It's in the Blood

Long recognized as one of the country’s outstanding ranch and rodeo families, the Suttons of South Dakota attribute much of their success to bloodlines and breeding.

For as lon as there has been organized rodeo on the Northern Great Plains, Sutton Rodeo of Onida, South Dakota, has been a part of it. And, far from being a regional phenomenon, the stock contracting combine’s influence has extended far beyond the plains of north-central South Dakota, to such hallowed grounds as the National Finals Rodeo and the Professional Rodeo Cowboys Association Hall of Fame.

What’s more, the family behind Sutton Rodeo is just one branch of a tree that boasts an equally impressive history in cattle and buffalo ranching, and Quarter Horse breeding. To what does the clan owe its long list of accomplishments?

According to Sutton Rodeo patriarch Jim Sutton, hard work and perseverance have most certainly played a part. So, too, he says, have bloodlines and breeding.

Image Provin’ Up and Movin’ On

“My ancestors came to South Dakota in 1883,” Sutton says. “My great-grandfather Jacob Sutton shipped his family and belongings to the rail end at Redfield, and then hauled them 100 miles by ox team to his homestead in Potter County.

“My grandfather Edwin Sutton was 18 at the time, and he and his sister Kate promptly staked out adjoining 160-acre homesteads in Potter and Sully County, along the Missouri River, 40 miles north of Pierre, South Dakota. This was six years before South Dakota was admitted to the Union and Pierre was named the state capitol.

“They built a shack right on the line separating their two tracts, lived in it as the homesteading law required and then proceeded to improve both claims. After grandpa had proved up his quartersection, he sold it and used the money to move inland, buy more land, and stock it with horses and cattle.”

By 1898, Edwin Sutton and his wife, Jessie, had moved back to the Missouri River Breaks and settled on 1,484 acres purchased from the Chicago-based department store, Carson, Pirie and Scott. He continued to increase his holdings by having his hired hands homestead on adjoining 160-acre parcels, prove them up and then sell them to him.

He and Jessie raised eight children, including three sons—John, James and Raymond.

“John Sutton was the oldest of the three brothers,” Jim Sutton says. “He was born in 1898. My dad, James, came along in 1899, and Raymond was born in 1907.

“By the late 1920s, the three brothers were grown and itching to get out on their own, so they pooled their resources and bought a ranch. Several years later, during the Great Depression, grandpa found himself deep in debt and about to lose the home place. To help him out, the boys sold their ranch and returned home. As a result of their greenback and sweat equity, it wasn’t long until the operation found its way back into the black.”

When Edwin Sutton passed away in 1938, the home place consisted of 3,000 deeded acres and 10,000 leased acres. Under the three Sutton brothers’ aggressive management, over the course of the next two and a half decades it grew to encompass 40,000 acres, stretching for 22 miles along the Missouri River.

And on those vast holdings grazed some of the best livestock to ever inhabit the Northern Plains.

A Livestock Legacy

Back in 1909, Edwin Sutton had introduced Horned Hereford cattle to the ranch. The first cattle were unregistered, but that changed with the addition of a large herd of Domino-bred cows in 1914. In 1939, a potent bull named Jupiter Domino 83rd was purchased from the renowned Wyoming Hereford Ranch of Cheyenne, Wyoming.

These powerful genetics served to establish the Sutton Ranch as regional leaders in the beef cattle industry and, in 1941, the ranch held the first of more than 50 annual production sales.

Also in 1909, Edwin entered into a trade with James “Scotty” Phillips of Fort Pierre, South Dakota, that introduced buffalo to the ranch. Sutton traded Phillips, who was known at the time as “The Buffalo King,” two Hereford bulls for two bred bison cows and a bull, seed stock for what is now the nation’s oldest privately owned herd of American bison.

Following close on the heels of the Sutton Ranch’s beef cattle and bison herds was the introduction of the horses.

In 1916, the Suttons entered into the purebred horse business with the purchase of five Percheron stallions. From this modest beginning, the ranch herd grew to number more than a thousand head of draft and saddle-type horses.

In August 1933, a trainload of Sutton horses was shipped to market in Chicago. This shipment was one of the largest of its kind and made headlines in all of the Chicago newspapers.

By the early 1940s, the demand for town and country workhorses had begun to decline. Consequently, the Sutton combine—known by then as the Sutton Brothers Ranch of Agar, South Dakota—replaced its draft horse program with one designed to produce top saddle horses.

