story by Judy Goodspeed “Going down a cotton row with a hoe or pulling a sack gave me the desire to do better. My dad […]
Willie & Loretta Cowan
Written by: Siri Stevens< Back to Articles
Willie and Loretta Cowan believe in giving back. The Pierre, S.D. couple grew up in hard times, built a home and made a family, all the while contributing to others through rodeo. Willie was born into the rodeo world in Highmore, S.D. in 1937, the son of Art and Mary Cowan. His dad rodeoed and owned a rodeo string when Willie was young. His mom’s dad, Boots Gregg, put on rodeos on the Crow Creek Indian Reservation.
Willie can’t remember a time he wasn’t horseback. His dad bought, sold and traded horses for a living, and after World War II, he helped with a U.S. Government contract to supply horses to Eastern Europe, to rehabilitate the small farmers whose stock had been killed or destroyed. The story goes that the night Willie was born, Art was trading horses with Pete Metzinger, his future wife’s grandfather and another horse trader, and “there may have been a little brown jug involved,” Loretta laughed.
Because the Cowan place saw so many horses come through it, Art kept back the potential bucking horses. “My dad sent 10,000 horses to Yugoslavia,” Willie said. “Me and my brother were horseback forever.” Any time anyone found a horse that would buck, they’d hang on to it. “We had an arena and chutes, and pretty quick we found out (if they’d buck). We kept the good ones and sold the rest.” And Willie grew to appreciate good horseflesh. “We had to ride all kinds of junk. Dad was trying to make a living, so if we got something that worked good, he’d sell it.”
As a youngster, there were no youth rodeos. He rode bucking horses at home and did some roping, but it wasn’t till high school that he competed in a more structured setting. He competed in every event: barebacks, saddle broncs, bulls, roping, bulldogging, even the cutting, and qualified for the South Dakota State High School Finals in 1954 and 1955, winning the saddle bronc riding championship in 1955. He qualified for the 1954 National High School Finals, but getting to Huntsville, Texas “was out of the question with a ’49 Chevy pickup,” Willie said. When Nationals were at Harrison, Neb. the next year, he attended.
After high school, Willie had a scholarship to play football at South Dakota State University in Brookings, but he didn’t want to go. The next year, when he was ready to go to college, “Brookings wasn’t interested in me,” he laughed. Two friends from Texas were attending Sul Ross State University in Alpine, Texas, and they got him a rodeo scholarship and supposedly a football scholarship, so Willie was headed south. But the day before he left, a bull stepped on him and broke four ribs, so his football career was over before it started, “but that’s probably a good thing anyway.”
The Sul Ross team made the College National Finals, but that summer, Willie was home in South Dakota and the funds weren’t available for him to travel. “Money didn’t grow on trees then,” so he didn’t go. After one year of college, he was back home, ranching with his dad.
But his rodeo wasn’t over. He competed in the South Dakota Rodeo Association, winning the saddle bronc riding, tie-down roping, team roping, and even the all-around. Saddle bronc riding was his strength. “I never could ride bareback horses worth a damn,” he remembered. “And the bull riding, sometimes I would and sometimes I wouldn’t. I would never say I was really good at it, just good enough to stay in it.” His rodeo competition didn’t last long, however. “I quit pretty young,” he said. “I didn’t think a guy should be on the road when he had a wife and family.”
Willie had married in 1960, and he and Loretta began ranching near Harrold, S.D. After the ranch owner died in a blizzard, they spent several months calving for Raymond Sutton near Gettysburg. Then the chance to buy some land came, and they bought the ranch where they live now, 15 miles northwest of Pierre, on Lake Oahe. That was in 1963, and by then, they had two children, Shane and Kim.
When he and Loretta were done, there were six Cowan kids: the first two, plus Carmen, Colleen, Casey and Lori, and the kids competed in 4-H rodeo. In 1972, he and Loretta helped begin the South Dakota 4-H Finals Rodeo, because “there was a need,” Willie remembered. “We really thought we could keep the older kids in 4-H, so we started the finals. It just evolved and got bigger and bigger.” Willie served as president and Loretta secretaried the finals for fifteen years.
He also worked as a pickup man. He began for his dad, and then worked for Korkow Rodeo and Sutton Rodeo for several years. He picked up the National High School Finals Rodeo five times, and the College National Finals once. And he did so much more. He served on the Hughes County Fair Board for nine years, and won the Heartland Saddle in 1992 for helping the youth of Central South Dakota. In 1982, he won the South Dakota 4-H Outstanding Service Award, and was inducted into the South Dakota 4-H Hall of Fame during its centennial celebration. He was the 2002 National High School South Dakota High School Rodeo Person of the Year, and in 2006 was the Casey Tibbs Honoree as a Past Rodeo Great.
Just last year, he retired as arena director for the Casey Tibbs Match of Champions, which he had done for twenty years. Willie credits his family for his volunteering service. “Everything she and I have done, we’ve done for our family. We’ve been blessed with a good family, we haven’t had any trouble with our family. We’re really blessed. Our health is good.”
At the young age of 76, Willie is still going strong. He and his daughters made an eight day, 132 mile wagon trip from Buffalo, S.D., to Medora, N.D., and he was delighted that his girls went with him. He and Loretta are partners with one of their sons on their beautiful ranch in the Missouri breaks, where they run a cow-calf operation. They lost a daughter, Kim, to cancer in 2003 and are proud to enjoy their thirteen grandkids and four great-grandkids. And his giving back? “All this stuff I’ve done, if it wasn’t for my family, I’d never have done it. You do it with your family and for your family.”