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The last cowboy in Wasco

Webster's dictionary defines a Western U.S. cowboy as one who herds and tends cattle, performs his job on horseback, works on a ranch and exhibits skills such as roping and performing in rodeos.

That's Benny McLeod.

A true cowboy needs a good sidekick, and Benny found his in Betty Graves at Wasco High. "Even though some said it wouldn't last," said Betty. "We've been married for 69 years."

Benny was born in 1930 at the long-gone Pixley Ranch north of Highway 46, on Palm Avenue. His cousin, Jimmy Hancock, lived right next door, and according to Benny, the two of them were quite a pair of characters. Whatever one didn't think of, the other did.

Benny was happy he was born and raised in Wasco and was able to attend all Wasco schools. Betty made her way to Wasco by way of the Dust Bowl migration from Paragould, Ark., as her family followed the crops and moved around. They were able to settle in the area, and Betty attended Shafter High for two years and finished school at Wasco High.

The two had their first date after Betty's graduation party. She then left Wasco and studied at Woodbury College in Los Angeles for a while, but because she and Benny had just started dating, she moved back to Wasco. They married, and the story is still continuing as they anticipate celebrating their 70th wedding anniversary Aug. 7.

As Benny reflected back on his school years, he was proud to have lettered in basketball four years and in baseball two years. "I still have my letters, but I don't know where the jackets are," he laughed.

At the time, he was an active member of the Future Farmers of America and served as its president one semester. He raised show steers, swine and sheep, and showed them at shows throughout the year. He then sold some at the Los Angeles stockyard. He had been roping since he was in his teens.

Benny was with a buddy when he recalled meeting actress Dale Evans, Roy Rogers' future wife, at a rodeo. She asked Benny, "Why is this pig's tail curling to the right and that tail curling to the left?" Benny and his friend were confounded by the question. He also had no clue who Dale Evans was.

Benny began riding horses when he was 10 years old and began roping steers at 14. He spent a lot of time at rodeos. "I limited myself to 200 miles both ways," he said. "I never went into professional roping, just "jackpot" rodeos in team roping and amateur stuff. There used to be two or three roping clubs in Bakersfield and one in Wasco."

Benny said that he roped in Buttonwillow most of the time.

Beginning in 1958, Benny leased land with partners to run cattle. The cattle grazed on the land, which was located east of Porterville and Ducor.

Benny remembered back in 1962 when he won a silver and gold belt buckle for team roping and in 1966 when he won a saddle. "I still have the saddle," he said.

While explaining how roping is done, he explained, "Roping is a team sport where one person ropes the horns and is called the header after which another one ropes the back feet and is called the heeler." He said there are more headers than there are heelers available. For many years as a roper, Benny partnered with Eddie Gafner. Betty shared that at one time she made Benny and Eddie red vests so they matched, and people would know they were a team.

About a year and a half ago, Benny sold all his horses and tack – the gear used on a horse such as saddle, bridle, martingale, etc. "I still have some equipment," he said. "I kept two saddles. Saddles can weigh 52 pounds each, and they have to be thrown over the horse before mounting, so they are heavy."

From 2000 to 2017, Benny reopened the Frank Gafner stables. Now it's called Horse and Mule Barn Stables. Benny managed the stables until his eyesight gave out.

"About six years ago, I got bucked off," he said. "The horse was a Hancock breed, and they are known for being crazy. I was trying to tame the horse for a friend."

While managing the stables, he continued roping but brought in a professional for shodding (shoeing) the horses.

While Benny was roping and working property, Betty returned to Bakersfield College and received her associates degree in accounting. She worked for E.J. Peters – Maple Leaf Co. for about 3½ years. After a 10-year break to raise their children, Betty returned to work for Nikkel Iron Works in Shafter for 3½ years and for Hollis Roberts Farms for 19 years, until she retired.

She noted that retired life is moving quickly for them. "It's not against the law to get old, but boy, it is inconvenient!" she said.


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