The Quarter Horses Arrive

In late 1947 or early 1948, the Suttons acquired their first Quarter Horse stallion, an un-registered palomino son of Plaudit named Sun Up. In 1949, Sun Up’s first South Dakota foals hit the ground. While four of his daughters were subsequently granted American Quarter Horse Association papers, the bulk of his get were never registered. That they were good looking and talented horses was readily apparent, but so, too, was the fact that they had an absolute aversion to being ridden.

“Back in those days,” Jim Sutton says, “we had a lot of hired hands working for us. Some of those boys were better-thanaverage horsemen, but they just couldn’t ride those Sun Up colts. We found ourselves some new studs, and went another direction with the Sun Ups.”

As the late 1940s and early 1950s rolled around, a succession of topnotch Quarter Horse sires found their way into the Sutton Brothers breeding program.

“In 1948,” Sutton says, “Uncle Raymond and Uncle John went to Texas to buy Quarter Horse mares. Later on, Dad made a trip south, as well. They each brought back a semi-load of mares, and these mares were the nucleus of the Sutton Brothers’ Quarter Horse program.

“Uncle Raymond’s first top stallion was Bay Punk; he was one of the first AQHA champion stallions in the state. Uncle John and his son, Ken, had Pokey Dun and M&M’s Major’s Traveler, and my dad and I had Babe Cody and Zanzabar Joe. They were all top horses and top sires, and they did a lot for the breed in this part of the country.”

In the early to mid-1950s, a severe drought held the entire Southern Plains region in its dusty grip. This opened the door for the Sutton Brothers to add significant southern blood to their already well-established Quarter Horse broodmare band.

Among the most significant acquisitions happened when James Sutton purchased a group of mares from the Stanley Mayfield breeding program of Sonora, Texas.

Heavy in the blood of Lauro by Wimpy P-1, were half-sisters to such famous performers as Sonora Monkey, the 1959 AQHA High-Point Calf Roping and Reining Horse, and Sonora Sorrel, the 1964 AQHA High-Point Halter Horse and a Superior Halter Horse with 665 points to his credit.

In the fall of 1956, James also imported a skinny 2-year-old stallion, Babe Cody, from the Lone Star State. King Ranchbred on both sides of his pedigree, “Babe” became one of the Northern Plains’ first great Quarter Horse sires.

“When my dad bought Babe Cody,” Jim Sutton recalls, “the stallion was real wormy and almost died. We got him over that and then I went to breaking and training him. He had a lot of fire and a lot of cow. Of all the studs our branch of the family owned, I’d have to say the Babe was the best, both as an individual and a sire.”

Cattle, buffalo, draft horses and saddle horses—Edwin Sutton and his sons owned and bred all with notable success. And then there were the rodeos.

Rodeo Roots

In 1929, Edwin Sutton and his son Raymond began staging three-day rodeos on their ranch. Those first contests included wild-horse and bison-steer riding, and featured such specialty acts as a chariot pulled by a team of bison and Raymond jumping a horse over five steers lined up side to side. On occasion, a relatively unknown entertainer named Lawrence Welk would make the 100-mile journey south from Strasburg, North Dakota, to provide some lively polka music.

In time, John and James Sutton joined the endeavor and the family branched out to produce rodeos in surrounding communities. In the early 1950s, the Suttons teamed up with fellow rodeo producer Erv Korkow of Blunt, South Dakota. This partnership afforded both entities the luxury of pooling stock, and it remained a viable relationship until the late 1960s.

In 1960, the Sutton Brothers suffered yet another financial setback, one that forever altered the landscape, literally. It came in the guise of flood control.

Dammed Up and Dispersed

Years earlier, empowered by the Pick- Sloan Flood Control Act, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers had embarked on an ambitious project to build six dams across the Missouri River between Pierre, South Dakota, and Bismarck, North Dakota.

Construction of the Oahe Dam, five miles north of Pierre, began in 1948 and was completed in 1962. In 1960, the waters contained by the dam flooded the Sutton home ranch and 8,000 deeded acres of prime river bottom.

The flooding put an end to the Sutton Brothers Ranch as a single unit. The brothers split up the remaining acres, with John establishing his ranch on the flat above the old location, James moving west and south of Agar, and Raymond moving north, below Forest City.

At this point, the three brothers reassessed their priorities, each emphasizing the enterprise that most appealed to him. For James and Jim, this meant rodeo and rough stock.

Sutton Rodeo

“My father was always attracted to rodeo,” Sutton says. “When the brothers decided to go their separate ways, he scaled back his involvement with cattle. In 1962, he bought Raymond and John’s rodeo interests and became Sutton Rodeo’s sole owner. Dad continued to partner with Erv Korkow until 1968. At that time, he dissolved that partnership and brought me on board.”

