service station and a small grocery store.”

Never one to be idle, she got to work in the four-acre yard and planted trees all over the property. She wanted evergreens to remind her of the pines in Arkansas. She and her brother stuccoed the 17-year-old, block house, a large but modest home.

Still sensing she was bored and a little isolated as a young woman used to working, Johnson had friend Verna Cooper take his wife to a meeting of the Cotton Wives Club, part of the Arizona Cotton Growers Association. Under Cooper’s wing, Alice joined the club and eventually became president. She still maintains friendships from the group.

Johnson and Wayne had started their annual cattle sale in 1968 at the Stanfield farm. He and Wayne trucked bulls and heifers down from Springerville. The sale started small but grew to national renown.

“One year we had ranches represented from 37 states,” Johnson-McKinney said. “John Wayne being a partner didn’t hurt any, as far as people wanted to see him, but the cattle were very good. That took precedent over celebrities.”

Alice proving to her new husband and friends she could pick cotton.

Louis Johnson did not leave cotton behind.

“He stayed with it. He wasn’t playing golf. He wasn’t going on vacation. He was looking at it every day,” Johnson-McKinney said. “He would look at the cotton in the morning with the sun shining on it from one direction, and in the evening he would look at it with the sun from the west shining on it.

“He said anytime you see a shoot off the main stem and there are four cotton bolls in there, it means you’re gonna get four bales per acre.”

Each year, Wayne and Johnson had a bet that if Johnson produced four bales of cotton per acre, Wayne would buy him a Cadillac. If not, Johnson would buy Wayne a car. Johnson received a Cadillac every year but one.

They played high-stakes jokes on each other as well. When Wayne said the Johnsons could eat free at Danko Gurovich’s restaurant, Johnson took full advantage one evening. He made off with a case of vodka and boxes of steaks, shrimp and bacon.

“They didn’t have enough bacon the next morning to serve in the restaurant,” Johnson-McKinney said. “We had bacon. I had an aunt that lived down the road, and we took it to her, and she divided it with all her neighbors down the street.”

Johnson and Gurovich also pretended to buy a racehorse named Snickerbar Dan, giving Wayne a share for $12,500. The horse did not exist.

Still, Wayne trusted Johnson when it came to business.

“Louis saved him,” Johnson-McKinney said. “He was in financial duress. They were repossessing all the farm stuff. He bought this farmland and didn’t know what he was doing.”

Alice Johnson-McKinney keeps books of photos from the 26 Bar Ranch days.

She said Wayne was actually “pretty gullible” and could be suckered in by just about anyone with an investment scheme until he got in the habit of turning them over to Johnson first. They were, in fact, like family, each called “uncle” by the other’s kids.

Alice speaks of The Duke with great affection. She said he felt perfectly at home in Maricopa and Stanfield and at the Johnson house in particular.

“He loved coming here. He liked visiting with the people, with the locals,” she said. “Even when he came and it wasn’t bull sale time, we’d have some local people [like Donna and Jimmie Kerr] come out and have dinner. He liked the ranch and farm people.

“He was just like he is. He either was not an actor, or he was acting all the time. What you see on screen is just the way he is in person.”

The Johnsons visited Wayne several times when he was filming on location, having dinner with him and Katharine Hepburn in Oregon during “Rooster Cogburn” and dropping in on him in Texas during “The Cowboys” and for the Houston premiere of “Hellfighters.”

John Wayne filming “The Cowboys” in Texas, where the Johnsons visited him on set.

Back at home, Alice still needed intellectual stimulation. She floated the idea of going back to college, but Louis couldn’t agree to that. So, when her stepson Johnny went off to New Mexico State University, she had him buy books for her.

“When Louis went to work at 4 o’clock in the morning, I would just read,” she said.

In the mid-1970s, when beef went into a slump, Alice and Becky started “flipping” houses. With money invested from the sale of her home after she married Johnson, McKinney bought a second house. She and Becky worked it into shape and sold it two months later for a profit.

“Becky and I flipped before flipping was flipping,” she said.

They continued that process through a series of houses as 50-50 partners. Then they decided to keep some of the houses they flipped to put up for rent as mines shut down around Casa Grande during a strike.

