Story of Chinook
Circus exhibits of Appaloosas left a mark on a young Texas boy that would change his life and distinguish his family and legacy forever.
Jack Johnson was born in Gatesville in 1914. After completing the 6th grade (the first in his family to do so) he began his life as a working man, first delivering ice and eventually launching a battery business with his brother-in-law. Jack married Margaret May Heussner in 1935 and got out of the battery business after contracting lead poisoning.
Their son, Billy Jack Johnson, was born in 1941, a day before the attack on Pearl Harbor. Upon hearing of the bombing, Jack remarked, “I just got over child birth and now I must go to war!” Jack desperately wanted to serve his country, but due to a steel plate in his leg that had resulted from a horse fall at the square in Waco, was never allowed to enter the armed services.
Two events marked Jack’s legacy more than any other. The first was when he opened two businesses: a grocery store and a lumberyard, roofing and home improvement company. The latter lives on in one of the nation’s most highly regarded roofing companies. Johnson Roofing is still family owned and operated and is the 22nd largest roofing contractor in the United States.
The second event was the family journey to the National Appaloosa Horse Show in Deer Lodge, Montana. Since seeing Appaloosas in the circus as a boy, Jack was drawn like a magnet to the epicenter of Appaloosa breeding. Claude Thompson’s Hall of Fame horse, Red Eagle, was there as well as the son of Red Eagle—Simcoe’s Chinook, who was the talk of the sale.
Jack purchased Chinook, his first Appaloosa. While at the sale, he learned that Bill’s horse had died back at home so he purchased Chief Smokey for him and Fade Away for Margaret. Jack knew he did not have the money for three horses, not to mention no way to transport them back to Waco, Texas, but he and Margaret were determined to figure it out. Back in Texas, Margaret’s father received a call from them explaining the situation, and astounded he exclaimed, “My gut en hammel, has he lost his mind?!” or “My God in Heaven, has he lost his mind?!” But still, he wired the money to the happy family.
Eventually a circus trailer was purchased and the colts alternated riding in the trailer and being ridden by Jack and Bill all the way home to Waco. Jack believed he was one of the first to bring registered Appaloosas to Texas. Many people thought he must have painted the spots on the horses and tried rubbing them off!
After bringing the horses home, the lives of the Johnsons were never the same. Jack and Bill, with Chinook and Smokey, went on to win hundreds of competitions across the nation. Bill came into his own as a premier horseman in the 1950’s and 60’s. Competing against the best in the nation Bill and his fantastic horses became known far and wide for their success.
At the National Appaloosa Horse Shows, Chinook won Weanling of the Year in 1952 and in 1955 won Children’s Western Pleasure. Three years later, Bill and Chinook won four National Championship awards—in roping, cutting, reining and the Western Horseman Stockhorse Trophy. Chinook was one of the first Appaloosa horses to compete and place in open cutting—a victory for the breed! In 1963 the champion horse was described as having legs as “straight as an arrow and he carries himself as if he were proud to be alive.”
Bill and Smokey won countless awards in timed event races. Their best and favorite type of competition was the Stake Race, known today as Pole Bending. Smokey was virtually unbeatable. He wasn’t the fastest but he truly had the biggest heart and would give Bill all he had to win. Both horses proved to be wildly successful. Jack often told his grandchildren of riding Chinook in competitions he wasn’t even entered in—and winning!