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Andrew Johnson’s Cattle Guard


Andrew Johnston was born near Taylor in Dakota Territory on this date in 1885. He grew up on his father’s Start County ranch, where he was herding some 400 cattle by himself by the age of ten. By the time he was 14, Andrew had some of his own stock, which he branded VVV – a brand he used for the rest of his life. A few years later, Johnston moved to Watford City and, at age 22, he partnered with August Jens to start an operation on Wild Cow Creek north of town. By the time the Great Depression hit, they had amassed some 1300 Hereford cattle, 400 draft horses and 100 saddle horses. Johnston sold out during the dirty thirties, but reestablished the Triple-V with Nels Langdon in 1937, this time near Sentinel Butte. After six years, Johnston moved down to Red Rock, AZ, where he was the foreman of the Kenny Ranch, but in 1949, he came back and bought the Western Trading Post in Dickinson. There, he made saddles and sold western goods until a fire destroyed the business in 1966. He died four years later, three weeks short of this 85th birthday.

Johnston accomplished a great deal during his lifetime. In 1928, he persuaded 18 other ranchers to establish a Reward Fund to discourage rustlers, and this led the founding of the Western ND Stockman’s Association. He also compiled and published the first complete ND brand registry. As a 55-year member of the American National Cattlemen’s Association, he attended 52 of its conventions. He also contributed the first $200 toward starting the National Cowboy Hall of Fame in Oklahoma City, was a co-founder of the “Fifty Years in the Saddle Club” in Sanish, ND, and was instrumental in the publication of two volumes of the group’s cowboy memoirs.

Johnston was also very inventive. For example, he came up with a gravity-operated elevator built on a steep hillside so that grain could be directly dumped into the building at the top. Down at the bottom, spouts made it possible for seed to be loaded back onto trucks – all without picking up a shovel.

His other invention can now be seen everywhere range cattle graze; a study by James F. Hoy reveals Johnston was among the earliest to make the cattle guard. Johnston firmly claimed he was the very first, saying, “ In the spring of 1914, I bought this beautiful automobile, a Model T Ford. In going to town from the VVV Ranch that was in one of the ranch pastures, the gate was on a level place so the Ford would stay while opening and shutting the gate. But then going out the other way… (it) was on a steep hill, and we soon found the Ford brakes would not hold it if you weren’t there stepping on them.”

Later, in a 1967 Bismarck Tribune interview he explained, “The hired man and I decided to prevent the car from rolling into the creek again. We dug a ditch and while in the process of putting in small logs, the idea came to me that if we’d use smaller saplings, that not only would it serve to hold the Model T back when it was parked there, but it’d keep cattle from leaving the pasture.”

For those who can’t picture this contrivance in your head – if you’re driving on rangeland roads and suddenly drive over a series of bone-jarring metal grates with fences on either side, you’ve just crossed a cattle guard. Vehicles can pass over, but cattle instinctively stay away from them, because they would lose their footing. No gates to open or close, and the cows stay home. Nice piece of work.

Dakota Datebook written by Merry Helm

Source: James F. Hoy, Andrew Johnston and the Invention of the Cattle Guard, North Dakota History: Journal of the Northern Plains, V. 47 #2, Spring 1980 -