Don’t ever think because you are only one person that you can’t make a difference because you can, and this lady did.
Her husband, Charlie, told her to forget about it. To let it go she would only be riling up the neighbors and nobody would do anything anyway. Nobody cares.
But she couldn’t let it go. It was too horrific; all the blood. It made her shudder just thinking about it. That was two years ago and since that day, she reached out to people of all economic and social strata of society.
She adroitly cultivated many contacts, from school children to businessmen and politicians gathering information to lead the fight. It was a lot of work but it was passionate work and now…
The sun was beginning to rise over the Nevada Mountains as the diminutive woman limped with determination out her front door in Reno. The limp was leftover from a bout with childhood polio that left her crippled. Her purse hung from her left shoulder and in her right hand was a briefcase filled with all the documents she had gathered over the past two years. Her job as an executive secretary gave her the skills needed to put together the multitude of facts and evidence into the organized presentation that she hoped would right a wrong, a wrong that, for years, nothing had been done about; but she was determined to change that today.
She was scheduled to give her presentation that morning in Storey County, Nevada. She had no idea that she was about to set off a firestorm of hatred, scorn, and threats against her that would last her lifetime by the very people she was about to speak to.
As she arrived at the meeting, she was greeted by her boss, Gordon Harris, a Reno insurance executive.
“Hi, Velma, I want you to meet someone, State Senator James Slattery. Senator, this is the lady I was telling you about, Velma Johnston. She’s an incredible young woman and I think you will find what she is about to say very interesting.”
“Pleased to me you, Velma. Aren’t you one of Joseph Bronn’s kids?”
“Yessir, I’m his oldest. I have lived here all my life. He and my mother brought me out here in a covered wagon. I crossed the desert as an infant and was kept alive on mustang mare milk. Many of the horses my father used in his freighting service were mustangs.”
“Well, I’ll be. Your daddy was a good man. I look forward to hearing what you have put together.”
As Velma walked down the aisle to the podium where she would give her presentation, the men in the audience began to jeer her and finally one redneck rancher who looked like he was chewing on a golf ball, rolled his chaw of chewing tobacco to the other cheek and spit into a cup, before yelling out to his friends and fellow ranchers, “Well look it here boys, here comes Wild Horse Annie.”
Catcalls and laughter echoed throughout the hall before the county commission chairman was able to call everyone to order.
What started out as a divisive sobriquet became a rallying cry for her supporters and she wore it with pride for the rest of her life.
As it turned out, she was forceful and compelling as a public speaker and was able to charm and inspire others as she delivered her message about the indiscriminate slaughter and brutalization of America’s living legends, the mustang horse.
She fought for years to preserve the wild horses on the public lands in Western states. They and the burros were threatened by ranchers or others wanting to kill them for pet food.
It all began in 1950, as she left her office she noticed something that didn’t seem right; blood pouring out of the back of a stock trailer as it drove down the highway. She got into her car and followed it and it wasn’t long before she realized it was crammed full of wild horses destined for a pet food slaughterhouse. When they opened the trailer door to let out all the horses, she saw a yearling being trampled to death There and then she decided to expose this to the public eye.
In the mid-1900’s, massive wild horse and burro roundups were taking place on the Western public lands. These roundups involved airplanes flown by WWII pilots. They operated in conjunction with truck drivers and were aided by cowboys with lassoes and heavy truck tires. The 1961 movie, “The Misfits,” directed by John Huston and starring Marilyn Monroe, Clark Gable, Montgomery Cliff, and Eli Wallach, who played a former World War II aviator named Guido Racanelli, depicted these brutal gatherings.
Velma Johnston led the drive in 1959 when Congress passed a bill to prohibit planes and trucks from rounding up the animals and it was through her hard work and dedication, that thousands of people of all ages became advocates for the wild horses. Congress received more letters on this issue than any other, save the Vietnam War.
Her testimony before Congress led to the Wild Free-Roaming Horse and Burro Act (P.L. 92-195) which was unanimously passed and signed into law in 1971. This gave the wild horses and burros protection on BLM and Forest Service lands “where found” at the time of the passage of the Act in 303 areas.
She was president of the International Society for the Protection of Mustangs and Burros and of Wild Horse Organized Assistance Inc. She also wrote her autobiography, “Mustang—Wild Spirit of the West.”
In 1973, she played herself in the Western, “Running Wild” starring alongside Lloyd Bridges and Dina Merrill.
It was true that her efforts touched off controversy. Ranchers said that the wild horses were destroying grazing lands for domesticated animals. In 1974, she received a warning from an Idaho vigilante group, but she took the threat lightly and hung it on her wall of mementos, saying: “There aren’t too many people who have been threatened by vigilantes in the 1970’s.”
At the roundups of wild horses by the Bureau of Land Management, Wild Horse Annie was often present to assure that the horses were not harmed. And once captured, she led an adoption program to find homes for the animals.
Wild Horse Annie received a public service award in 1972 from Rogers C. B. Morton, Secretary of the Interior, for her fight on behalf of the horses. Her death was apparently caused by cancer.
So, when someone says to you, “You are only one person, you can’t make a difference.”
Just go out and show them, like little Wild Horse Annie did!
like they were running
through the winds of time
past the dry river gulch
where the waters once
ran swift and deep
and many tribes camped
along her banks
and the children played
and the deer and elk grazed
free and wild and
with no idea that
it would ever
~ Michael Traveler, author of Postcards from the Past