As it turned out, the James and Jim partnership was a prosperous one. Both men were colorful characters in very different ways and had unique talents that moved Sutton Rodeo forward.

“My father never knew a stranger,” Jim Sutton says. “He was outgoing and had the ability to talk to anyone, anywhere. I tended to be a little more reserved, but I always got along with the cowboys. Both dad and I cared about our livestock. From the very beginning, most of the stock came directly off the ranch and, again, what it all boiled down to was bloodlines and breeding.”

At the time James and Jim assumed control of Sutton Rodeo, they had an ace up their sleeve as far as bucking horses were concerned. Sun Up, the palomino Quarter Horse with the aversion to being ridden, consistently passed on his contrary traits to his get. So potent was Sun Up as a sire that he contributed more than 80 bucking horses to the rodeo world, including Yellow Jacket, the 1964 PRCA Horse of the Year runner-up. One year at the NFR, there were 15 of the stallion’s get in action.

And, over the years, there have been other top Sutton Rodeo rough stock, as well. In 1962, Snake River was the 1962 Horse of the Year runner-up. Deep Water claimed Horse of the Year honors in 1979, as did Tombstone in 1985. And Baldy was named the PRCA Top Bucking Bull in 1961.

Among the highlights of Sutton Rodeo’s eight-decade-long involvement with rodeo: furnishing rough stock for every NFR since 1959; supplying stock to the National High School Finals Rodeo for more than 25 years; creating the Black Hills Stock Show Rodeo in 1978 and seeing it named PRCA’s top indoor rodeo in 2002 and 2003; originating and sponsoring the “Wrangler Bullfights” from 1981 to 2000; and providing opening acts for the NFR in 1995 and 1996.

A Family Affair

Sutton Rodeo remains highly visible in pro rodeo and very much a family endeavor. James passed away in 1991 at the age of 91. Among the personal honors he garnered during a lifetime of ranching and rodeo was being the first stock contractor to be inducted into the PRCA Hall of Fame’s Hall of Champions in 1982. Other honors included an award of merit from PRCA in 1970, induction into the South Dakota Hall of Fame in 1970, induction into the Northern International Livestock Exposition Hall of Fame in 1979 and being named National High School Rodeo’s Man of the Year in 1984.

Jim Sutton, renowned as one of the top South Dakota high school and college athletes of all time, has been inducted into five halls of fame: South Dakota Amateur Basketball Hall of Fame, South Dakota Sports Hall of Fame, South Dakota State University Jackrabbit Hall of Fame, Black Hills Stock Show Hall of Fame and Sully Buttes High School Hall of Fame.

Jim married his high school sweetheart, Julie Nelson, in 1953. They have three children—Teri, Steve and Tanya.

Teri, who was the 1973–74 Miss Rodeo South Dakota, succumbed to Hodgkin’s disease in 1978. Steve Sutton remains involved with almost every aspect of Sutton Ranch and Sutton Rodeo. As co-owner of both entities, he manages much of the day-to-day operations.

Tanya is married to Todd Yackley and they oversee the agricultural concerns. With Steve and Kim’s three children—Amy, Brent and Brice—and Todd and Tanya’s three children—Blake, Sasha and Wayne—Sutton Rodeo is now in its fifth generation.

As they have for more than 100 years, the Suttons continue to believe in the power of good genetics.

“The ranch currently maintains a Quarter Horse program that includes four studs, 80 broodmares and 150 young horses,” Steve says. “In recent years, we’ve been crossing some Blue Valentine studs on our mares that trace back to Babe Cody and Bay Punk. Our goal has remained constant: to produce top-notch ranch and rodeo grand entry and pick-up horses.

“Our rough-stock numbers are even higher. On the bucking horse side, it seems that we’ve usually got around 500 head of studs, mares, young horses and rodeo performers. As for bucking bulls, we’re fairly new to it but we’ll breed 120 cows a year and that will result in 100 to 110 new calves each year.

“And, we still maintain a buffalo herd of 200 cows. When you factor in the bulls, calves and replacement animals, this part of the operation generally numbers around 500.”

It’s in the Blood

As a family that has been a part of the South Dakota landscape for close to 125 years, and as the principals of a livestock operation that has helped shape the country’s beef, buffalo, Quarter Horse and rodeo industries, the Suttons are a bona fide institution.

Their success can be attributed to any number of factors, but as far as Jim and his family are concerned, bloodlines and breeding have a lot to do with it. To them, it’s in the blood.


Frank Holmes is a Western Horseman contributing editor. Send comments on this story to edit@westernhorseman.com.