News and Opinion from Sisters, Oregon

Grandpa was a cowboy

My grandfather was a cowboy.

That’s what my family told me when I was a little kid. Of course, that conjured up images of riding across the sage with spurs a-jingling, eating off a chuckwagon, maybe battling a bad guy or two. It wasn’t like that, exactly.

Ken Ginter was actually a small rancher in South Dakota. Not the same thing. He and his dad ran cows, but they also grew a variety of crops, which made them as much farmers as ranchers — though they always identified as ranchers. My grandpa’s battles were not with outlaws, but mostly with extremely hostile weather, animals, and working conditions.

Reading Bill Bartlett’s story on the matchup between man and bull reminded me of a piece of family lore about Grandpa’s epic battle with a bull, trying to rope a thousand pounds of extremely pissed-off critter and drag him out of a bog. He won the fight, but at the price of a beat-up horse and a beat-up roper. He was once caught in a sudden, blinding Dakota blizzard and probably would have perished except he ran into a barbed wire fence and was able to follow it to the barn.

Ken married a spunky redheaded preacher’s daughter named Evelyn, and brought her back to the ranch. It was not a good fit. Grandma, a town-girl through and through, had no romantic memories of ranch life, though she did master such arduous chores as cooking for an entire haying crew on a wood-fired stove.

Grandpa lost a brother to a lightning strike, which implanted what we would now consider a PTSD response to any mutter of thunder. His father had lost an arm in a combine accident, and then in the early 1930s, he fell and broke his back. This was in the early and darkest years of the Great Depression. The family could no longer make a go of it on the ranch, so they did what so many were doing across the Great Plains: They headed for the Golden State of California.

They lived in Long Beach, where Ken supervised a crew building Liberty Ships during World War II. Then they moved to Glendale, then finally the leafy Los Angeles suburb of La Cañada.

Grandpa never really settled into a permanent gig in California. Grandma thrived, becoming executive vice president of Alaskan Campers, which meant that she ran the show while its founder stalked the globe as a big-time trophy hunter. A huge stuffed Alaskan grizzly bear dominated the lobby where Grandma worked.

Grandpa had a variety of jobs, and owned and managed an apartment building. He could never accept the consumer-driven, disposable-goods society that arose in America after the War. He retained the mentality that he’d grown up with on the ranch: If you need something, build it. If something breaks, fix it. He built an electric lawn mower out of a washing machine motor, and had a very precise system for mowing the lawn without running over the extension cord. When he “hired” me to mow the lawn, the contraption and the system drove me nuts. I thought it was lame. Why not get a real lawn mower? I see things differently now.

He refused to install air conditioning in the Southern California climate, because it wasted electricity. Ditto running the AC in the car; it was bad for mileage. Three days after he died, Grandma had air conditioning in her house.

My mother was aggrieved that he never once told her he loved her. He showed love by doing things for people. His kind didn’t have the words. He was stoic, but not stern; there was a twinkle in his eye, but he never verbalized emotions.

In my early teens, I got into shooting, which I always had a knack for. People said, “Oh, you inherited your grandpa’s eye.” Apparently, he was a rifle-wielding holy terror to jack rabbits that raided the crops back in South Dakota. He would never shoot with me, though, because the emphysema that would kill him was already making his hands shake. He could still play a mean game of horseshoes, though.

Yeah, looking back at my grandpa, he was a cowboy alright. Cowboy all the way.

Author Bio

Jim Cornelius, Editor in Chief

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Jim Cornelius is editor in chief of The Nugget and author of “Warriors of the Wildlands: True Tales of the Frontier Partisans.” A history buff, he explores frontier history across three centuries and several continents on his podcast, The Frontier Partisans. For more information visit


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