There were some ways the two rodeos weren’t alike. The National Finals Rodeo has always been only available to the top fifteen cowboys, in each event, that had won the most money each year. The Madison Square Garden Rodeo was open to anyone who could get there and pay their entry fee. But regardless of the differences it was an event cowboys and cowgirls always wanted to attend.
I found in an old Colliers magazine an article about the 1939 Madison Square Garden Rodeo and thought I’d share some of the writing with you. REMEMBER this was written almost seventy years ago, so some of the thinking about rodeo has changed a great deal. The reporters were in awe of rodeo and certainly were not as familiar with it as they wanted to be.
Here goes, enjoy:
“Rodeo performers are unlike any other amateurs in sport. They risk their lives for a little prize money and a title, paying their own expenses and entry fees. But there are thrills aplenty; that’s what they like.”
The last night of the rodeo Madison Square Garden was packed. The barebacked bronco contest had been run and the cowboys had done some roping; there had been a mounted basketball game, and cowgirls had done some clever riding. Now there was an anticipatory silence as the loud-speaker announced the saddle bronco-riding contest. After twenty-eight days of competition six cowboys were so closely matched that any one of them could win. It isn’t dangerous to ride a bronco without a saddle, but with a saddle you’re supposed to stick on and keep your feet in the heavy stirrups and that isn’t as easy as sitting in a rocking chair.
The chutes were at the east end of the Garden. Behind them were the corrals where the broncos stayed until it was time to lead them into the chute. A chute is a fenced enclosure about seven feet long and three feet wide. Now these broncos were led, pushed and cajoled into the chutes, and saddled. These were the toughest horses in the show; they had been kept for the final night. I was down there by the chutes with Harry Knight. When a cowboy was mounted Harry would say, “Ready?” If the cowboy was ready he’d nod his head or yell, “Let ‘er go, Harry!” Then the gate would swing open and the horse would roar out.
Two things are important in riding a bucking bronco with a saddle. First is the grip you take on the rein, which is actually a heavy rope halter. If you grab the rope too near the horse’s head, he’ll throw his head down and you’ll go over his head. If you hold the rope too far back he’s apt to toss his head up sharply, you’ll lose your balance and tumble off backward. The second important thing is to get into rhythm with the horse immediately. If you become part of his motion so that you synchronize with his leaps and so that you absorb the jolting when he lands, as he absorbs it, then you’re all right.
Eight of the cowboys had done their stuff. The last man was up now, and Harry Knight and I peered through the white boards of the fence. “This is Hell’s Angel, a good horse,” Harry said. The horse was large, about twelve hundred pounds. His eyes were flecked with red glints and he was trembling a little. “He doesn’t look like a good horse to me,” I said to Harry.
“When I say good horse I mean tough horse,” Knight laughed. “He’s a terror, this Hell’s Angel. He’s a buckin’ fool. No one’s been able to stay on him this show but Paul Carney, and there’s nothing he can’t stay on.” The cowboy who was to ride Hell’s Angel started to climb the fence to mount the horse. On his chaps were emblazoned the letters W. W.
“Who’s this, Harry?” I asked. “Walter Winchell?” Harry laughed, “Hey, Ward, meet a friend of mine. This is Ward Watkins from Colorado. Ward, give him a good ride like you did at Phoenix that time.” Watkins, darkly handsome, grinned and said: “Sure, Harry, I’ll ride him dizzy.” He climbed into the saddle and grabbed the halter. He settled himself, trying to get into the rhythm of the horse.
Three judges mounted and looked toward the chute. Each rider must stay on ten seconds. Form counts as well as ability. The three judges were Earl Thode of Casa Grande, Texas, former All-American cowboy champion; Leo Murray of Fort Worth, Texas, another champion; and Herman Linder of Alberta, one time champion of Canada. The three judges looked toward Harry and Harry called, “All set, Ward?”
Ward Watkins grinned, flipped his cigarette away, and called cheerfully, “Let ‘em ride.”
As the gate swung open the horse dashed out and gave a tremendous leap forward and upward. His head came down and Ward fell forward on his neck. Another surge upward and another and now Ward had slipped out of the saddle but his left foot stayed in the stirrup.
The three judges tore after the bronco. The horse was still bucking and between bucks was galloping madly and dragging Ward Watkins. The three judges on horses tried desperately to head Hell’s Angel off, but he swerved this way and that and now a hundred cowboys, some on foot and others on horses, had run out and had surrounded Hell’s Angel. Finally by their sheer weight of numbers they stopped him.
Two men in white hurried out with a stretcher. Interns from the near-by Polyclinic Hospital are always at the rodeo. Someone in the crowd screamed, the rest of us stood there frozen. I looked down and there at my feet was the cigarette that Ward Watkins had so casually flipped away, still smoking. The stretcher was carried out, and Harry Knight and I walked to the side of the arena and started for the lobby. A white-faced photographer whose eyes were dull said: “That’s a tough way to earn a buck.”
We walked through the chute. A cowboy was leaning against the corral fence, doubled over a little as though he had been hit in the stomach. He said to no one in particular, “I’d have given two years pay not to have seen that.” Outside we met Twain Clemens, once a great contestant and now half owner of the rodeo. His face was grim. I said, “Twain, why not get that horse and shoot it?” He looked surprised, “I never thought of that,” he said, slowly. Harry Knight said flatly, “Wasn’t the horses fault. Horse didn’t know any better.” “It would make us feel better if we shot the horse,” I said. They just shook their heads.
