In 1938 Betty Johnson — then Betty Branson — rode into downtown Carson City on her friend’s mustang, Wendy, to be part of the first Nevada Day parade.
“A couple of us just rode in,” she said. “In those days, you didn’t have to sign up; you just joined in.”
On Saturday, she climbed back in the saddle to ride in the popular parade, marking its 75th anniversary. It’s not a moment that the then-14-year-old girl considered in that inaugural parade, known then as Admission Day.
“When you’re that young, you don’t think about 75 years later,” she said. “That’s three-quarters of a century. If I would have seen me now, I would have thought, ‘That old fool, what’s she doing on a horse?’”
But riding with the Parading Arabians on Saturday, Johnson did not feel like an “old fool.”
“It takes me a little longer to get up here, but when I’m up on that horse, I feel like I’m 16 again,” she said. “It’s a wonderful feeling.”
Johnson’s entry was one of 200 to travel down Carson Street during the annual Nevada Day parade, which lasted about three-and-a-half hours and drew thousands of spectators on a mild late-October day with temperatures in the low 70s.
Carson City hosted the first parade in 1938 and the following year, the Legislature passed a law making Nevada Day an official state holiday. The parade was suspended in 1942-44 during World War II.
In 1998, Nevadans voted to move the official holiday to the last Friday in October, creating a law that took effect in 2000.
Although Johnson was raised in town — graduating from Carson High School in 1941 — she had a friend who lived on a nearby ranch who introduced Johnson to horseback riding.
Johnson later kept her own horse, Stewy, a wild horse captured at 6 months old from the surrounding range, at the friend’s ranch.
“She was a wonderful horse,” Johnson recalled. “I rode her in the parade I don’t know how many times.”
After high school, she went away to college in San Francisco and later met her husband, Walter, known as Johnny, during a trip to Hawaii. Pursuing his Army career, the two lived all over the world, raising two daughters, Gwen Hopper and Cathy Jackson. When her husband retired in 1961, they decided to settle in her hometown.
“He liked the West much better than the East,” she said. “As anybody would.”
She has ridden off and on in the Nevada Day and other parades in Reno, Gardnerville and Virginia City and continues to ride horses with her daughter Cathy, who lives in Fernley and team ropes with her own daughter.
Johnson took a tour of the Grand Canyon on a mule in April.
“It was my third time doing it, and it’s just fantastic,” she said. “It was so gorgeous.”
She said she doesn’t think it’s crazy to be so adventurous a month shy of her 90th birthday. What’s crazy, she said, is that 90 years have gone by.
“I can’t believe 90 years have passed already,” she said. “It doesn’t seem possible.”
And she has no plans to hang up her spurs.
“Put me on a horse, honey, and I’m happy.”