Early American Rodeo: Interview with an American Rancher

 

Modern American Bullrider. Image courtesy of Richardbealblog.com, a site about the cowboy lifestyle

In Into the Free, Millie’s father (Jack Reynolds) is a bull rider for the early American Rodeo circuit. The rodeo producer, Mr. Cauy Tucker, not only maintains the first lighted arena in Mississippi and manages a steady crew of cowboys and entertainers, he takes his crew on the road for competitions as well.

Just as other segments in the book were loosely based on historical events, this part of the book also stemmed from a legend. While there was no rodeo company similar to Mr. Tucker’s in Meridian, there were certainly cattle and horse traders. There was also at least one visit from the Wild West Show, during which Annie Oakley supposedly shot her gun through the “O” of the Meridian Hotel sign in order to win a bet. According to local historians, the bullet hole remained in the sign until the building was demolished in 2011. With a lot of research, I built Jack’s Rodeo world around that single image of Annie Oakley firing her gun in the streets of Meridian. (In the book, the bullet hole is in an office window.)

Some readers have asked me, “Why was Jack a bull rider? How did you get that idea?” Well, like everything else in this story, the characters came to me as they were. But I have given serious thought to why and how these characters emerged.

My paternal grandfather passed away long before I was born, but I’ve heard stories about his days as a bull rider. I guess Jack’s character grew from my own curiosity about that era and what the rodeo circuit would have been like at that time.

Like the other segments of the book, I was writing about something I knew little about. I read books, blogs, and historical records. I watched documentaries, and attended modern-day Rodeo competitions. I attended a weekend horsemanship clinic by famed Horse Whisperer David Carter. I even realized a life-long dream and bought a horse of my own (She has been the greatest teacher of all). But I also wanted to talk to people who had really experienced the Rodeo and horse training in both the present and the past.

Thankfully, a new friend introduced me to her father-in-law, an iconic American Rancher. He has lived his entire life working ranches and teaching the younger generations to do the same. He also listened as his relatives told stories about the earliest days of the Rodeo.

This rancher is a humble man who prefers to remain anonymous. However, he very generously offered his time and his knowledge, and I know you’ll enjoy hearing his stories in the interview below. For this interview, he will be referred to as AR (for American Rancher) in order to maintain his privacy.

 

JC: How long has your family been involved in Rodeo?

AR: It goes way back. My daddy’s dad died when my daddy was just eight years old (1921), so he grew up with a single mom on a big ranch. My dad’s uncle took over the ranch. He was a cow man and he more or less raised my dad. My dad started breaking horses when he was 12 years old and won his first saddle bronc riding at a rodeo when he was 14 years old.  

Then my daddy put on rodeos back in the day, too. Him and his cousin built a big arena and gathered up stock – whatever horse would buck everybody off. They had steers, calves, everything. And once or twice a year, everybody’d camp out at their place. They lived in Southeast Texas, and people would come from all over.

JC: Did women come too?

AR: Lots of women. They competed in saddle bronc riding and they also roped steers. And not at Dad’s Rodeo but they also did steer tripping in the past, where one person would rope it, ride past it, and jerk it down to tie.

JC: When did these rodeos take place on your dad’s ranch?

AR: During prohibition. They couldn’t sell alcohol, but it was there. Beer would sour, but they had plenty of whiskey. Dad was a good business man. He had wagons with barrels full of ice and lemonade. One side was regular lemonade and the other side pink lemonade. It was set up to have three or four barrels on each side with a spicket to draw out the lemonade. They sold that and they also had a big barbeque pit.  A man would work there all week to cook it and sell it. They didn’t have electricity back then, so the cars would shine their lights if it went past dark.

JC: Were there ever any problems with alcohol being on the ranch during prohibition?

AR: Dad told me about one guy who had a pint of whiskey in his boot. It broke and cut his leg all up. There was also a man who rented some of the land from my family. He made whiskey out there – a bootlegger. He bought sugar by the big truckload and shipped it out in big batches. I remember dad telling about a 100-foot-long shed full of barrels of whiskey aging.  I also remember a pit where they made syrup, a (cane) syrup mill.

JC: How were you involved in Rodeo?

AR: I competed in high school and college about five or six years: saddle broncs, bareback broncs. I traveled in Texas, Louisiana, and I was on the rodeo team in college at Texas A&M and Sam Houston State.

JC: Most people aren’t aware that there are rodeo teams in college. Tell us a bit about that.

AR: Many colleges have teams, especially in the Southwest. They give scholarships and compete all the way up to world finals. McNeese in Louisiana was a good team.

JC: What do you want people to understand about Rodeo?

AR: Well, contrary to what most people think, it’s not cruel. Those people take better care of their animals than they do their families sometimes. Some of those animals are worth millions of dollars. They breed them to buck or whatever. They’ve got kids in their young teens to twenties who own millions of dollars worth of stock. They would never abuse their animals. They’re worth too much money.

People see the horses bucking but they don’t know that even a gentle horse will kick if you put a flank strap on them. We use practice horses and put a flank strap on. They’ll buck to get it off but it doesn’t hurt them. They just don’t like the feeling of it, but it’s not painful.

Rodeo people do everything they can to protect their animals. Take roping horses for example. We put skid boots on their back feet so when they stop it won’t burn their hocks.  The horse will step real high for several steps until he gets used to it, but the boots don’t hurt him.

In most cases, these animals have the best conditions and health care they can get. Vet care, training, rehab if they do become injured. I’ve even seen ranchers build little fences the stock have to jump before they can get to their food. This trains them to become stronger. They are athletes just like us, and we are only as good as our animals. 

