Johnny Jackson is synonymous with the Woodlake Lions Rodeo. Although the Lions founded the Woodlake Roundup in 1953, it was Johnny who expanded and brought the rodeo to its current location. This cowboy endlessly promoted the rodeo and his beloved hometown, Woodlake, California.
Johnny, along with his wife June and children Sandy and Craig, moved to Woodlake in December, 1957. Originally from New York City, Johnny had moved to Reno with his mother and twin brother, Nick, in 1935. When his mother married a cattle rancher, Johnny discovered a passion for breaking horses and riding with bulls, and eventually the local rodeo.
Johnny only took a break from the range to become a Navy medic in WWII. After the war, he officially became a pro cowboy in 1947. A stock contractor putting on rodeos throughout the west—Idaho, California, Nevada and Oregon—Johnny was an experienced cowboy when he came to Woodlake. Johnny was an all-around professional, riding in the bareback riding, calf roping and team roping events. He always wanted to make that run for the World Championship, but the Ranch and the Rodeo were his first loves.
His wife, June, was a native of Tulare and Johnny loved the surrounding area. He searched for property until he found the 546 acres near Woodlake that would become the Jackson Ranch. It was and remains a working ranch with oranges, avocado, olives and cattle. Now the rodeo grounds are owned by the Woodlake Lions.
When Johnny and family arrived, the rodeo was held in town at the park and was called the Woodlake Roundup. As soon as the Jacksons settled in their new home, construction was begun on the gulley and swamp that would become the beautiful arena you see today. The pond at the north had originally spilled into the arena area. Everything was hand built by Johnny, Craig, his foreman, Milt Baker, and Lions members. Originally the arena had 1,500 seats; it now can accommodate more than 10,000 guests.
Jackson became a rodeo announcer in 1961 and was soon working at 35-40 rodeos annually. He was active in local rodeos too—Springville, Porterville, Visalia, Fresno and Delano.
After the tragic death of June in 1962, Johnny married Nancy in 1963. Nancy adopted Craig and Sandy and helped raise them, as well as support Johnny in his announcing rodeos nation wide for 12 years. After their divorce in 1975, Johnny married Rosemary and helped her to raise her two children, Scott and Catherine. They all lived happily on the Jackson Ranch until Johnny’s death in 1998.
Johnny’s outgoing personality, warmth and patriotism brought trust and confidence to the small town of Woodlake. He had that can-do attitude and if he said he would do it, you could take that to the bank, it would be done. That’s why he was Mr. Woodlake; his standard greeting was, “Hi, nice to meet you. I’m Johnny Jackson and I’m from Woodlake, California.”
Johnny was a powerful force behind the rodeo, but his dreams could not have been realized without the dedicated Woodlake Lions. Putting on a successful rodeo takes dozens of men and women working hard behind the scenes. And Johnny was also the first to mention the work done by others and shied away from taking personal credit.
Beginning in 1957 until health problems caused him to retire in 1995, Johnny was the Woodlake Lions Rodeo announcer. The following year, he was the rodeo’s Grand Marshal.
Johnny passed away on December 31, 1998. He will always be remembered in our community as Mr. Woodlake—no one was ever prouder of this community and its citizens. Johnny did a lot more for Woodlake than just the rodeo—he was immersed in community through involvement in the Boy Scouts, 4-H, school boards, Chamber of Commerce and many other organizations.
The Woodlake Lions Rodeo has become an important event for Woodlake and the Central Valley. In 1967, more reigning World Champions participated at this rodeo than at any other—33 World Champion cowboys went through the chutes. Although the event does bring the community together for two exciting days of bucking horses and bulls, it also has provided much-needed funds for important projects in the community:
- Football stadium
- Sight and hearing foundations and projects
- Boy Scout house
- Woodlake welcome signs
- Dressing rooms at the local swimming pool
Johnny constantly promoted what still is “the Fastest Growing two-day Rodeo in America.” Many things have changed in the past 53 years, but in many ways the Woodlake Lions Rodeo has remained much the same. The same events are still thrilling rodeo fans year after year. And the rodeo continues to bring the community together at an event that is a veritable slice of Americana and of course, raising money for community projects—the American spirit in action. Johnny would be so proud.