Historic City Memories: Off to the Rodeo

Off to the Rodeo

Florida today is a major rodeo state

By Geoff Dobson

The Pro-Rodeo traveling rodeo show is coming to the St. Johns County Rodeo Grounds in Armstong, southwest of town, this weekend January 28th and 29th.

Shows start at 8:00 p.m. each evening with admission only $12.00 for those 12 and older, $7.00 for students 6 to 11.

Professional rodeo performers from across the Southeast will compete in a variety of rodeo events, from bull riding to barrel racing. This Western-inspired event features entertainment for all ages including, rodeo clowns, team and calf roping, barrel racing, and bull riding. The show will give viewers a taste of some of the rodeo events which have made Rodeo one of the largest professional sports in the United States.

Touring rodeo shows, such as Buffalo Bill’s Wild West have been appearing in Florida since 1907, when the show appeared in Jacksonville. In 1912, the show did a grand tour of the state appearing in Gainesville, Jacksonville, Lake City, Ocala, Orlando, Tampa, and Palatka. Rodeos have appeared all over the world. Indeed, Queen Victoria’s first public appearance following the death of Prince Albert as at Buffalo Bill’s Wild West.

Many do not realize that Florida today is a major rodeo state with major Professional Rodeo Cowboy Association sanctioned rodeos conducted in Bonifay, Ocala, Kissimmee, Davie and Arcadia. The P.R.C.A. was an outgrowth of the Cowboys Turtle Association formed in Boston in 1937. Another major sanctioning organization is the International Professional Rodeo Association which sanctions, among others the Macclenny Rodeo.

Rodeos were originally an exhibition of skills required of cowboys. Later, shows included such diverse contests as potato races, wild cow milking contests, trick riding, trick roping, bulldogging, as well as the traditional bronco riding and bull riding. Rodeos themselves date back to the era of the great cattle drives. Although both North Platte, Neb. and Prescott, Ariz. each claims to have had the first rodeo, in actuality, Deer Trail, Colo., has a better claim. Riders from the Campstool, Mill Iron and Hashknife Ranches competed in a bronco riding contest on July 4, 1869. The contest was won by a Mill Iron rider, Emilnie Gardenshire, riding a Hashknife bronco named Montana Blizzard. Gardenshire won a suit of clothes donated by a Denver dry goods store and the title “Champion Bronco Buster of the Plains.”

As was the first rodeo, the exhibitions are frequently conducted as a part of a Fourth of July celebration. The fact that the rodeo and the Fourth of July are intertwined and represent the epitome of the American cowboy is best illustrated by the legend of Pecos Bill first written of by Edward O’Reilly in 1923 in the Century Magazine and later popularized by Iowa lawyer Harold W. Felton. It will be recalled that Pecos Bill was reared by coyotes, was able to tame mountain lions and rattlesnakes, and had a horse, “Widow-Maker” which nobody could ride but Bill. The centerpiece of the tale was, however, the Fourth of July Rodeo at which Bill rode a cyclone, not any cyclone, but The Cyclone. The Cyclone had become jealous of the attention given by the townspeople to the Rodeo and Bill and decided to break things up. Bill’s response was to rope The Cyclone and ride him — the most bodacious bronco busting rodeo there ever was.

The All-Florida Championship Rodeo is held in Arcadia each year. In was started in 1929 by the local American Legion. By the same year, uniform rules for various rodeo events had been adopted. In the early years some of the horses and bulls participating in rodeo contests were more famous than the riders.

Two of the most famous rodeo horses were Steamboat, whose image is believed to have been the inspiration for the Wyoming license plate, and, Midnight. At the 1937 Denver Stock show, the crowd stood for a minute of silence in tribute to Midnight.

A life-size bronze statue has been erected in Midnight’s honor in front of the Amon G. Carter Jr. Exhibits Hall in Fort Worth. Midnight died in 1934. He is buried at the National Cowboy Hall of Fame. Midnight’s grave marker reads:

Under this sod lies a great bucking hoss;
There never lived a cowboy he couldn’t toss.
His name was Midnight, His coat as black as coal,
if there is a hoss-heaven, Please God, rest his soul.

Geoff Dobson, a St Augustine resident for the past 33 years, is a western and Florida history writer and was former General Counsel for the Florida Department of Transportation. He is a former president of the St. Augustine Historical Society and a regular contributor of nostalgic memories to Historic City News. Before his parents moved to Florida, his father was a Black Angus cattleman. Geoff has written extensively on Wyoming history (“Wyoming Tales and Trails”). When Geoff was in high school, his family lived in the cattle country of eastern Sarasota County. The family spread, which his parents called “Wild Cat Slough,” was reachable only by a pair of ruts over the sand hills and through a snake and gator infested slough. Now, it is an area of four-lane roads, expensive subdivisions, shopping centers, and office parks. . His undergraduate degree is in history. Geoff received his post-graduate degree from the University of Florida. He may be reached at horse.creek.cowboy@gmail.com

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