It’s been more than a decade since the big cattle drives came through downtown John Day. Ranchers with divided property, such as the Holliday family, brought their cattle north from pasture land in Bear Valley to the John Day Valley for calving, Darrel Holliday said.
When the drives started around 1958, five ranches moved their cattle cross-country west of Highway 395, entering the valley west of town at Screech Alley Loop. The growth of subdivisions put an end to that route, Holliday said.
The 38-mile trip from Bear Valley to John Day took three days. Cows were put up in 40-acre holding pastures first at Izee Road and again about 9 miles south of Canyon City. Drovers guided the cattle down South Canyon Boulevard to Main Street where they took a right-hand turn and headed to the Holliday ranch east of town.
“They didn’t much like it heading to Starr Ridge the first day — they kept turning around,” Darrel said. “Then the second day, they were scared by barking dogs and cars.”
The Hollidays typically chose a weekend in mid-February — driving the cattle through town on Sunday and separating cows at the ranch on Monday.
“It could get to 20 below zero some winters,” Holliday said. “We didn’t see many visitors on those days.”
The cattle drive could be a big tourist draw. Visitors would call ahead of time to find out when the cows would be coming through, and motels would be booked. A photo of the cattle drive has been hanging in Washington, D.C., for about 35 years, Holliday said.
“Three TV shows were made of the drive,” he said. “One crew filmed here for about a week, from start to finish.”
Holliday said the early drives involved about 100 cows, but that increased to 2,000 head over the last 15 years. Cows lined both sides of Highway 395 in three bunches for 10 miles, he said.
“The front of the herd usually got home before the end got through John Day,” Holliday said.
The work was divvied up into three sets of four riders, with drovers in front and back of each bunch. Over the years, the Hollidays’ children and grandchildren took part in the drive. And there were plenty of volunteers, but the Hollidays put a cap on the number of riders at around 20 total.
“We had to be pretty selective about who,” Holliday said.
The riders typically went home each night and returned in the morning. A big meal was served at the Holliday ranch on the final day.
“Something funny always happened on the drive,” Holliday said. “Some serious, some funny.”
The drive was good exercise for the cows, he said, but a few got hit by cars. None were killed, but a few were crippled up, he said.
One by one, the cattle drives came to an end. For the Holliday brothers — Ron, Darrel and Ken — the last drive was in 2006. Ken is the only brother with a divided ranch, but he relies on trucks now to move his cows, Darrel said.
“It has lived its life,” Holliday said.