Tall, slender, easy-going and soft spoken, you might think he came from the Midwest but, in fact, John McDonald was born and educated in Saranac Lake.
His great grandparents, the McMaster family, used to run a dairy farm on the road named after them, McMaster Road. In the late 19th century, fire destroyed the farm and they rebuilt, moving a bit further down the road to the location where it still remains to this day, a charming family farmstead.
John attended SUNY Delhi, graduating in 1972 with a degree in dairy science. It was his intention to move back to the area and help run the family dairy farm. However, as he tells it now, he was spared making that mistake because the cows were sold before he had even graduated. Increased regulation of the milk business had made it difficult for small farms to make a profit.
(Photo — Caperton Tissot)
John, a man who believes it best to just take life as it comes, one day at a time without worrying about the future, then acted on a fresh opportunity. He moved to Brookfield, Mass. to work at the Elm Hill Farm, home of "Elsie the Borden Cow."
There he took over responsibility for managing the farm's good-sized Morgan horse operation. Riding since he was 13 years old, he was well acquainted with horses. He bred and showed Morgans, taught riding and cared for other horses that were boarded there. It was during those years that, in 1981, he met and married his Vermont-born wife, Wanda.
Having acquired valuable experience at Elm Hill Farm, John's need for independence led him to branch off and open his own private stable in Franklin, Mass. Ten years later, in 1995, he received an offer to go to Ft. Collins, Colo. and run the J & J Ranch, a Morgan horse farm. By this time, he and Wanda had two children, Jeffrey and Ashley. The whole family picked up and moved again.
After six years at the ranch, that streak of independence reared its head again and he struck out on his own, running his Morgan horse farm where he taught all the riding disciplines: eastern, western, driving and hunter (jumping). At one time he had as many as 30 horses and several employees, but finding the profit margin meager, he reduced his operation to 10 horses and fewer employees, resulting in a higher income.
He loved Colorado'; the constant sunshine, the landscape and everything about it. However, when his 92-year-old uncle died in 2003, things changed again. His uncle had been living on McMaster Road, just barely able to sustain himself and hang on to the farm. When he passed away, John's early dream resurfaced -? the dream of carrying on tradition by living off the land at the family homestead.
In 2005, he and his wife pulled up stakes once more and moved back to McMaster Road. Sitting on the porch of their restored yellow farmhouse with a traditional red barn and several smaller sheds nestled into the green fields, surrounded by impenetrably dark forests alive with bird songs and gazing upon a large vegetable garden and stone-strewn pasture, five sleek horses galloping about and Whiteface Mountain rising hazy-blue in the distance, it is not hard to understand what brought him back east.
John, like many other Adirondackers, is not adverse to piecing jobs together in order to remain close to the land. He purchased a monster piece of equipment which lifts massive logs onto a belt that runs them through a saw, after which the pieces are split into firewood, which he sells locally.
At times, his work includes helping both area and out-of-state farmers prepare and manage their horses for shows, sometimes driving the large horse trailers to the show grounds. He is a licensed Morgan horse show judge for both horses and riding; he judges five or six shows a year. Later this summer, he will go to Oklahoma City to be a judge of some 1,600 horses and their riders at the World Championships.
His wife, "the best groom and the best helper I've ever had," is his biggest cheering section. When not doing that, she provides the "stabilizing factor" by working in a local bank. Their son is married and based in Alaska but presently serving his second term with the army in Iraq. Their daughter, employed in social work, lives in Sterling, Colo. and is engaged.
After 35 years in the horse business, working seven days a week, John says he was ready to do something from which he could take an occasional break. Now he and his wife are enjoying the freedom to play for the first time in years. They have bought an inboard/outboard motorboat and delight in using it to explore the surrounding lakes.
"It's great to be back here, I love it. It has stayed basically the same, the people are even the same. It's not a rat race and I like it that way," says the man who has quite successfully fulfilled his dream by just taking life day by day and assuming everything will work out. Indeed, for this man who seems not to get easily rattled, it has done just that.
Based on an interview with John McDonald. Caperton Tissot can be reached at Tissot@