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Flint Hills Cowboys

Flint Hills Cowboys by Jim Hoy

Flint Hills Cowboys by Jim Hoy

I was sitting behind the chutes at the Strong City Rodeo last year getting ready to watch a friend of mine from SW Missouri fight bulls at the longest consecutive rodeo in Kansas, when the wild cow mugging event began.  He turns to me and says, “what kind of event is this?”  I grew up going to the Santa Fe Trail Days Rodeo in Burlingame and the Eskridge Labor Day Rodeo, so these events were quite common to me.  He had never seen them done before.  It was at that time that I realized, the Flint Hills of Kansas have some Cowboy character that was uniquely there own.  I came home and bought Flint Hills Cowboys by James Hoy, the definitive work on the subject of cowboyin’ in Kansas.

James Hoy has documented the history of the Cowboy in the Flint Hills.  He not only writes about the tales, but in most cases his family has lived it.  There are tales from homesteading in Chase County, stockyard stories, and rodeo stories from years on the hilly terrain of Eastern Kansas.  He begins the book by documenting some of the cowboys that made their living horseback trailing cows.  It should be noted at this time that Hoy uses the Flint Hills to denote Chase, Greenwood, and Butler Counties.  Very little of his research/stories take place in the northern Flint Hills region.  Very briefly does he mention the stone fences that line 177 or the hills of Geary County, but outside of these small notations, his history is limited to the southern Flint Hills.

The second section of the book focuses on the history of the cattle and the horses that made up life on the range of the Flint Hills.  Just as in the first section of the book, his personal stories of horses he’d rode, the stories of ranches from the past, and personal connections he had.  He tells of cattle coming in from Texas, half-dead and stick thin, grazing the green grasses of the Flint Hills and returning to health.  He speaks of Texas Cattlemen sending prized Quarter Horses up to Flint Hills Ranchers as gifts for grazing their animals.  Hoy credits the bluestem grasses for the survival of millions of longhorns after being starved on the sagebrush of Texas.

The tradition and customs of the Flint Hills cowboy is more subtle than other places.  The Great Basin Buckaroo’s have a style, dress, and methodology that is much different than the Texas Cowboy.  There are a few things that do distinguish the cowboy of the Flint Hills from other places.  Hoy, in the third section of this book, points out these differences.  One being the Chapman Post.  The Chapman post was a moveable fence post, that was created because it was nearly impossible to bury a post in the limestone of the flint hills.  In 1903 a man named Chapman patented a steel post driven into limestone, by which barbed wire could be attached.  The limestone would hold the post in an upright position.  The other tool of trade that separated the Flint Hill Cowboy from others, was the Flint Hills Fire-stick used for burning off the prairie every year.  Essentially a lighter for controlled burns, this was and still is a mainstay of springtime in the Flint Hills.

Finally, comes the section that I originally bought the book for: the rodeo section. I have collected rodeo books for going on 10 years now and this is the only book that I have found that has any kind of documentation of Kansas Rodeos.  He tells stories of the Roberts brothers (World champs in the 1940’s) who called Strong City home.  It was their family that began the Strong City rodeo and started the rodeo tradition in the Flint Hills that would ultimately bring the likes of Bill Pickett and his bulldoggin exhibition to Kansas.  The Robert’s family, with stiff competition from the Munsell family, the Pope family, and the Rumford family, are still probably the most famous rodeo family from Kansas.

His final section recounts the type of men that it takes to cowboy in the Flint Hills.  His stories depict a rough country, harsh winters, rough men, and biting wind that make this region so tough on men and animals.  Again his personal stories are pushed to the for front putting a human face on the history.  Hoy makes an effort to show the history of the Flint Hills cattle industry as a collection of individual stories that are intertwined and wrapped up in the bluestem prairie.  The book is an excellent history of the southern counties and their role in the industry.  It is well researched and well written.  Some of the images in the book are iconic.  This is a must read book for anyone interested in what makes the Flint Hills so special in the history of the cowboy and American History as far as it is concerned with the beef industry.

