Longtime Woodruff, Utah, resident Gary J. Blackburn, the father of Nola, Gary S. and Tim Blackburn, was inducted into the Utah Cowboy and Western Heritage Museum Hall of Fame on July 7, at Union Station in Ogden, Utah.
Blackburn was one of seven inductees honored and was the only rancher cowboy; the other inductees were rodeo professionals and horse trainers.
Blackburn was the “real deal,” a cowboy and rancher of highest quality. His sterling character, charisma and colorful, witty personality, plus leadership skills, left a legacy his family members are proud of and strive to emulate.
Gary began cowboying at the age of 7, often staying with a cousin and his uncles helping to herd cattle and sheep, along with training race horses in Emery and Carbon counties. At the age of 9, he raced horses, riding bareback in local celebrations. He was involved in 4-H and had a champion steer. He began breaking horses and mules at the age of 12, demonstrating excellent horsemanship ability.
He did multiple rodeo events, including riding saddle broncs, roping calves and even participating in potato races and barrel racing. Gary was a tough competitor. Other contestants enjoyed competing against him, knowing that if they beat him at an event they had truly done a great job. He was involved in developing rodeo clubs in Emery and Carbon counties, and he helped build the first arena in Sunnyside with his father Alton, cousin George Ferguson and other associates.
He married RaNae Swenson, the love of his life, on Sept. 12, 1948. After marrying and having children, he stopped riding saddle broncs, but continued to rope calves at community rodeos for many years. He also provided stock and organized events at local rodeos.
During the early years of his marriage, Gary worked the coal mines and coke ovens in Carbon County. In 1958, he moved his family to the Deseret Land and Livestock Ranch in Woodruff to work as a cowboy. He became cow boss in a couple of years and then ranch manager in the fall of 1970.
At this time, the Deseret Land and Livestock Ranch was one of the largest ranches in the United States. Gary’s knowledge and skills were recognized by ranch owners, and locals said he was one of the best cowmen in the area.
The Deseret Ranch was sold in 1975, and in the spring of 1976, Gary began working as manager for Skull Valley Ranch in Tooele County, Utah, which consisted of 30,000 acres with 3,000 head of cattle and national forest permits on the Stansbury Range. He retired from that position in 1993 to run his own cattle operation.
He sold his cattle in 2003 to care for his wife, who was experiencing increasing health problems.
His family remembers Gary as a compassionate man. He took out personal loans to help people in need and opened his home for shelter and meals for people down on their luck and needing a hand. He and RaNae were generous and loving “salt of the earth” people who were loved and respected by many.
Of the seven inductees into the Utah Cowboy and Western Heritage Museum Hall of Fame, three are deceased, including Blackburn. He passed away on Dec. 3, 2014, at the age of 86. His daughter Nola said his legacy lives on in many people’s lives, especially his family.
“The cherished memories are golden,” she said.