Alice Johnson-McKinney. Photo by Kyle Norby

“Men were going to other states for work. Women were wanting to reunite with the family,” she said. “I could give them $5,000 for their house, and they would sign it over to us. We didn’t have to go and borrow the money. You could assume somebody else’s mortgage, back in that day. You can’t do that now.”

Word got around among those who were losing their homes in Casa Grande that Alice and Becky would buy it for $2,000-$5,000, and they wouldn’t have to ruin their credit.

“That was very lucrative, because they might have paid on that house 10-15 years,” Johnson-McKinney said. “That’s how Becky and I formed a business, and now she has rental properties.”

Alice gave her own house the works, too.

“The master bedroom had its own bathroom, but all the other bedrooms had to share a common bathroom down the hall, and I didn’t like that,” she said. “I made all the bedrooms bigger, and they have their own bathrooms.”

She had told Johnson what elements she might want if she built her dream house. That included a deck, a dome and skylights to see the stars.

He gave her carte blanche to do whatever she wanted to the house. The result is a unique ranch house that is both western and Hollywood. She maintains a John Wayne suite, but also has The Duke memorabilia spread throughout the house. There are two kitchens, though she declares she’s not much of a cook. There is a bar, a pool and a tennis court. There are also unique family paintings.

Detail of one of the family paintings done of Louis, Alice and Becky.

After Wayne died of cancer in 1979, the Johnsons began selling off some of their assets as well. Alice and Becky continued their construction business and built houses for all the kids in the blended family. Then, as the end of the century neared, Louis fell ill.

“One day, everything was normal, and the next day, it was never the same,” Johnson-McKinney said.

After a grueling battle, Louis Johnson died of cancer in 2001.

Alice and Verne McKinney

That left Alice taking care of much of their assets around the country including an office building in Montana. She also bought a home there. She had to travel to Billings with a nephew to deal with a legal issue concerning the office building. There, she met a local rodeo cowboy and truck driver named Verne McKinney, who had been single for 30 years and had just retired.

Dancing in the Northern Hotel, they hit it off quickly.

After a long-distance correspondence, Alice and Verne married in 2003. During 14 years of marriage, they did some world traveling, and Alice’s ring of acquaintances widened even more.

But life was never a breeze. Johnson-McKinney cared for her Alzheimer’s-stricken mother for the final three years of her life. Then cancer again hit home, taking Verne McKinney in 2017.

Alice continues to live independently but looked after. Her daughter lives in a house on the property, and there are laborers to help with upkeep.

She feels the housing developments in Maricopa inching closer and said she has had offers for her surrounding acreage. She now maintains 160 acres as a cushion.

“I won’t ever sell it,” she said. “This is my roots.”


This story appears in part in the January issue of InMaricopa.

Was there a real connection between John Wayne, whose 110th birthday is May 26, and Maricopa?

Before Maricopa was a city, it was a tiny town in the Wild West. In fact, its history spans nearly 150 years prior to its incorporation in 2003. Split down the middle by the railroad, Maricopa was inhabited by farmers, cowboys and a Native American tribe.

Headquarters owner Alma Farrell tells about actor John Wayne’s visits to her restaurant, one of the oldest remaining buildings in the Heritage District of Maricopa. Photo by Michelle Chance

 

It seemed to be the real-life snapshot of a scene depicted in so many Hollywood western movies. Perhaps that’s one reason John Wayne spent many years here away from the spotlight.

Wayne’s presence in Maricopa began over 60 years ago when he bought nearby farmland. He later partnered with local farmer Louis Johnson, and together they cultivated cotton and cattle.

The 110th anniversary of Wayne’s birth (as Marion Morrison) is May 26. The impact he left in the community is still displayed throughout the city. A drive through Maricopa’s main street, John Wayne Parkway, and a round of golf at “The Duke” at Rancho El Dorado is evidence of the city’s romance with the star’s name.

Despite local landmarks named after Wayne, many dispute the legitimacy of his spending time here – often chalking it up to urban legend.

“I’ve heard people say it was just a hoax,” said Maricopa’s first mayor and lifelong resident Edward Farrell.

But he says that’s not true. As a child, Farrell met Wayne inside his family’s restaurant on multiple occasions.

“There were times he’d stop at Headquarters for a cocktail and my dad would call my mom and say ‘John Wayne’s here having a drink. Bring the kids,’” he said.