Man, Beast, Dust: The Story of Rodeo

Man, Beast, Dust: The Story of Rodeo

Man, Beast, Dust: The Story of Rodeo

How did Professional Rodeo go from Deer Trail, Pecos, or Prescott, to 600 events over the US and Canada? How did we get from a bronc ride for a new suit to over $40 million in prize money a year? Clifford P. Westermeier, in his book Man, Beast, Dust: The Story of Rodeo, traces those wobbly first steps of Rodeo, on its journey from cow town spectacle to an established, loosely defined, form of American Entertainment. Westermeier writes in 1947, just 11 years after the Cowboy Turtle Association was formed and 2 years after they changed the name to Rodeo Cowboys Association. He was a firsthand witness to the struggles of cowboys for decent purses, rodeo’s struggle for legitimacy and fairness, and the organization of the association.

The characters of early day rodeo, provided some of the most fascinating in the book. Westermeier chronicles the rise of the cowboy from ranch hand to rodeo superstar. He highlights men like Pete Knight, Everett Bowman, and Doff Abner. He looks at specialty acts, bullfighters, announcers, and stock contractors from the early days of rodeo. He spent pages articulating the specific performances and committees that put on rodeos from 1900-1940. My favorite chapter is found in this section. He writes about how the Cowboy Turtle Association arose to serve and protect the cowboys from fraudulent promoters and contractors. In response, the Rodeo Association of America arose to protect the associations and rodeos from the cowboys demands and the stock contractors. It is a wonder that we even have rodeo today after the tumultuous beginning that Westermeier seamlessly documents.

The second section of this book is about the stock that made up the early rodeos. Steamboat, Midnight, Five Minutes to Midnight and other great early broncs were documented as making the bronc riding the premier event at early rodeos. Westermeier relied heavily on newspaper and original sources during this section of the book which takes the reader back to a day when Rodeo held a more prominent place in the sporting scene of America. He also explained the history and rules of each event of rodeo, going into great detail about the stock used and the participant sterotypes.

The last section of the book is Westermeier’s take on rodeo from a fans perspective. Whether introducing someone to the show and spectacle of rodeo. He gives the background to a few shows that explains what is happening for the novice to rodeo. This is important because at the time of his writing, it sounds that it may have been dangerous to show up to a rodeo. He includes stories of runaway bulls and broncs that end up in the stands. Westermeier doesn’t focus on these stories, nor is the book driven by them, but his dry writing gives a sense of humor to the events.

This book was a well written history of rodeo. It gets a little bit wordy and awful detailed to be a cursory study. It is certainly well researched, but poorly documented. He gives excellent background to the tumultuous years of rodeo, the battles for organization, and the characters involved. It was a fascinating look back to when bronc riding was the king competition of rodeo, specialty acts was a main draw, and the cowboys themselves were straight off the ranch. This was a classic picture of early rodeo.

Midnight: Champion Bucking Horse

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Midnight: Chamption Bucking Horse by Sam Savitt

I am of the opinion that very rarely is anyone remembered in a vacuum.  In the rodeo world, Tuff Hedeman and Lane Frost will be forever linked.  Tuff and Bodacious, Ty Murray and Hard Copy, Michael Jordan/Scotty Pippen, Bird/Magic, Jobs/Wosniak…you can probably think of many others.  Very rarely is anyone remembered solely, but our interconnectedness is what makes legends and history.  Sam Savitt wrote his book Midnight: Champion Bucking Horse, a fictional account based on history, about the collision course between two great figures whose connection would make them legendary.  Before Tuff/Bodacious, Lane/Red Rock, Shivers/Yellow Jacket, Freckles/Tornado, before bullriding ruled the sport, legendary saddle bronc horses met up with legendary hands.  Midnight met Pete Knight 4 times in their career, with the unridden-in-his-career Midnight coming out on top every time.  This book sets the course for their meeting in Cheyenne in 1930.

The story starts with Jim McNabb, whose ranch produced the famous horse.  Like the rest of the horses raised at the ranch, Midnight was destined to be a cowhorse.  In 1919, when Midnight was a four-year-old, McNabb had every intention of breaking his undescript, and yet unnamed, coal-black horse into a fine stock horse.  After 3 failed attempts at riding through Midnights fits, McNabb saw the unique ability of his horse.  Men from all over southern Alberta tried their hand at Midnight, and everyone ate dirt.  McNabb, under council from the deposed, took Midnight to Calgary, the biggest rodeo in Canada, where he made the showing that would dictate his career.  Pete Welch, Calgary’s promoter, bought Midnight from McNabb.

