“Dad was consecutive Montana Rodeo Association all around champion in 1966 and 1967,” recalled Johnny’s daughter Kathy DeRuwe. PHOTO COURTESY KATHY DERUWE

End of a rough string

Remembering Johnny France

For the first time since the 1950s, the Fourth of July Rodeo in Ennis will go on without Johnny France. The legendary cowboy and lawman passed away on April 20, leaving behind a priceless collection of “only in Madison County” stories. 

His eldest daughter, Kathy DeRuwe, shared intimate memories of her father’s life, capturing the essence of a man who she said dedicated himself to serving others and living the cowboy way. 

“One of the most important things for Dad was the fact that he was born a servant,” DeRuwe began in a phone interview. She is a retired English teacher who now lives on a large farm in Oregon’s Walla Walla Valley. “He wanted to serve others because he knew what it was like to not have. He came from a really tough childhood, but there was a lot of love in the family despite the challenges that came with being raised during the Depression and the war. He went from one extreme of having nothing to feeling like he was able to give back. And that made him feel rich, not in the financial sense but just, he loved people.”

Johnny France’s journey from a hard-knock childhood to a beloved community figure carried him every which way through a universe of small-town rodeos. Beat up and sometimes a little richer, Johnny’s trail always led back to Madison County. 

“He was basically forced into rodeo because every family member had to go to a different relative,” DeRuwe explained. “He ended up going with his Uncle Joe. Dad was punching cows, moving horses, branding, and breaking broncos by the time he was 10. He did a lot of sleeping in the back of a pickup, learning the cowboy way of life.”

One of the most heartwarming stories Kathy shared was about how Johnny first encountered his future wife and DeRuwe’s mother Sue. 

“He met my mom while she was cleaning cabins at a dude ranch. He was working the horses, and he was quite a handsome young devil. A girl was throwing grapes at him across the table when my mom walked in, and Dad about fell off his chair,” DeRuwe said with a laugh. 

France memorialized his love for Sue in written reflections. In one passage DeRuwe shared, her father wrote, “Sue and I formed a relationship. We were both 16 and got serious… It is a love story that began as a dude ranch love affair and culminated into marriage upon the heels of the tragic 7.3 magnitude Yellowstone earthquake of 1959.”

The quake both shook and cemented her parent’s bond, said DeRuwe. 

“They were out parking in 1959 when the earthquake occurred,” she remembered. “I told my mom, 'The earth moved that night for you, huh?' She said, 'Kathy, don't talk like that.' They always said if they could go through an earthquake together and save people, they could handle whatever life threw at them. They ended up getting married in November 1959.”

Sue France, Johnny’s devoted wife, was a local legend—part of the Maynard family from Jeffers—and an Ennis booster in her own right. For nearly 40 years, she ran the Bottle Barn, the long-time local liquor store. 

“Mom was as loyal to Dad as she was to the people she loved in Ennis,” DeRuwe shared. “She worked at the Bottle Barn until she was 80 because she loved the people she saw every day. Mom definitely had a business sense and always wanted to have her own business. They came from nothing and scraped and saved to get the money for that business.”

The combination of Johnny being a lawman and Sue running a liquor store was not lost on the community. 

“It was always kind of funny and ironic that my dad was a cop and my mom ran the liquor store—people would joke about that,” said DeRuwe, explaining how Johnny’s understanding of liquor laws rubbed off on Sue and operations at the Bottle Barn. 

Johnny’s influence also extended to his sons, who followed in his bootsteps. 

“Both my brothers are outfitters and guides because of Dad’s influence—they were catching nightcrawlers at six to sell to pay for their fly rods,” DeRuwe fondly recalled.

To the outside world, Johnny is remembered as the sheriff who captured the infamous mountain men of Big Sky, the father-son kidnappers. In 1984, Don and Danny Nichols abducted bi-athlete Kari Swenson near what is now Moonlight Basin. 

France, along with co-author Malcolm McConnell, later wrote about this in “Incident At Big Sky.” 

Together, France and McConnell set the scene. The father, Don Nichols, wanted his son Danny to find a wife so he would settle down in Madison County: “We want you to come up in the mountains with us for a couple of days,” the old man said in an almost normal tone. “We just want you to come up and try living with us.” 

The next morning, July 16, 1984, a search party of around 20 people, including Swenson’s friend Alan Goldstein, found Don and Danny’s camp. Goldstein then paid for it with his life when Don blasted him with his rifle. The Nichols then unchained Swenson and fled. 

In swooped Johnny France. 

As Richard Ben Cramer detailed in his classic 1985 Esquire profile, “The Ballad of Johnny France,” “It’s Johnny’s chopper that winches down an aluminum basket to hoist Kari off to the hospital. But when they lift her into the basket and flash the high sign and the chopper swings up, damn if they don’t mash that poor woman right into a dead lodgepole pine. 'Yuh, almost dropped her,' recalls Johnny France. 'Didn’t, though.'"

