Johnny France has always known he was a cowboy. From the time he was a little boy dressed up in boots and six-shooters, France looked up to cowboys and knew he’d be one some day.
Now one of Madison County’s most famous residents will have his cowboy status immortalized in the Montana Cowboy Hall of Fame.
Last week the Montana Cowboy Hall of Fame and Western Heritage Center announced its fifth class of inductees. This year’s class includes 37 people – 11 living inductees and 26 Legacy Awards recipients.
The hall of fame inductees come from 12 districts around the state. Madison County is in District 12. Besides France, inductees from District 12 include Legacy Award winners Gertrude “Brownie” Smith from Melrose and Chief Tendoy.
France has lived a classic western life. He’s been a rodeo champion, lawman and author. In 1984, he led one of the most famous manhunts in Montana’s history chasing down father and son outlaws Dan and Don Nichols, who had kidnapped Olympic biathlete Kari Swenson near Big Sky and murdered Alan Goldstein, who was attempting to rescue her. The two men led federal and local law enforcement officers from Madison and Gallatin County on a five-month chase, that finally culminated with France walking into the Nichol’s camp and taking the men into custody without a shot.
France was born in Wyoming in 1940, but raised in Madison County, first with his aunt and uncle Eva and Joe France on their ranch outside of Norris and then with Betsy and Forrest Shirley in Norris when Eva and Joe moved to Wyoming.
He attended grade school at the Cherry Creek Schoolhouse on the lower Madison River. He remembers riding a horse to school and crossing the lower Madison River twice a day.
France’s aunt gave him and his cousin Kay some basic instruction on crossing the river on horseback, he said. She told them to never look down at the water and if they fell off to grab the horse’s tail.
That advice saved his life one cold winter day, when he decided to ride a green-broke filly to school. A slab of river ice hit the horse’s legs and she went down. France fell upstream into the icy water. He was wearing a big sheepskin coat that was instantly saturated with water.
When he popped to the surface, there was the horse’s tail.
“Grabbing her tail scared her to death and she raced from the river, but I never let go until I felt the rocks,” France remembers.
His uncle Joe came to fetch him and got him home to stand in front of the big wood-fired kitchen stove.
By the time France was 12, he was competing in rodeos riding broncs, both saddle bronc and bareback.
“When I was 12 years old I rode my first bareback horse in the Three Forks Rodeo,” France said.
By the age of 16, he was drawing a man’s wage breaking horses and as a ranch hand.
“I was at the height of my glory,” France said. “That was as far as I wanted to be.”
But his foster parents Forrest and Betsy Shirley felt otherwise. They insisted he finish high school.
France did and at his graduation party, he thanked the Shirleys.
“I stood and raised that diploma and said ‘Betsy and Forrest Shirley this is because of you. I don’t know how I could ever thank you.’”
Betsy told him that to thank them he could direct other boys who needed a role model and family to their door.
Years later, France, who was a Madison County Sheriff’s deputy, brought brothers Buck and Smokie Brannaman to their home. Buck went on to become a famous horse trainer and the subject of the recent documentary “Buck.”
After high school, France married his wife Sue and then enrolled in college in Dillon to be and elementary school teacher. He continued to rodeo and took a job as night patrolman in Dillon.
Eventually, he came back to Madison County first as the Ennis town policeman, a position that later transitioned into a Madison County Sheriff’s deputy spot.
He continued to rodeo and got his pilot’s license so he could travel quicker to weekend events.
In 1965 he won the Montana Rodeo Association all around title. In 1966 he was the MRA bareback champion. In 1967 he even took fifth in the steer wrestling. Through the years he competed in nearly every event, but the rough stock events were his favorite.
At the height of his competitive years France rode in 20 to 30 rodeos a year. He last competed in 1980 at a rodeo in Phoenix.
Over the years, his wife Sue has supported him in everything, he said.
“She’s probably ridden more miles in an ambulance from a rodeo than most people have ridden to a rodeo,” France said.
In 1980 he was elected Madison County Sheriff.
After the incident with Dan and Don Nichols, France wrote a book titled “Incident at Big Sky.” He subsequently did a book tour, travelling around the country.
In 1985, he and Sue were invited to President Ronald Reagan’s inauguration as part of the Montana delegation.
He was a bit nervous to meet the president and so he studied up on foreign policy and current events, but when they talked in the President’s library, all Reagan wanted to talk about was ranching and cowboying.
“He didn’t want to talk about anything but cows and horses,” France said.
When he reflects on being inducted into the Montana Cowboy Hall of Fame, France says he feels honored.
“I feel a lot of gratitude,” France said.
Through the years he’s done a lot of different jobs, from being a wrangler to selling fire extinguishers.
“I always wore a cowboy hat,” France said. “Everything I ever did I was always a cowboy … This recognition is acknowledgement of what I think I’m supposed to be – a cowboy.”