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True Grit Embodies Real Pioneer Spirit

By Hank Will, Editor-in-Chief

Tags: family, farms, true grit,

GRIT Editor Hank Will at the wheel of his 1964 IH pickup.There aren’t any real cowboys among my close ancestors, but there are plenty of pioneers and they exhibited true grit of the kind that got it done. Those with the pioneer spirit on my dad’s side showed true grit when they left Germany and Finland with what they could carry – seeking something better. Those with the pioneer spirit on my mom’s side showed true grit when they left Scotland, Ireland and Germany with what they could carry – seeking something better. And those early English colonists among my ancestors showed true grit and a pioneer spirit by taking charge of their lives and telling the Crown to take a hike.

Osacr H. Will Seed Co. Building in Bismarck, ND. 

My ancestral milieu includes farmers, nurserymen, steamboat engineers, blacksmiths, railroad engineers, Civil War captains and generals, housekeepers, wood carvers and ministers with names like Will, Gugin, Bird, Coughlin, Logan, Kangas, Myers. They came to this country and exhibited the pluck and stick-to-it/can-do attitudes that define true grit. And yet, before thinking about it today, amidst all the hype surrounding the Coen brothers’ remake of the classic western movie True Grit, I missed the fact that you don’t have to be a cowboy to possess the virtues associated with grit and the pioneer spirit.

As a kid on the prairies in North Dakota, I was blissfully unaware of the true grit and determination that made my little life mostly bearable and even fun at times. I was also unfortunately unaware that my own ancestry offered plenty of heroes – expressing pride about one’s family definitely was not a common practice at that time and place. So I looked for my heroes elsewhere and found them among the gritty men portrayed in western novels and movies.

 White Christmas in Bismarck ND 

Characters like Rooster Cogburn, Josie Wales, Jacob McCandles, Ransom Stoddard and so many others were bigger than life to me, and that they somehow managed to find resolution, if not reconciliation, in a topsy-turvy and often quite violent world, was compelling. I rode with all of them across the vast prairies of my mind – chasing cows, living off the land, drinking out of springs, chasing bad guys and taking my lumps.  My heroes have always been cowboys ...


When novels turned into movies, John Wayne became a favorite western hero. He taught me to swagger with my double rig cap guns and taught me a few smart aleck lines. He made me into the lever-action rifle fan that I am today. Through his characters, Wayne showed me what the pioneer spirit and justice was about – in a naïve and grossly idealized kind of way. Sergio Leone’s Man With No Name (aka Joe, Manco, Blondie) offered an almost believable glimpse of surviving life’s harsh realities at the periphery – a place I sometimes inhabited.  

I now wish I might have known my grandparents and great grandparents – every one of them. I might not have learned to swagger or to shoot the bad guys with a two-handed quick draw, but I’d have understood much earlier that true grit and genuine pioneer spirit have nothing to do with silver screen cowboys.


Hank Will raises hair sheep, heritage cattle and many varieties of open-pollinated corn with his wife, Karen, on their rural Osage County, Kansas farm. His home life is a perfect complement to his professional life as editor in chief at GRIT and Capper's Farmer magazines. Connect with him on .

hank will_2
1/3/2011 8:17:08 AM

Hey Betty -- Thanks so much for sharing your story. It is a little like mine in that I didn't actually know my grandparents but got a few snippets from my parents and an uncle. On my dad's side I was lucky enough to have a fair amount of history left at the ND Historical Society and the Smithsonian. Plus a few modern day history and anthropology scholars thought the Will clan interesting enough to study and write about. I have much less info on my mom's side, but the anecdotes continue to trickle in. It sounds like you had an Annie Oakly outfit. I liked Roy Rogers and Dale Evans too. I also enjoyed Pat Brady's character and that catankerous Jeep named Nellybelle. No doubt my love of the wide open Dakota spaces and Nellybelle stimulated me to buy a Jeep CJ-5 in '78 for myself. It's funny too that way back then, Kansas was the real west to me. I actually lived further west in North Dakota -- geography wasn't my strong suit in the early '60s.

betty yuill
12/31/2010 10:58:33 AM

You are very blessed to remember your grandparents, I was the last of the last,Dad's mom was about 40 when he came along and Mom was about 40 when I came along. Grandma Walt passed when I was 2 and I never knew Grampa Mathews. Grandma Mathews had a stroke and passed around my age of 10,Grandpa Walt died about that time also,my Dad died when I was in the summer of 2nd to 3rd grade. All my love of gardening was aquired early on from Daddy planting carrots with me in the back yard in Calif, to visiting Aunt Lila in my beloved Kansas. Nope I'm Calif born but my heart lies in Kansas.I am some kind of a throw back to my ancestors but I like it that way, it just gets a little lonely. Roy Rogers was my hero along with Dale Evans. The neighbor kids and I used to have shoot outs little cap gun and my western skirt and vest and Cowboy boots. I actually had an Aunt who wrote memoirs for the family from her childhood which I have, so I do have some pioneer blood in me, as my grandparents homesteaded at one time. I am thankful for my heritage, but it all comes second hand via the memories of other family members.

hank will_2
12/27/2010 8:40:51 AM

Hey Cindy -- I concur wholeheartedly! Dave -- I think it is wonderful that you had so much exposure to your grandparents and that your pop is among your top heroes.

nebraska dave
12/24/2010 2:40:54 PM

@Will, being the oldest by far of the grand children, has allowed my memories to go all the way back to great grandparents. Around the age of 10 my great grand parents were all gone and two years later my grandpa that taught me how fish died at a young 53 years old due to cancer. I attribute my adventurous side to him. Although he never left the country he was the first to have a steam engine to run the trashing machines in the county. He was the first to have a Farmall tractor with steel wheels to work the fields that I later used to farm with when in my middle school years. I have great memories of him. My three remaining grand parents lived until I was about 35 before my last grandma passed away. The grand parents on my Mom's side were small town (300) proprietors of a cafe. My grandma was a retired country one room school teacher and my grandpa was a retired hard life farmer. Of course being the only grandchild until my sister came along and spoiled everything when I was five years old, I pretty much got what ever I wanted. Many years later I found that grandpa was a part time boot legger and my dad delivered the hooch from the car at 7 years old. Grandma didn't know anything about that. Grandpa's Dad my great grandpa and his bride actually acquired land during the Oklahoma land rush. They weren't actually in the rush but acquired land sometime after the opening run. After a few months there they decided it wasn't going to work and came back to Nebraska.

nebraska dave
12/24/2010 2:40:06 PM

I'm with you Hank, life back then was rough, tough, and hard to just survive. Those folks new what true grit was for sure. My young years heroes were Tex Ritter, Roy Rogers, Hopalong Cassidy, Davey Crockett, and Daniel Boone. My older years heroes were Flash Gordon, Buck Rogers, and Tom Corbit. As I grew into my teens and on through life I found that my best hero was my Dad. He could do anything, figure out anything, fix anything and one day I want grow up to be just like him. Have a great Christmas and a wonderful New Year.

cindy murphy
12/23/2010 6:24:13 PM

I love the message in this article, Hank. Larger-than-life movie screen hero, or real-life celebrity heroes for that matter don't always add up to our everyday unsung heroes, do they? Happy Holidays. ~ Cindy