JC: How has the American rodeo changed since the time when your father held competitions on his Texas ranch?

AR: Well, in the 20s, all the per se stock contractors were traveling groups of people. Contract workers would perform at these rodeos. Girls ran relay races with several horses. They’d change horses during the race. It was a lot like a traveling circus. It was a Wild West Show, but there were local producers who hosted these travelers.

By the 30s and 40s, Rodeo started to get organized. The Cowboys Turtle Association was the first organized group to regulate the rodeo. They chose the turtle as their symbol because they wanted to progress slowly and do it right. They designed an official saddle for bronc riding, and craftsman would design them and stamp a turtle on the saddles to show they were official. Today (the Turtles) are called the PRCA.

JC: It’s interesting to think about vintage saddles. Have you ever come across any unique saddles from the early American rodeo?

AR: Well, I have seen a grand champion cowgirl saddle from the 1910’s or early 1920s. It was in a pawn shop, and I still wish I had bought it when I saw it. I also used to ride horses for a summer camp, to get them calm before the kids got there. The owner had a bunch of old saddles and one was a championship saddle from Madison Square Garden. He probably didn’t even know he had it in there.

JC: What are some of your best memories with Rodeo?

AR: Roy Rogers and Dale Evans were two of the nicest people. I remember they spent lots of time with kids. They sang and performed, but they’d spend all day just talking to the kids and getting them interested in the animals and all. Gene Autry was a stock contractor with a rodeo company named Colburn out of Dublin, Texas. When I was young, I went to Houston, Texas for a calf scramble. I won a calf and took it back the next year to show it. Gene was there the year I went as a kid. I was holding a big ol’ jersey heifer for a dairy judging. My heifer got scared and ran into this guy and knocked him down. It was Gene Autry! He visited with me and never made a big deal about it.

JC: It sounds like your experiences with Rodeo really shaped your character. You have spent your life running ranches and teaching vocational agriculture to high school students in Oklahoma. You also raised a close-knit family and one of your sons has followed in your footsteps as a ranch manager and teacher.

Many of our readers may be interested in learning more about Rodeo, animals, or agriculture. What can you tell readers about the 4-H program and the Future Farmers of America (FFA), two programs geared to teaching these lifelong skills to children?

AR: It’s a great way to teach responsibility because the kids have to care for the animals. You just have to find what they like. Some play ball. Some raise calves. They have to do something productive or they’ll be doing something you don’t want them to. It’s one of the best ways to keep them out of trouble, but the parents have to get involved and help.

Our boys showed steers. We were always there to help them at every step of it. My wife even got involved fluffing the tails up in balls. She had a little kit with spray glue and ties and combs. She’d rat it and tease it and spray it. She’d do all that every time and make them look good. The most important thing you can do is to be involved and take an interest. Children want your time, not your money.

JC: Are your grandchildren interested too?

AR: Yes. My grandson decided he wanted a pullet (a young chicken). He asked for one, but I told him there’s no sense in having one pullet, so I bought him twenty.  He and I built him a chicken house. Now he’s happy raising chickens and selling eggs.

JC: My novel, Into the Free, discusses the rodeo, chickens, horses…lots of the things we’ve talked about today. It also explores the history of Romani travelers (gypsies) migrating throughout the south. Have you had any experiences with travelers, since many were known to work with horses?

AR: Yes. Ben Green is an old horse trader from central Texas. He wrote of gypsies and he had lots of experience with gypsies as horse traders. He ended up becoming a vet in Greenville, Texas… a good horse vet…and he’s written a lot of books about horses.

I can remember seeing the gypsies when I was a kid in southeast Texas. They would travel through in wagons with horses. I met some up at the sale barn in Oklahoma. The guy who owned the sale barn was a gypsy. He was a good business man. He ended up staying around and his son went to school there. The first time he ever walked into a school building was for his son’s Open House. His son went on to become an Ag teacher. He became my friend and he would tell me how he remembered growing up and moving around. He thought nothing of taking corn from a farmer’s field or eggs from a chicken house. I guess it’s just how they lived. He was a good guy.

JC: Rodeo is known as a risky sport. Have you ever been injured?

AR: Oh sure. Especially working on ranches. Mostly self-inflicted wounds.

JC: Do you have any favorite books you’d like to share with our readers so they can learn more about this American pastime?

AR: That’s hard for me to think of right off, but I always liked Will James. He’s a good old cowboy author.

JC: Thank you for your time, Sir. It’s been a tremendous honor to hear your stories. I know our readers will agree.

 

Learn more about the Rodeo, horse trading, and American ranchers and cowboys.

As this rancher suggested, you may want to start with some books by Ben Green. A few titles include:

The Village Horse Doctor (2000)

Horse Tradin’ (1999)

Wild Cow Tales (1999)

A Thousand Miles of Mustangin’ (1998)

 

Or check out Will James’ classic American cowboy tales, some of which are listed here:

Sun Up: Tales of the Cow Camps (2009)

Sand (Tumbleweed): (2009)

The American Cowboy (2009)

Lone Cowboy: My Life Story (1997)

 

I also recommend:

My Fifty Years in Rodeo: Living with Cowboys, Horses and Danger. Written by Fog Horn Clancy [1952].

 American Rodeo: From Buffalo Bill to Big Business. Written by Kristine Fredriksson [1985].

Cowgirls of the Rodeo: Pioneer Professional Athletes. Written by Mary Lou LeCompte [1993].

Lucille Mulhall: Her Family, Her Life, Her Times. Written by K. B. Stansbury [1985].