Elaine Johnson is Farm Woman of the Year
Elaine Johnson has an infectious vigor and a wry sense of humor that serves her well when she’s instructing 4-H classes, scoring well at regional mule shows, or performing seemingly endless home renovations on her cabin off 4000N.
The adventurous 68-year-old was nominated as Farm Woman of the Year by the Teton County Farm Bureau, a title Johnson is a bit dubious about.
Originally from Minnesota, Johnson was drawn to the Tetons by powder in 1977, and she pieced together a life as many ski bums have done over the decades, as a patroller, an EMT, and a dishwasher at the Teton Teepee, among other occupations.
She ran a chainsaw for the Forest Service up in Island Park for a few seasons and when a post opened in the Teton Basin trail crew for a worker with saw and horse experience, she jumped at the chance. That’s where she got to know and love mules.
“They all have quirky personalities. They’re hardier than horses, and I like the way they handle themselves in the hills,” she said. Mules’ hoof strikes are softer, and their gait better suits her lower back, she added.
She married valley native LaVell Johnson, 17 years her senior, in 1984 and together they led a life filled with cattle ranching, civic service, and horse pulling competitions.
In Dec. 2009, LaVell died just as the two were in the process of purchasing a foreclosed cabin between Driggs and Tetonia. Johnson, by then working as a bus driver, scraped together her funds to tackle the house and property, a never-ending project that often revealed alarming surprises: walls without insulation, untreated foundation, misshapen window and door frames, fields of thistle, and no shield between the chimney and the log walls. To name only a few.
Johnson is a formidable horsewoman, although her steed of choice is the mule. She used to ribbon at local horse shows, irking her competitors who had paid for trainers, only to be bested by a ranch woman on a mule.
“I once had a woman demand to know who my trainer was. She wouldn’t let it go,” Johnson laughed. “I told her I ride with the cattle every day, I’m crashing and bashing through the woods, I have 100,000 miles under my butt.”
Now she prefers mule shows to horse shows; she says the people are much more laid back, and seem to actually be having fun. She’s a familiar face at the Montana Mule Days, an annual event she’s only missed once in the last 25 years.
“It’s better than a family reunion,” she said of Mule Days. This year’s show in Whitehall was marred by 36 hours of rain, which left the arena a sloppy pit and ensured that every event was a mudbath. Johnson still hasn’t fully cleaned all her equipment but that doesn’t mean it wasn’t a good time.
Johnson has led 4-H horse classes for 32 years, and has even taught the children of former students. Very rarely do any of her students convert to mule riding, but she doesn’t mind. She has seen the size of the program shrink in the last decade, which she attributes to changing culture in the valley and to new 4-H regulations.
She served for nearly a decade on the Teton County Fair Board and since 1988 has been an instructor and member of the planning committee for the 4-H horse camp based in Alpine. She also started offering sewing classes last year in partnership with the Hispanic Resource Center.
The Farm Woman of the Year traditionally has her own float in the Victor 4th of July parade, but Johnson is faced with a conundrum: she always rides in the parade with her 4-H kids, astraddle one mule and leading the other with a 4-H banner draped across it.
Johnson lives on 20 acres with a picturesque view of the Grand. On her property she offers corral rentals to travelers with horses, and as a result she’s met and ridden with many people. She plants 13 acres for hay, and her two mules aren’t just for shows and trail rides; they also work on the land, dragging the harrow behind them and breaking up gopher mounds in the fields. Johnson said it’s good practice for obstacle courses and cart races at shows.
“I ask a lot of my mules, and they rule my world,” she said.
Johnson retired from bus driving three years ago. In the winter she gets up to the hill on powder days and manages to get a couple hours of skiing in before coming home to spend double that time plowing snow.
With more time on her hands, Johnson has embraced new adventures. Last year she traveled to the desert several times to ride, including a multi-day clinic during which she and her mule Amos learned to rock crawl. The mule, unshod for better traction, traversed around, over, and down steep rock faces, and hopped onto and off of high shelves.
“It was adrenaline rush after adrenaline rush,” Johnson said. She has more rock crawling trips planned for this year.
When not riding into the Grand Canyon or around the San Rafael Swell, she enjoys getting up high in the Tetons, especially in the North and South Leigh Creek area where the terrain is challenging and the vistas are phenomenal.
“I play as much as I can possibly play,” she said. “I’m only getting older, so why not?”