We walked out of the Garden and across the street to the hotel where the cowboys lived. We went to the bar and ordered drinks. We tried to stop thinking about Ward Watkins. A cowboy came in and said gruffly, “He’s still alive.” Heads were raised in hope and amazement.
A month later he walked out of the hospital, limping a little and wincing a bit when he moved an arm – but he was alive. And he was back the following year and rode Hell’s Angel again.
In 1939, 188 cowboys made it to Madison Square Garden. So did forty cowgirls. Some of them were wide-eyed youngsters seeing New York for the first time. Some were veterans. There was bearded Ben Greenough of Red Lodge, Montana, who sat on the top of the chutes each night watching his two sons and two daughters perform. They call him “Pack-Saddle Ben” out West and he confesses to being seventy-two. There are 105 rodeos held under the auspices of the Rodeo Association of America. Points scored in any of these count in the final compilation to decide the world’s champion. The Garden rodeo is the grand climax of the so-called Suicide Circuit.
When the show was over, some of the boys came in. (I’m presuming he is referring to the bar at the hotel across the street) Winners of various events had saddles with them that they’d won and some had checks, too. Some looked unhappy. They were the ones that hadn’t won any prize money. They’d come from Arizona or Colorado to New York and had paid their own way. They’d paid their hotel bills too, and now they had to go back to work as cowhands so they could do it all over again next season. Some of them didn’t have enough money to check out of the hotel, but those who had won took care of that. It’s like that with the rodeo performers.
They are the greatest amateur athletes in the world. Technically they are professionals. Other sports have all their expenses paid. Rodeo performers aren’t sent by anyone. Some of them have to hitchhike to New York for the big show. Some of them borrow their next year’s pay so they can make the trip. Why? So they can wear a belt buckle on which is embossed: “World Champion Steer Wrestler," or so their saddle will be stamped, “World’s Champion Bronco Rider." They want the thrill of competing and beating their fellow cowboys.
Paul Carney was the 1939 world’s champion. He won $8,641. Those who won as much as a thousand dollars were doing well. Nine tenths of the contestants don’t win anything, but they come back each year to try again if they can beg or borrow a stake. In addition to traveling and living expenses each contestant has to pay an entry fee.
Many of them thumb their way to New York for the big event. Last year Dan Stuart rode from Tucson, Arizona, across the country on a burro. Tony Thomas of Hugo, Oklahoma, came on horseback, while Erby Mundy and John Elfic pooled their resources, bought a small car, built a trailer, and drove from Lewiston, Idaho, with two horses and a donkey as passengers. Some work their way across the continent, others ride the freights.
And so when it’s over they leave New York finally, most of them dead broke. They get back home as best they can, but what of it? They have something to talk about during the winter months. They re-live Ward Watkins’ ride a thousand times; they tell of Paul Carney’s great work on the saddled broncos and they talk of how Fritz Truan tossed those steers around. They chuckle about that little blond cashier they met and they drop notes to a cigarette girl who fluttered a pair of dark eyelashes at them. Then they go back to work to get a stake so they can do it all over again next year.
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Lots of things in rodeo have changed since this condensed article was written in 1940, but some things haven’t changed. I doubt if any one would dare call the cowboys and cowgirls amateurs in Las Vegas. Those that qualify for the National Finals know they will have enough money to get home, even if they don’t do well. But many things have changed in the sport of rodeo since this was written.
But there are still cowboys who just want the challenge of staying on the bronc for 8 seconds, or scoring well in the calf roping, or doggin’ a steer in a few seconds – or having the best barrel racing time regardless of the prize money. Overall the cowboy or cowgirl makes their decision as to whether they will compete or not. No one makes them do it. Their independent and choose where to go and what to enter. But they probably will go and enter – they love the sport of rodeo, regardless of the outcome. Those things will never change.
By the way, Deer Trail, Colorado, is holding their 150th Anniversary Rodeo this year. Their first rodeo was in 1869 and they held a bronc riding at a 4th of July Community Picnic with cowboys and broncs from area ranches. The winner was Emile Gardenhire, from England, who was working on one of the nearby ranches. He won a suit of clothes.
The Deer Trail Rodeo this year has a theme of “Cheers to 150 Years”. It will be held on July 5th& 6th at the Deer Trail Rodeo Grounds. Friday the activities will begin at 4:30 Mutton Bustin’, followed by 5:30 Rodeo and Free Concert. Saturday’s activities will begin with a parade at 1PM, and 4:30 Mutton Bustin’, followed by the 5:30 Rodeo, and Concert by Casey Donahue Band.
The Rodeo this year is going to have a Matched Bronc Riding open to anyone with $1000 prize money. This is to commemorate the first event held in 1869. Other events will be bareback riding, breakaway roping, barrel racing, bull riding, calf roping, mixed team roping, saddle bronc riding, steer wrestling and team roping. There is $350 prize money in each event, and, of course, an entry fee, which I did not get. You can call the Town of Deer Trail at 303-769-4464 for more information about the event. See you there!!
Deer Trail was started by the Kansas Pacific Railroad when they built a railway station for homesteaders to transport their grain, livestock and eggs to sell. Today’s population is 546 (as of 2010, but it is growing) but in the 1920s it had grown to have two banks, five grocery stores, and three hotels plus the school and churches. Today there are two gas stations there, that are active, a museum, 2 churchs and a museum.
If anyone needs reservations try motels in Limon 35 miles east, or Byers, Strasburg or Denver to the west.