Farrell’s family still owns and manages the mid-century-style restaurant and bar that received a name change in the 1990s as “The New HQ.”

Hanging on a wall is a black-and-white portrait of Wayne – a tribute to its most famous patron.

Wayne made brief stops inside the establishment for drinks during his business trips away from the silver screen.

It was an experience the then 4-year-old Farrell couldn’t appreciate at the time.

“Now I’ve watched all his movies. He’s this big, tough cowboy who kills everybody, but he wasn’t anything like that. He was a very nice, cordial gentleman,” he remembered.

During dove-hunting season in September, HQ owner Alma Farrell said Wayne and his entourage filled a round table in the back of the diner after mornings spent shooting. Some notable friends who joined him were WWII Marine Corps fighter ace Joe Foss and baseball player Jay Hanna “Dizzy” Dean.

Alma laughed at the doubts some hold as to whether Wayne dined there.

“Too bad you weren’t here to see it,” she joked.

During dove season’s fortnight, Wayne and friends rose early before daybreak to hunt. Once they reached their 10-dove limit, they brought the birds to Headquarters.

“We used to have different health regulations then,” Alma recalled. “They would get together in the back of the restaurant and they would clean the doves, and that’s why we have that barbecue pit in the clubroom because they would cook them in there.”

Times have changed, but the memories still last.

On the second floor inside Edward’s home is the round oak table Wayne and his friends dined over and played poker around during Headquarters’ heyday.

As the story goes, Wayne, distracted by his card game and fueled by cocktails, would set his lit cigarette on the edge of the table, letting it burn to its end. The practice eventually stained the edge of the wood, leaving behind permanent, vertical streaks.

The famous cowboy left his mark on Maricopa in more ways than one, and Edward Farrell said it’s one more bit of Maricopa’s legacy that should be preserved.

“I think it’s very important that we keep those roots in our history and know where Maricopa’s coming from – not just where it’s going,” he said.

LOOKING BACK: A peek into InMaricopa archives

John Wayne and his partner Louis Johnson survey their more than 50,000-acre cattle-breeding operation. Submitted photo

By Michael K. Rich

John Smith, a Maricopa resident since 1951, sits in an old reclining chair by his living room window, looking out at the sea of rooftops that were once farms. He describes an event that helped transform Maricopa.

“Mike Ingram used to sneak out every night and hang that sign.”

The sign he refers to transforms state Route 347 into John Wayne Parkway as it runs through town, and many were opposed to that change, according to Smith. “The Indian communities didn’t want the change because John Wayne was known for killing Indians, and the old timers just wanted it to remain Maricopa Road.”

Ingram, the developer behind much of modern day Maricopa, insists the county was putting up the signs, and people taking them down were trying to have Duke memorabilia to hang on their walls.

Although he was able to get the sign approved, Ingram said he could understand the feelings of the early residents who didn’t want to change the road’s name. Although some of the Indian communities had issues with Wayne, the Ak-Chin did not, according to Ingram. “They worked and drank with the man.”

“I changed the name to honor a great man who made an incredible contribution to western Pinal County,” Ingram explained. “He (Ingram) loved John Wayne and thought it would be a great marketing ploy,” Smith said.

However, Wayne, a.k.a. The Duke, is more than just a marketing tool for the city. He has a history with the area that stretches back to the late ’50s when the Hollywood legend purchased 4,000 acres of farmland between Maricopa and Stanfield. He paid $4 million in borrowed money for the acreage because his tax attorney thought it would be a good investment.

Cotton farmer
Wayne financed a cotton crop through Anderson Clayton Company of Phoenix, one of the largest cotton brokers in the world.

Then, due to a lack of time and farming experience, Wayne paid the brokerage to farm the land for him.
It soon became clear to Wayne that the Anderson Clayton Company didn’t know how to farm cotton either.

During Wayne’s many visits to his farm he noticed the farm of his neighbor, Louis Johnson, was doing considerably better than his own, according to Johnson’s widow, Alice.

“The Duke’s farm was struggling, so he called his brokerage people and asked who the best cotton farmer in the area was. They told him Louis Johnson,” Alice said. “When everyone else was getting two and a half bales to the acre, Louie was getting four.”

Convinced that Johnson was the farmer Wayne needed to make his floundering property a success, he called him. Explaining he couldn’t come to Arizona because he was making a film, he offered to cover all expenses if Johnson would fly to California to talk with him.

