This is a broad subject and although I have written several books which took a good part of the last 30 years of my life to research and write, I have just begun to scratch the surface of the subject of rodeo. It’s about rodeo that floundered around small communities for years before it was really considered a rodeo. It was merely a competition between two of the best bronc riders in the area, or two of the best ropers, according to those who wanted to see it – even a few bucks may have been bet on the event. It’s the story of cowboys and cowgirls that competed and performed in the beginning, and later, too. It’s about the bucking stock, and the horses that were just as competitive as those that rode them, and later those men who started breeding bucking stock to bucking stock. It’s about the rodeos that have been around for many, many years, and how they got started and evolved. It’s about the organizations that formed to attempt to make rodeo bigger and better. Some have served their purpose and are nolonger in existence, usually because they succeeded and rodeo got bigger and better as itgrew. Others attempted to improve the sport but failed for one reason or another.
There is so much to the sport of rodeo that needs to be captured and written about, and yet I know I’ll never get it all done. There needs to be an army of writers,researchers, and reporters to cover rodeo history. It takes the following to ‘git ‘er done’:1. You got to have the desire to learn about rodeo history. 2. Then you need to find a periodical or publisher that will print the findings. 3. Be willing to promote rodeo and encourage people to get to know it because it is the only sport that came out of the west.I will guarantee that the more they learn the more they will want to learn about it. After all it is a sport that evolved from the pastures of our ranch lands and the cowboy’s work that was necessary with horses and cattle. It is a sport that began by the very people that worked the pastures and the horses and cattle. It is the most American sport we have.
As our country grew in numbers people began heading west to find land they could own. The crowded cities and country on the east coast were taken. During the Revolutionary War men that fought the British were common folks. After the war the government began to pay the men that were willing to risk their lives in the war for their efforts. In time the government coffers were low on funds so instead of monies land on the frontier was given to some of these returning soldiers. One man was given land thathe thought would never be settled because it was so far west. Thinking it was worth very little he traded it for a bottle of whiskey. Later his descendants realized his judgment had been wrong. The land he traded for booze was what today is Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania.The man that gave it away was Howard and Grant Harris’ ancestor. Grant is fourth generation that owns and runs Cowtown, New Jersey, a summer weekend rodeo that has been entertaining on Friday and Saturday nights from Memorial Day through September since the 1950s. Grant’s dad, Howard, was the first Rodeo Cowboy Association (RCA) rodeo producer to allow Cowtown, NJ to be filmed on television. During the early days of television, 1950s, it was prohibited by RCA, for a time, to allow their member rodeos to be on television. The ‘powers that be’ at RCA thought that showing a rodeo on television would ‘ruin rodeo’, and fans would quit attending rodeos. It was thought that television had greatly weakened the sport of wrestling. But Howard did it anyway, paying his weekly fine to RCA, and still made money as the crowds that attendedCowtown, NJ grew because of seeing it on television. (It also did not deter all the RCA cowboys from competing at Cowtown New Jersey during that time as they were fined, too, if the ‘powers that be’ at RCA could identify them even though they gave fictitious names). Buster Ivory was a ramrod at RCA during this time period and he had to fine his good friend, Howard Harris, each week during the summer. The families had a good laugh about it once RCA lifted the ban on television. Cowtown, New Jersey is still going strong as the fifth generation of the Harris clan is now taking over the management of their rodeo.
Buffalo Bill Cody had his first rodeo/wild west show in North Platte, Nebraska in1882. His background earlier in his life was quite varied, but he entered a time when he concentrated on entertaining audiences with venues depicting the wild, wild west. By1885 he hired Annie Oakley, who in reality had become Mrs. Frank Butler, after she beatButler in a shooting contest. Her ability as a marksman was amazing and Cody immediately recognized the importance of having her talents on his advertising billboards. Women capable of doing things that generally were done only by men attracted much more attention by the fans. Women began invading the western scene as excellent shots, as well as excellent horsewomen. Others who worked for Buffalo Bill’sWild West Show were Adele Von Ohl Parker, Emma Lake Hickok and Lillian Smith, just to name a few. It wasn’t long before women were also performing as bronc riders, relay race riders, Roman riders and then came trick riding and roping. Their outfits were often made by the cowgirls themselves, and fans often showed up to see what they were wearing.