By way of Calgary, Midnight eventually found himself in Verne Elliot’s string of bucking horses.  Verne was no stranger to changing the game of rodeo.  It was him who first introduced the Brahma bull to rodeo, the first to exploit indoor arenas for rodeos, and one of the first to replace the shotgun chute with the side chute for the rough stock events (Lamb, Gene. Rodeo, Back of the Chutes: 1956, pg 148-149).  Verne’s new bucking horses, and in 1928 Elliot found himself the owner of the most famous bucking horse of the day.  For $250 dollars, and $5,000 insurance policy, Midnight became his.  Immediately he started bucking the great horse at his rodeos.  As part of the draw, or a bounty horse, Midnight was the prize attraction at the rodeos.  It was at Fort Worth, that Pete Knight first got his chance at Midnight.  It went Midnights way, but he would have others.  At Pendleton, later in the year, Pete would get another chance that ended the same way.  July 1930, at Cheyenne, where Vern’s best stock was displayed, would be the attempt that would forever bind these two together.

Pete Knight picks up the story at this point by telling of a great year in 1930. He was headed for his first world championship.  He spoke of all the ups and downs of rodeo life: the long nights driving, the lack of insurance, and the beating his body took.  All these things he would say: “added spice and vinegar to life.” (69)  Knight had an addiction to Midnight, watching the newsreels (prior to movies in those days) of his bucking action, studying his trips, and gathering information on the horse.  When their fateful meeting in Cheyenne, 1930, Knight would be ready.  Before the ride, Midnight was paraded around the arena, wearing a “World’s Champion Bucking Horse Blanket”, like a boxer entering the ring.  Knight would make it 7 seconds that day, 3 short of the whistle at that time, and Midnight would remain unconquered.

When Midnight passed away, on Nov. 5, 1936, he was buried on the ranch.  But not after he had seen Southern Canada, Texas, San Francisco to New York.  His final trips were 4 exhibition rides at Wimbledon in London.  The horse had taken on all challengers, emerged victorious, bucked long and hard, and became the content of legends.  A senator wrote his epitaph: “UNderneath this sod lies a great bucking hoss, There never lived a cowboy he couldn’t toss, His name was Midnight, his coat black as coal, If there’s a hoss heaven, please, God, rest his soul.”

Savitt wrote and illustrated this fascinating book.  If you have a rodeo kid, from K-6, this book provides an excellent story, awesome history about the sport of rodeo, and incredible illustrations.  It is one of the prizes of my Rodeo library.

 

What a Ride!

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What a Ride
by Terry Holland

Growing up watching rodeos, following the PRCA and the PBR, and wanting to be part of the sport, I remember some of the great characters.  Bulls like Neal Gay’s Joe Cool, Mr. T., Billy Minick’s V61, and Sammy Andrews Skoal Outlaw Willie; riders like Donnie Gay, Tuff Hedeman, Denny Flynn, and John Quintana; rodeos like Mesquite, Cheyenne, and Fort Worth.  Terry Holland in his book, What a Ride, describes the places and the faces that make rodeo an awesome community.  In telling his own story, he acquaints you with with  the people that inspired him and those he in turn inspired in his 20 years as a PRCA Bull rider.  He is also the man responsible for creating The Mighty Bucky, a trainer for bull riders.

This book begins with Terry getting on his family’s purebred beef cattle in the corral behind his house.  His parents of course were not real excited about his dream profession.  As he grew older, he was forced to sneak rides on the family’s breeding bulls while his dad was in town and business and his mother was getting her hair done.  This was a great idea until he broke his leg during a practice session one friday afternoon.  As he recounted his rise in the PRCA, his tutelage under Donnie Gay, and the stories of traveling the rodeo circuit in the 70’s, 80’s and 90’s, I was taken aback at some of the things that they went through and put up with chasing the dream of being a World Champ.  Car wrecks, late nigh flights, getting stitched up by DVM’s and not M.D.’s…stuff that would cause most people to find a different profession.

The turning point of this book really was the story of his ride in Bay City, Texas.  It was there that his leg was compound fractured when a bull stepped on his shin.  Both he and his wife take turns during these couple chapters describing what they went through, their faith that carried them on the journey, and the fear and anxiety surrounding the fact that he may loose his leg during all this.  It was during these chapters that they continually recounted how God had pulled them through and their faith was strengthened.