Johnson agreed to meet Wayne, and the outcome of their discussion was that Johnson would manage Wayne’s crop for one year for $14,000. If the farm produced three bales per acre, he would receive an additional $50,000, and, if he produced four bales per acre, he would get an additional $100,000.

Johnson produced 4.22 bales to the acre that year, earning Wayne in excess of $1 million, but the success was not obstacle free.

During the harvest, agents from the bank showed up in the field to repossess 10 Clari cotton pickers. “Louie marched over to the bank and signed a nearly $800,000 note so that they wouldn’t take the equipment,” Alice said.

Partners for life
Wayne was impressed by the success of his newfound manager, and the two decided to merge Wayne’s 4,000-acre farm with Johnson’s 6,000-acre farm and become partners.

“They had a running bet that if Louie was able to produce more than four bales per acre a year, he (Wayne) would buy him a Cadillac,” Alice said. “Every year but one Duke bought Louie a new car.”

Johnson renovated a room for Wayne to stay in when he and his family made trips to the Johnson residence. Often Wayne would come to the house to have Alice help him shave weight for an upcoming movie role.

“I would follow a diet plan from a book called the Diet Watchers Guide,” Alice said. “It was a sort of an old-time Weight Watchers program.” According to Alice, the real key to his weight loss was a specially designed bathroom in which every surface was mirrored except the ceilings and floors. “He always said being able to see his body from every angle helped him to drop the weight.”

While the cotton business treated the two men well, federal government cutbacks on water allocations in the 1960s, aimed at preventing Southwestern cotton farmers from putting others in the nation out of business, pushed the partners toward cattle.

Johnson and Wayne built an 18,000-head feedlot and soon expanded into cattle breeding with an operation in Springerville, Ariz., that covered more than 50,000 acres. At the Springerville location the two focused on raising the highest quality bulls and then auctioning them off at the 26 Bar Ranch near Maricopa. These annual auctions attracted hundreds of potential buyers to the area from across the nation.

“They were a big event back in the day,” Alice recalled.

In addition to the Springerville ranch, the feedlot near Maricopa expanded to 85,000 head, becoming the largest privately owned feedlot in the United States.

However, in 1974 housewives across the nation, enraged by skyrocketing beef prices, staged a brief but powerful boycott, sending the duo’s operation into the red.

“We lost millions,” Alice lamented. “It was amazing that Louie could just come to bed every night, close the door and not worry about a thing.”

To counteract the failing industry, Wayne and Johnson reduced the number of cattle on their feedlot to 8,500, but the bankers were not going to let Johnson give up on the business.

“They insisted he begin buying cattle despite being low on credit,” Alice said. “They told him to keep buying until they told him to stop.” Johnson began buying in January 1975 and by June had expanded the operation tenfold from 8,500 to almost 85,000 head of cattle.

Death of a legend
The partnership between the two men ended later that year when Wayne died of cancer, but early residents like Smith still have fond memories of him.

During his many trips to the farm Wayne would often drive through Maricopa, stopping at local businesses. “No one rushed him for autographs when he stopped,” Smith said. “He loved the kids and would stand all day signing things for them.” Wayne would also often head out to his favorite drinking location, the Table Top Tavern in Stanfield, and spend time with local farmers.

When Wayne died, Johnson decided it would be best for him to exit the business also.

“The Wayne children were going to sell Duke’s portion, so we decided it would be a good time to get out rather than getting stuck with a partner we didn’t know,” Alice said.

When the children were auctioning off items from Wayne’s estate, they surprised the Johnsons by calling them out to their father’s California residence.

Alice had first visited there many years before, falling in love with an extravagant chandelier Wayne had purchased in Europe. “It was so weird seeing such a beautiful chandelier in his home; it just didn’t fit his personality,” Alice said.

When they arrived for the estate sale, the children said they were going to vote on gifting the imported chandelier to Alice, and all seven voted in favor. “I was so happy I did a dance on the kitchen floor,” Alice said. Louie died of cancer in 2001, and Alice, now in her 70s, remarried a few years later. To this day she and her new husband live on the property that hosted John Wayne in Maricopa.

This story was first published in 2009. It was republished in the Fall Edition of InMaricopa the Magazine.