Rodeo came on the heels of wild west shows. Rodeos were competitions and not just a performance of varied western events which was the basis of a wild west show. However, early rodeo producers generally called their rodeo a ‘show’, too. As rodeo began to improve and the events were more consistent the rodeo promoters began to complain that rodeo wasn’t recognized as a sport, such as baseball, basketball and football. They never thought back to the beginning when they promoted rodeo by calling it a ‘show’. It took a long, long time before rodeos began to be recognized on the sports pages of various newspapers, and then just occasionally in a few locales where rodeo was truly appreciated. Even today many newspapers fail to report the daily results of local rodeos on the sports pages. Could this be true because most sports writers don’t know enough about the sport of rodeo?
Cowboys and cowgirls are very independent people. They have minds of their own and often don’t agree with others about rodeo, how to train their horses, ranching, what to feed their cattle, and so on. That, no doubt, is one of the reasons they do what they do -- rodeo. They decide where they want to go, what events they want to compete in and when to head home. For more than twenty years cowboys complained about the low purses, and that their entry fees were not included. They also complained about the poor judging at some rodeos, but yet they continued to compete, in spite of their criticisms. Actually they were more interested in competing regardless of the small payoffs, and judges that didn’t know rodeo well enough to score people accurately. Was this because it was more fun to travel from one rodeo to the next and have the camaraderie with other cowboys and cowgirls, and meet the challenge of trying to score higher than the others, than it was to be stuck on a ranch, doing chores day in, day out, often not seeing another human being for days and days? It took more than thirty years (1936) before cowboys finally realized what it was going to take to improve rodeos from the competitor’s point of view. You see, although many rodeos belonged to organizations such as the very first one formed in 1929, Rodeo Association of America, which was organized to help rodeos from one location to the next be more consistent in the events held and more. This organization was run by businessmen that made up rodeo committees, not the competing cowboys and cowgirls. Some of the cowboys that chose to compete in the earliest rodeo, instead of stay at home, were: J. Ellison Carroll, Booger Red, Clay McGonigal, Morgan Livingston, Juan Levias, Tom Mix, Chester Byers, George Taylor, Jack Houce, Jim Minnick, Lee Robinson, and more.
Early rodeo was intertwined with Wild West Shows from time to time. Many of the cowboys who competed often hired on with wild west shows even though they were performing and not competing. They were hired and offered a salary. It also came with a place to sleep and meals provided. Sometimes the salary was a less than they expected, depending on what kind of an arrangement the management of the wild west show had made with each town. But the young cowboys got a chance to hone their skills while traveling with a wild west show. In 1914 the Irwin Brothers Real Cheyenne Wild WestShow was held at Helena, Montana during the State Fair. It boasted ‘Greatest Aggregation of Wild West Artists in the World, which included 28 carloads, 150 Wild Horses, Steers and Buffalo, 40 Real Sioux Indians, 25 Cowboys, 15 Cowgirls, and 25 pieces in a Special Cowboy Band. The bottom of the flyer that was passed out before they arrived said, “Bully-Woolly Wild West Show." Now who wouldn’t want to go and see that?!
A 1921 Norton (Kansas) Frontier Roundup boasted 48 cowboys and cowgirls including a Grand Entry, Trick Riding Contest, Steer Riding, Calf Roping, Trick & Fancy Roping, Bareback Bronc Riding, Cowgirls Bronc Riding, Cowpony Flying Express,Bronc Riding with Saddle, A special performance by rodeo clown Tommy Douglas,Roman Standing Race, Maverick Race, Steer Bulldogging and ended with the Wild HorseRace.
The Official Program of the Sixth Annual San Luis Valley Ski-Hi Stampede, held at Monte Vista, Colorado in 1924 held 20 events with 113 cowgirls and cowboys entered.The program consisted of various performers; Curley Griffith and son Dick Griffith in aRoman Standing Race; King Tut, Famous High School Horse, ridden by Bonnie Gray; and Ed Wright and his Twenty-Five Cent White Mule. Events included Championship Bucking Contest with a purse of $1,000; Cowgirl Bronco Busting Contest with a $325 purse; Calf Roping and Tying Contest with $800 purse; Bulldogging Contest with $600 purse; and other competitions such as Wild Horse Race, Range Relay Race, Wild Cow Milking, and more, totaling 23 events.
Rodeos weren’t just being held in the western states. The Connecticut Championship Amateur Rodeo was held in the New Haven Arena, as was the World’s Championship Rodeo Contest sponsored by the Elks Club in Miami, Florida in 1925.Rodeo was on it’s way.
This is the 1st Installment of the History of Rodeo A to Z. Next month I will cover some more interesting facts about early day rodeo. Have a great fall and remember rodeo is not a show, it’s a competition!!