Oregon rancher and statesman Denny Jones looks back on a century

Oct 29, 2010

Every now and again, someone comes along who seems destined to become a legend in their own time. In eastern Oregon, and among Oregon cattle ranchers, that person is Denny Jones.

In Oregon, stories of Jones’ colorful character abound.

According to one account, Jones rode horseback into the lobby of the Portland Sheraton to register during a state cattlemen’s convention.

Another story has it that when he was serving as a representative in the Oregon State Legislature, Jones was known for wearing a miniature spring-loaded trap on his tie for a tie tack. When asked by fellow legislators what he’d been busy trapping, Jones liked to answer, “Environmentalists. I trap ’em all the time.”

“I’ll tell you, he was a tiger,” chuckles Bob Skinner, former Oregon Cattlemen’s Association (OCA) president. “That [trap] was kind of his trademark. As a matter of fact, I saw him wearing it the other day at his hundredth birthday party.”

Denzil “Denny” Jones, storied Oregon statesman and rancher, has indeed hit the century mark. In addition to his service in the ranching industry, and a 26-year undefeated run in the state Legislature, Jones recently added to his list of achievements the marking of his one hundredth birthday, celebrated with a crowd of friends and family last month in Ontario, OR.

Referred to by friends as “the salt of the earth,” “a gentleman,” and “a lost art,” Jones is living proof that life’s hard knocks instill the kind of wisdom and understanding that just can’t be taught in the classrooms.

Jones was born on Sept. 21, 1910, on a wheat farm between Ione and Heppner, in Morrow County, OR. That was the opening day of the inaugural Pendleton Round- Up, and Jones’ father was signed up to ride in the bronc riding. Instead, he stayed home for his son’s birth.

In the earliest years of Jones’ life, the family moved for a brief time to Montana, where Jones’ mother tragically passed away. Young Jones was only five. The Joneses later returned to Wheeler County, OR, where Jones attended grade school in the town of Spray.

In 1924, the family moved to Crook County, but after attending two years of high school in Prineville, Jones’ father had other plans for young Denny. He pulled his son out of school and had him sign a contract to work as a race horse jockey in British Columbia, Canada.

Jones weighed in at a lean 90 pounds.

According to Jones, he raced in Vancouver that summer, and then traveled down to Tijuana, Mexico, in a boxcar with a couple of horses for the winter. After a season on the track in Mexico, he headed back up to Canada in the spring.

“I got all I wanted to eat, then, and I began to fill out and grow, and I got too heavy to ride,” recalls Jones. At 106 pounds, Jones hung up his silks and retired from the racing circuit.

He found his way back to Malheur County, OR, and worked around on a number of ranches. At the time, he was making $50 per month plus board. Once the stock market crash of 1929 hit, wages dropped to $30 a month.

While working around Juntura, Jones met and married Mildred, who was to be his wife for the next 67 years. They eventually had two children, Eugene and Karen.

Paulette Pyle, director of Grass Roots for Oregonians for Food and Shelter and a long-time friend of Jones, remembers the special connection between Denny and Mildred.

“He cherished Mildred beyond belief,” says Pyle. “He cherished what she said, [and] how she thought.”

“I can remember sitting in his office and Mildred would be sitting there not saying a word. And he would have a big conversation with me about agriculture … and [then] he would look at Mildred, and he’d ask what she thought. He’d say, ‘You know, sometimes we don’t understand. But men and women working together give a whole perspective.’ ” Around 1939, Jones entered into a business deal with a distant cousin, Jim Jones, who owned a ranch in Jonesburo and one in Juntura. Jones took charge of the Jonesburo outfit. After running the ranch at Jonesburo for 10 years, the two partners divided up the cattle, and Jones put a down payment on the Jonesburo place. In two years, he had the Jonesburo ranch and 400 head of cows paid off.

Throughout his 30 years of running the ranch, Jones was a devoted servant to the cattle industry. He served twice as president of OCA and was a charter member of the Public Lands Council.

Says Bob Skinner, “I remember when I first started going to cattlemen’s meetings. He was one of the movers and shakers in the business, for sure. He was a force to reckon with.”

In 1971, after their son Eugene was married, Denny and Mildred left the ranch to the next generation and moved to Ontario. A group of local businessmen approached Jones with the idea of running for Oregon’s 60th District House seat, recently vacated by Bob Smith of Burns. Jones ran, and won.

And so began Jones’ 26-year career as a state congressional representative, during which he served on the influential Joint Ways and Means Committee as well as holding a position on the Emergency Board.

“Apparently, I was satisfying the people from eastern Oregon, because they kept sending me back down there,” Jones says, with characteristic modesty. “Term limits took me out of the legislature finally, after 26 years. Or I guess I would still be there.”

Jones’ talent and integrity as a representative are still admired and talked about. Unlike many of today’s politicians, Jones held on to the old belief that your word was your bond, and you stood by it. That made him a stand-out character in the fast-paced world of state politics.

“That’s what’s so cool about him,” explained Pyle. “He was old school. He valued loyalty.

“Denny was one of those that used to say, ‘I can remember when we were young men, a handshake was all it took. If you had a handshake, that was better than any contract.’” To Jones, that approach just made sense. As he tells it, being honest was not only what was required of a good person, but also of a good politician and representative.

“Well, you know that telling the truth, and staying with your word is one of the things that kept me down there as long as it did,” muses Jones. “I never lied to anybody, and I never went back on my word.”

Skinner recalls, “His memory was just phenomenal.

When he was in [the legislature], he had all his figures; he could quote figures just like he was reading them off the page. He’d keep track of all the numbers on the bills. It was almost unbelievable how he’d keep track of all that stuff in his mind.”

Pyle concurs. “We never understood how he did it,” she laughs.

“He connected the dots in real people terms. He was a gifted legislator, who was wise beyond anything you could imagine. I’m guessing that came because he was close to the land.”

Pyle also remarked how Jones never lost touch with the fact that he was a representative of the people, and that the actions of the government had a serious impact on people’s lives. Jones respected people, and he listened to them.

“You always got invited into his office to make your case. And that didn’t matter if you were a lobbyist, or a person off the street. You were all the same to him. You had a story to tell, [and] you had a perspective.”

Even at a hundred, Jones is a hard man to keep up with. For the hundredth anniversary of the Pendleton Round-Up, Jones rode shotgun on a historic stagecoach in the opening day parade. While people stood around trying to figure out how to get him down from his high perch, Jones nimbly clambered down on his own.

And for a man who knows the meaning of hard work, the leisure afforded by life’s Golden Years is not the blessing it would be to some.

“That’s one of the worst problems I have!” exclaims Jones. “My God, I can’t set here. I’ve worked hard all my life.”

It certainly can’t be easy, being a legend in your own time. But if we’re lucky, we’ll be hearing Denny Jones stories for plenty more years to come.

“What the heck,” says Jones. “I don’t know what the next hundred’s gonna be like.” — Andy Rieber, WLJ Correspondent