At age 15, John Keller became an exercise boy at Randall Park, “Thistle Downs” race track outside Cleveland, Ohio. From there John went to Lexington, Kentucky with Carlings Red Cap Ale Racing Stable and trainer Cowboy Jones, then on to Aiken, South Carolina to the winter headquarters where he became an apprentice jockey. That’s when the 95 pound, 15 year old, who lied about his age claiming to be 17, started to grow. That ended the jockey career so John headed back to high school and summer jobs of helping brick layers. When he was around 18 John packed up and hitchhiked to Wyoming with plans of joining some older buddies that had already moved to Cody.
John Keller worked for the Pitchfork Ranch, in Meeteetse for about one month, with a day off and his first paycheck, he caught a ride to Cody to look for his friends and find out more about the Cody Nite Rodeo. Upon returning to the ranch he told his boss about wanting to rodeo and the boss told him that would not be possible, because of the full time responsibility of riding and fixing fence. John left and moved to Cody and went to work for Frosty Fogg at Trail Creek Ranch. He would have his supper every evening about 5:30, then would actually run the seven miles from the ranch to the Cody Nite Rodeo, get on a bareback bronc and then jog back to the ranch.
At some point along the way, he worked for Mel Stonehouse for some summer pack trips, which stirred up a love for hunting and outfitting that he would pursue later in life.
John became friends with Buck and Mary Bradford and they took him into their family with their two sons, Bucky and Tiny. He spent the winter with them at their Hart Mountain home, working with Buck and helping out any way he could, including bringing in some jack rabbits for dinner.
The young cowboy began to get “itchy feet’, so he left Wyoming for a couple of years to join the R.C.A. (before it became the P.R.C.A.) to try his hand at rodeoing. He joined up with some friends and went to Arizona and then on to Florida. While there he heard of a unique working rodeo opportunity around the New York area, and went to check it out. He learned of the J. E Rodeo Company. It was much like a Wild West rodeo, with the type of entertainers they had, but was sanctioned by the R.C.A.
He went to work for Colonel Jim Eskew as a jack of all trades type hand, feeding and caring for rodeo animals, setting up rodeo arenas, and actually traveling with the horses and bulls on the train cars that were used for transport up and down the east coast from Maine to Canada, then back down as far south as New Jersey and Pennsylvania. The headquarters were at Waverly, New York. John recalls one time traveling through Grand Central Station with several box cars of horses, bulls, calves and steers, on their way to Atlantic City, New Jersey for a rodeo there. The most unique part of this was that the cowboys could enter the rodeo as contestants as well as being employees. At this point he was entering all five events, riding company owned horses for the calf roping and steer wrestling. During the New York State Fair, they had two performances per day and so that meant contesting ten head of stock a day, for seven days. His rodeo career was just beginning to take off, when at age 23 he got drafted and spent two and a half years in the United States Army.
Upon leaving the Army, he married his longtime friend, Kay, and in June of 1959 returned to his beloved town of Cody. Back in Wyoming, he picked up right where he had left off and went on to win several saddle bronc ridings that summer, including the Amateur (Rookie) bronc riding at Cheyenne Frontier Days. That fall he went to work for Les Bowman, a local Cody outfitter.
Along the way he had made friends with Merle Fales, who originated the Cody Nite Rodeo. After hunting season was over Keller and Fales headed to Tucson, Arizona to work on the movie set of Cimarron. On the set, they would break teams of horses to drive and pull wagons, buggies or whatever, for the Oklahoma land rush that was depicted in the movie; they were also on the horse shoeing crew.
Whenever there was a bad horse to shoe, the boss would say, “Take him to those Wyoming boys, they’ll get him on iron-” That winter he went to work as a wrangler for a guest ranch in Tucson, where his wife joined him then they headed back to Cody in May for the spring bear hunts.
In 1962 he put his own hunting outfit together and got his outfitters license, while working on the Lazy KC ranch, west of Cody. He acquired the old Majo camp at the head of the Thorofare River, a 35 mile ride from the Deer Creek trail head. In 10 years of outfitting that alone meant a lot of “saddle time”.
During these years, he guided many dignitaries, including, the Prince of lran, Abdoressa Pavlovi, Nicholas Franco, nephew of the former dictator of Spain, and Jack O’Connor the original publisher of Outdoor Life magazine. In 1968 John guided a hunter, Russell Cutter, to a record book mountain sheep, which since that date, has not been bested in Wyoming. He kept running a very successful outfitting business until 1972, when the non-resident elk license went to a random drawing, rather than a first come, first served basis.
He then went to cowboy for Hugh Maller, who had leased a part of the Spratt ranch at Lost Cabin, Wyoming where he stayed until Maller gave up the lease and sold out. John moved his family to Encampment, Wyoming where he managed a ranch for absentee owners on a mother cow operation.
That lasted until the fall of 1977, when the ranch was sold to new owners. He then was employed by John Rouse at the One Bar Eleven Ranch as cow foreman or “Herdsman”, as Rouse liked to call it. After that, John worked for the Herring ranch and also spent summers doing day work for O.B. Ready at the Rochelle Ranch at Rawlins. He also rode and shod horses on the side, in his spare time.
He was able to keep the wolf away from the door until September, when he found a job “skinning cat” at the Hanna Coal mine until there was a big lay off at the mine in 1984. At that time he went to work for The Wyoming Stock Growers as brand inspector and was sent to Rock Springs, where he continues inspecting after 31years.