Penny Duncklee

Good Years for the Buzzards


The mid-1950s were good years for the buzzards in Arizona, when the Southwest saw its worst drought in centuries. It was not a good time for an upstart cowboy to try to make a go of ranching, but John Duncklee did-and succeeded.

Transfixed by the rodeo at Madison Square Garden, young Duncklee decided to forego an Ivy League education and instead worked his way through the University of Arizona as a horse wrangler. After serving in the Navy, he returned to Arizona to lease the O Bar J Ranch on the bajada of the Sierrita Mountains southwest of Tucson. His account of those years is both a testament to determination and a window on modern-day ranch life under adverse conditions.

The O Bar J had two deep wells that enabled Duncklee to maintain his herd; even so, he had to burn the spines off cholla cactus to provide forage. During those years he learned a lot about the care of cattle, the importance of neighbors, the vagaries of nature, and the ins and outs of ranching as both a business and a way of life.

After the drought broke in the fall of 1958, Duncklee was able to sell his herb at a profit, but it wasn't much until much later that he learned how harsh an introduction to ranching he had received, for the drought of the fifties affected vegetation patterns and even the entire cattle business in the Southwest. Yet he had fulfilled his dream of becoming a cowman, an experience that instilled in him a self-confidence that would carry him through other changes in his life. Good years for the buzzards? John Duncklee will tell you, "They turned out to be good years, too, for the kid from New York."

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Penny Duncklee