A lifetime involvement in 4-H and the Phillips County Fair began when Merle Jackson became a member of the Better Beef Makers 4-H Club. He is pictured with Duke, his 1955 grand champion steer.

Riderless horse honors fallen cowboy

    A lone horse, with no rider, adorned with a blanket, saddle and boots facing backward. It’s a symbol of a fallen warrior and a tradition that dates back centuries.
    From the soldiers of Genghis Khan’s era to America’s first presidents, the riderless horse is an honor to the deceased. And now, Phillips County will be honoring one of its own.
    A riderless horse, led by Tim Becker of Holyoke, will usher in the Phillips County Fair parade on Holyoke’s Interocean Avenue Saturday, July 28, beginning at 10 a.m. The procession will honor the late Merle Jackson, who was named this year’s parade grand marshal.
    Since his death in January, there has been an empty spot at KarDale’s, where Jackson had breakfast every day, and on the cattle ranch where Jackson was in partnership with Becker. And now there will be a void at the Phillips County Fair, namely the steer show — one of Jackson’s favorite events to attend.
    “As far as finding somebody passionate about the fair, he was one of the best,” said Becker, who viewed Jackson as a good friend and a father figure. “He enjoyed everything about the fair.”
    Jackson was especially excited for the new Phillips County Pavilion and Education Center at the fairgrounds. Before his death, he had donated to the brand wall, and memorial monies given at his funeral totaled more than $1,500 for the project.
    If there was a competition to see who could attend the most Phillips County Fairs, Jackson would be toward the top of the list. “He was probably here for every fair every year since he was born,” said Becker.
    Born in 1942, Jackson was raised on the family farm east of Holyoke with parents Henry and Florence Jackson. It was there that he discovered his passion for horses and cattle — a passion that would follow him the rest of his 75 years. “That was all he knew,” said his sister Willa (Jackson) DeCastro of Wichita, Kansas.
    By age 9, Jackson was a member in the Better Beef Makers 4-H Club — one of the clubs that is still active in Phillips County today. His hard work paid off, earning him countless grand champion honors in steer shows at the Phillips County Fair and the Colorado State Fair.
    “Our dad raised Herefords and had a good eye for it,” said DeCastro, noting that her father taught her brother, who then passed on his knowledge to her.
    Before graduating from Holyoke High School in 1960, Jackson was involved in FFA as well as rodeos. By his junior year, he was an accomplished bareback bronco rider and bull rider. He went on to compete with the Colorado State University rodeo team.
    In the 1960s, Jackson left Holyoke for a brief career training cutting horses in Kansas, Illinois and Nebraska.
    However, Phillips County was calling. “You just get rooted,” said DeCastro. “The roots brought him back where he could help Dad.”
    Jackson and his dad raised some of the best Hereford cattle in the country, said longtime friend Jim Morris of Sterling.
    Both Jackson and Morris had an interest in cutting horses, and many hours in the saddle while checking cattle for the Lebsack feed yard gave them plenty of time to talk 40 years ago.
    Morris admired Jackson for his choice cattle, and “as far as I’m concerned, he bred some of the best horses around.”
    Not only did Jackson and his dad contribute to the region’s livestock industry, he also got to watch his dad contribute to the Phillips County Fair. Henry served on the fair board for 10 years in the ’50s and ’60s and was honored as grand marshal of the fair parade in 1985. He was instrumental in building a grandstand, installing arena lights and other key aspects of the Phillips County Fairgrounds.
    Jackson followed in his father’s footsteps and later served on the fair board himself.
    Raising high-quality 4-H steers for local youth was a passion for Jackson, and he was a big supporter of the junior livestock sale.
    “If you could talk horses and cows to him, you were his best friend,” said DeCastro, admitting that her brother had a very dry sense of humor.
    “In everything Merle did, he was a perfectionist,” said Morris. He could even come across as grouchy to those who didn’t know him well.
    Becker described him as direct and to-the-point. There was never any gray area with Jackson, he said.
    But he had a tender side that most people didn’t know about. He took great pride in visiting his daughters and his grandchildren to attend their school events. When he was able to combine a family visit with a rodeo in Fort Worth, Texas, steer wrestling finals in Wichita or the Kentucky Derby in Louisville, Kentucky, that was, in Jackson’s words, “a pretty neat deal.”
    He was gentle and generous, said DeCastro, noting there were many people at Jackson’s funeral who told her about all the good things Jackson had done for them. “He was a person who did things behind the scenes and didn’t need or want recognition,” she said.
    “I am humbled by all the support and acknowledgement that has been given to Merle,” she added. She was shocked at the amount of memorial money given to the pavilion project, and she knows her brother would have been shocked too, not knowing how much people had cared about him.
    DeCastro will be in Holyoke for the Phillips County Fair parade later this month, joining the community in honoring Jackson as the grand marshal.
    She encourages Phillips County to be involved in the fair and in 4-H and FFA activities all year long. “Activities help the community work together and grow the county to come together for the good of everyone,” she concluded.

Holyoke Enterprise

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