Weeks passed, then months. Tad Bartimus for The Los Angeles Times later reported, “The SWAT teams and tracking dogs and deputies on horseback did not get the job done. The search was called off. Fall came, then winter.”

France kept at it, hunting the Nichols like he would a big elk.

“Johnny liked to hunt alone, nosing up Beartrap Canyon, looking for broken bush tips, cracks in mud, smudges on rock. Sometimes he didn’t even hunt, just went out on the land, alone with his thoughts and the mountains,” wrote Cramer.

Then a rancher near Beartrap spotted some suspicious tracks and called in a tip. 

“France, worried that the pair might escape in the growing darkness, decided to suspend radio contact with the posse and go it alone,” continued the 1986 LA Times story. “He drove a snowmobile to within half a mile of where the fugitives were holed up, then strode across the ranch land of his own foster family into the Nichols’ camp.” 

Cramer for Esquire brought this scene to life, writing, “And there they were. Just below him, under a big Douglas fir. They had venison cooking… Johnny shifted his rifle. The kid turned first. A little cry escaped him. But Johnny got the first few words in: ‘Uh, seen any coyotes?’”

France's calm and calculated approach might have defused a deadly standoff.

Cramer’s account continued, “Don dropped the skillet, jumped into a crouch, went for his gun. But Johnny was moving. He dropped behind a stump, raised his rifle, looking down the barrel at Don. ‘Don’t do anything stupid, Don. Don’t make me kill you.’ Johnny talked down his gun barrel: ‘Yuh, and I guarantee a warm bed, and warm water, and food…’”

France apprehended Don and Danny Nichols on Dec. 13, 1984. It was a defining moment in a law enforcement career that started in Dillon. 

In his Esquire profile, Cramer reported, “(France) busted his own brother-in-law on a marijuana rap. Then there was the case of a boy whose daddy was a county commissioner. This boy was in a bar fight: Johnny had to sort it out. So he took both fighters to the edge of town and set them at each other: ‘Loser goes to jail.’ He ended up busting the commissioner’s kid, which seemed overzealous to some. But it did get him a reputation.”

DeRuwe acknowledged that some accused her father of grandstanding during the whole ordeal with Don and Danny Nichols. And there were headlines like, “The Rise and Fall of Sheriff Johnny France: He Tracked Down Mountain Men but Lost Trail of Montana Voters.” 

“The voters who had put him in office turned on him. They threw him out of his job—twice,” reported the Los Angeles Times. 

France’s daughter Kathy, in a follow up email, said her Dad was hurt when, “Many in the community he served and grew up with turned on him. He took his oath seriously and was doing his job with 100% determination just like he approached everything in life—all or nothing. We children and the many foster children grew up knowing half attempts at anything were unacceptable.”

DeRuwe said years later, her Dad, “Would just smile and agree he had other opportunities waiting for him. He didn’t ask to be nationally and internationally recognized for doing his job, but his story truly is one of a modern-day hero, which we all strive for. He was instrumental in founding the Montana Peace Officers Association, which is where we would like memorial contributions to be made.” 

In 2011, when painter Todd Connor got the chance to paint France’s portrait, France smiled and appeared to carry only fond memories into Connor’s studio. 

Connor’s portrait session with France was posted on YouTube by David Lemon. In the video, Lemon said of Johnny, "He’s about as famous as you’re going to find (in Madison County). He’s about as cowboy as they come. I mean his whole jaw on the left side of his face is a metal jaw because a horse bucked him, and its hoof came down on his face. He had to have reconstructive surgery, and then he got kicked in the head. That's why he talks a little slow and is a little hard to understand. But believe me, five or six years ago when this happened, they called him dead. So Johnny is a legend in the valley. He’s a modern day Wyatt Earp. He truly is.” 

Later in the video, France remembered, “When I was 16, I was working in Wyoming, and building a rough string. Anything that would buck went in my string. And I was punching cows and drawing a man’s wages, which was $150 a month.” 

At the time, said France, he thought about dropping out of high school, but his foster parents—Forrest and Betsy Shirley—pushed back. They gave France a home at their Cold Springs Ranch, and France graduated from Harrison High School in 1957.

“If I died tomorrow, my bucket list is about empty. I’ve done everything,” said France in 2011, framing his capture of the Nichols as a dream come true. “Every little boy has dreamed of being a cowboy. Packing a .45 on his hip. Wearing a white Stetson. Rescuing the damsel. Arresting the perpetrators. I’ve been there. I’ve done that. What a ride.”

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The Madisonian

65 N. MT Hwy 287
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