Ben Johnson, Sr. was born on February 19, 1896 to Annie Elizabeth McCormick Johnson and James Johnson in Harrison, Arkansas. At the age of four Ben, along with his parents and siblings, Ralph, Mable, Arch, Carl, Nita, Lena, Helen, Max, and Ernest moved to Tulsa where they lived on North Elwood for many years. James Johnson pursued his occupation as a livestock auctioneer. Lena supplemented the family income by playing piano at the local movie theater, which played silent movies.
Ben left home in the fifth grade after seeing cowboys in pictures. He had decided that was his chosen profession. He was portrayed by one of his brothers as, “being on his own from that time on; he had lots of guts and never asked for a damn thing after that”.
In 1923, he set a world record for calf roping and retained the record until 1926. In 1927, he set a steer roping record with an average of 18 seconds on three steers. In 1922, 1923, and 1926, he was champion steer roper at Cheyenne Frontier Days, in Cheyenne, Wyoming. Also in 1922, he won the title of world champion. He was a great bronc rider; he broke horses for the British Government prior to our entrance into World War 1 in 1916.
Fog Horn Clancy, noted rodeo announcer and authority in the early days, wrote in the May 1941 issue of The Ranchman magazine: “Up around Foraker, there is a fellow, foreman of a big ranch, that used to be and may still be a great calf roper. He is a genial fellow who has thousands of friends, fast as a streak, always had the best in roping horses, was a speedy tyer, and practically always in the money at all the contests he played. He is Ben Johnson, and I understand that he is so busy in the cattle business now that he seldom, if ever, enters the rodeos, but he was the greatest roper the rodeo arena ever knew.
Ben bought a ranch near Chapman-Barnard Ranch, where John and Nora Mounts lived and raised Ben’s little daughter, Helen Lee, after her mother passed away when she was a baby. Ben and John became partners in the ranch.
Ben spent the last 35 years of his life in Osage County and was foreman of the Chapman-Barnard Ranch near Pawhuska at the time of his death. Ben died on September 15th, 1952 in Winfield, Kansas, after undergoing cancer surgery.
Two years later, the Ben Johnson Memorial Steer Roping event was established and is held on Father’s Day each year.
Ben was married to Ollie Workmon; they had two children: Ben, Jr., who cowboyed and worked on the ranch before going to Hollywood in the late 1930’s with a trainload of horses for the making of the original film, “The Outlaw”; and Mary Ann Johnson Miller, who had three children: Ben Robert Miller, Johnnie Joe Miller, and Ann Miller Whitehorn. After the divorce from Ollie, Ben met and married a local registered nurse, Aileen (Smoky) Vinsant. Ben and Smoky had one daughter, Helen Lee Johnson Christenson, who had three boys, Dale Christenson, Jr., Ben Alan Christenson, and Larry Lee Christenson.
Ben was an excellent horseman, cowhand, avid coyote and coon hunter, and loved horse races. He once bought a mare, Maudie, for the purpose of racing her, as her owner would not run her. Ben had two matched races with Maudie and Fairfax Leo at the Pawhuska Fairgrounds. Maudie won both races, then Ben sold her back to her previous owner, Pete Williams of Fairfax, Oklahoma.
A crowd always gathered around Ben because they knew there would be fun happening. He had a generous heart and always took a crowd to Brown’s Café (Cattleman’s) in Pawhuska after the horse races and bought everyone supper. Anyone needing a loan would always look to Ben because they knew he would help them. He loved all dogs and all kids. He always had a smile on his face and his booming voice greeted everyone in his presence.
Written by Ben’s daughter Helen Johnson Christenson