I used to love going to see my Aunt Betty and Uncle Jim in Ponca City, Oklahoma when I was a youngster. They lived on a ranch in Osage county where Uncle Jim trained horses and had a cowboy supply store. He was an expert leather craftsman and made his own riding equipment as well as custom leather items like saddles, wallets, and purses for the general public. I loved going into his shop just to smell that leather smell. For some reason, it just made me feel good inside. Perhaps it just reminded me of getting to be around someone I loved.
When they moved out to their ranch Aunt Betty had just retired from working for Southwestern Bell Telephone Company and Uncle Jim had more or less slowed down from working in the rodeo so much. He still trained horses but he didn’t rodeo as much as when he was younger. He had taken a spill and broke both of his arms at the same time during a running back flip dismount off the back of his horses “Flash and Flame”. After that, he started to slow down from as much traveling and acrobatic acts that he used with his horses.
He was born in Greenwood, Arkansas and met my aunt in Ponca City where he decided to settle years later. He had quite a history in the rodeos starting out in Greenwood doing trick and fancy riding working at fairs and horse shows. In 1940 he toured two years with a circus and later performed for servicemen in the army in Fort Riley Kansas. He went on to travel with a Wild West Rodeo and performed in more than 30 different states as well as Cuba and the Dominican Republic. I can remember it seemed like he and Aunt Betty always had the pick-up truck and horse trailer going to the next rodeo. They were never in town.
His rodeo acts were really exciting. He would move back and forth from one horse to another while the horses were galloping, turn backwards when they were at full gallop, drop down on each side and pop back up. All of this was with the horses not being connected in any way. At the finale he would come bursting into the arena from an outer gate area with the spotlights focusing on him and his team of horses at breakneck speed. He in the meantime would be standing on his shoulders between the horses blazing past those in the audience. It was quite a spectacle especially at night. At the conclusion he would do a back flip and land on his feet. It was during one of those finale back flips that he ended up breaking both of his arms which had to be placed in casts.
He was also a very accomplished trick roper. He would wear flourescent clothing and used flourescent ropes with the lights turned off in the arena and black lights shining on the area he was performing in. It was quite a spectacle to watch with him jumping in and out of ropes. Twirling ropes at his sides and overhead. Then up and down over his entire body.
It was a thrill to get to see him when he was performing at the Ponca City rodeo. One time when he performed we also go to see actor “Ken Curtis” better know as Festus Hagin – who played as Marshal Matt Dillon’s Deputy in the long running western television series “Gunsmoke.” Many people don’t know that Ken Curtis actually sang with the Sons of the Pioneers who were popular with Roy Rogers. It was a real treat to get to see him in person. At the time he came into town, Aunt Betty was working part-time at a local western clothing store in Ponca City when he stopped in to say hello to the gang there. She said he was a real nice fellow and that he didn’t really talk like the deputy on Gunsmoke. She said that was just the character he played.
Uncle Jim later got out of the rodeo business and started buying rodeo stock with a fellow named Jim Shoulders. Jim was from Henryetta, Oklahoma who went on to become a sixteen time world champion cowboy. Some people have called Jim the Babe Ruth of the rodeo world.
There is nothing better than going to a rodeo and enjoying some of our western heritage. Whether it’s watching some good bull riding, bulldogging steers, calf roping, bareback or saddle bronc riding, barrel racing, team roping, or roman riding and trick roping. I love the smell of leather, the sound of hoofs beating against the raw red dirt. I love the sights of bucking horses and bulls, ropes flying and blazing speed. I love to hear the rodeo announcer announcing whose coming up next in the chutes, and if a cowboy made the eight second ride. It brings me back to a place I want to be. The place I call home – Oklahoma.