Eighteen-year-old Peggy Johnson had already known tragedy in her young life, but on horseback she felt free. Here is the personal story behind an iconic 1953 photo.
By David L. Bristow, Editor
Leslie Fisher recognized her mother right away. She was looking at the front cover of Nebraska History Moments, where a perfectly timed photo captures a young bareback rider and her horse in mid-jump.
The 1953 photo is from the White Horse Ranch Collection at History Nebraska, but is not otherwise labeled. In the book, I used the photo to tell the story of the ranch and its albino horses and traveling shows. Fisher contacted me to tell the story of her mother’s remarkable and tragic life.
Mildred Louise “Peggy” Johnson was born in 1935 in Elsie, Nebraska (Perkins County), one of six children of “poor Swedish immigrants.” Her mother was a remarried widow, and Peggy was a child of the second husband.
Photo: Peggy Johnson (center) with her family. Unless otherwise noted, all photos in this post are courtesy of Leslie Fisher.
Mr. Johnson spent many hours with Peggy, teaching her how to ride and care for horses. He bought her a custom-made saddle for her sixteenth birthday. Peggy was with her father when he died later that year, kicked in the head while training a horse.
Photos: Peggy and her father.
Losing her beloved father was a terrible blow. Peggy soon dropped out of high school, ran away from home, and spent the next year living with relatives in Louisiana. After returning home, she began spending summers learning trick riding at the White Horse Ranch near Naper. From about age seventeen to nineteen she performed in a traveling circus and competed in barrel racing and other rodeo events.
Following the expectations of her time and place, Peggy gave up her dreams of becoming a rodeo star when she married and started a family, eventually becoming the mother of five. She and her husband lived on an acreage near North Platte.
“She loved horses,” said Fisher, who remembers her mom spending hours caring for them. Peggy didn’t talk much about it, but Fisher said her mother missed performing, and that she struggled with depression severe enough to affect her parenting.
Following a divorce when she was about twenty-seven, Peggy moved from the acreage and sold the horses. Fisher says her mother never owned a horse again, and to the best of her knowledge never rode one again.
Photo: “Mom’s beloved horse, Smokey.”
Peggy eventually found new animals to care for. She began breeding and showing poodles after moving to Ogallala in 1969. Fisher said her mom “got happy again when she got the dogs,” which won many ribbons at dog shows over the years.
Peggy survived an abusive second marriage, and lived with diabetes for many years. Her health was declining by the time she was in her fifties. Seriously injured in a 1993 car accident, she never fully recovered, dying at home in Fort Collins. She was fifty-eight.
Fisher sounded wistful about the 1953 photograph of her mother on horseback. Peggy was about eighteen at the time, graceful, in perfect control, arms outstretched as if in flight.
“That picture is probably the happiest moment of her life,” Fisher said.
Below: The uncropped 1953 photo from History Nebraska’s collection. For design purposes, the photo is reversed on the book cover. (HIstory Nebraska RG1714-15)
Read more about White Horse Ranch.
Read the Lincoln Journal Star’s article about the Nebraska History Moments book, illustrated with selected photos from the book.