After his 10 month layoff he returned to riding bulls.  At the twilight of his career, he kept up his schedule, dabbled in some clown acts (too funny for me to recount here), and rode some of the best rides of his career.  To his final bull ride, he devotes a couple chapters.  He had spent some time raising bulls.  At one time, he had sold Donnie Gay 24 bulls that could really buck.  Holland wanted to retire at one of Donnie’s rodeos, so he entered up.  His draw was one of the bulls he had sold Donnie a few years prior.  It was the best bull of the group, the one he had wanted to keep for himself.  The bull that had thrown off men 20 years younger, and hurt some of the best riders out there, was going to be Holland’s last bull.  As he tells the story, his emotions and his introspection about his life, career, family, and future, provide the back drop for the whole deal.

The final section of this book is about his story of following God’s leading after he hangs up his bull rope.  Holland is a man who is fully devoted to God and his direction.  He tells stories of divine appointments, healing prayers, and encounters that changed both him and the people he contacted.  It is funny how a faithful man is presented with the people he is.  God is surely doing work through him and his ministry.

This was an awesome book that put God on center stage as the main character.  There are no greater people than those you will meet in and around the rodeo arena.  This book shows how God used one man to influence many.  It is a story that is funny and light throughout.  It is a story of a man who is certain about what he was meant to do on this earth, and who he was supposed to serve.  If you are a fan of rodeo, or just a good story, this is a great, short book to check out.

Sun Up: Tales of Cow Camp

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Sun Up: Tales of Cow Camp
by Will James

Will James was a regular day working cowboy who just happened to have a knack for telling attention grabbing cowboy stories and coupling them with an incredible ability to illustrate with pencil drawings.  This book book is a collection of 13 stories of horses and broncs, cowboys and rustlers, rodeos and roundups.  Written in 1931, Sun Up is written just as Rodeo was hitting its hey day.  James captures the attitude, the organization, the subterfuge, and the glory that rodeo held in the days prior to a governing body.  In his short stories “His Spurs” and “First Money”, James takes a look at hometown judges, crooked draws, and a question of prize money as cowboys attempt to earn a few extra dollars at some distant rodeos.  In “Bucking Horses and Bucking Horse Riders” James with a mixture of romance, satire and wit, explains the intricate relationship between the two perceived enemies.  Though he explains the inter-dependence they have in one another.  Without one, the other would not exist.  He finishes the story of with a classic quip “I’ve still got to see the rider what couldn’t be throwed and the horse what couldn’t be rode.” The same attention is given in “the Making of a Cowhorse” as James gives an account to the reader of what it takes to make a once and a lifetime ranch horse.  In the same way that he did in Smokey, the author invites you to live life between the eyes of a future ranch mount in a way that you are envious in the life that it gets to live.  My personal favorite short story from this book is: “the Young Cowboy.”

Will James includes in this book a story about a little boy who is growing up on the ranch.  His dad, the ranch owner, is often busy with chores leaving the boy at home hanging out at the homestead.  While around the house and the barn, the boy starts riding some of the calves in the corral, until he kisses one on the poll.  Dazed and confused, the horse trainer covers for him with his mom.  The boy wants badly to train a horse.  The horse trainer, who has better things to do, talks to his dad about getting him a horse to train.  His dad finds him a little black pony, that has just enough buck to test the kids want-to.  The whole ranch gathers to watch the boy’s work with the pony.  After an hour, the horse is saddled.  The boy inches onto its back, when the pony breaks in two.  James tells the story better.  The boy is bucked-off.  His dad chastizes him for grabbing the saddle horn during the ride.  The trainer offers his stern two cents.  His dad and the Trainer refuse to give him more advice, deciding to let him learn on his own.  The second ride lasted longer, and on the third he rode the horse to a standstill.  The kid, Billy had fanned his first bronc.  To which his dad said to the trainer: “It sure done my heart good the way he went after that pony that third time…”  After years in the ministry, this type of parenting isn’t common very much anymore; this type of praise isn’t either.  I was moved by this story as I read it because I saw the boy grow up as I turned every page.

This book had so many good stories that led me to be jealous of the time period that James lived and wrote.  I desired the simpler life of the west, the days on horseback, and the hard lessons that stuck with people.  If you need a great book of short stories this is the book you need to find.