Sunday, August 2, 2015

Jesse Stahl - First Black Bronc Rider


        Most everyone has heard of Bill Pickett, the man credited with inventing the bulldogging event of rodeo. Bill was also the first black man to be inducted into the National Cowboy and Western Heritage Museum Hall of Fame and is often referred to when people talk about historical black cowboys. A lot of people may think Bill was about the only black man to make a name for himself in those early days of Wild West Shows, Stampedes and Rodeos because he garnered so many headlines. 
Arguably however, one of the best bronc riders of all time was another black man, Jesse Stahl. Jesse was a professional bronc rider from the early 1900s thru the late 1920s. Things he did while riding a bronc are the stuff legends are made of and are still talked about to this day.
Not a lot is known about Jesse’s childhood. Most reports say he was born in Tennessee sometime between 1879 and 1883. Others say he was born in California or Texas. What we do know is he had a brother named Ambrose who also rode broncs.
Rodeo Historian, Willard Porter, wrote about Jesse, “He was a tremendous athlete—quick, coordinated and physically able to respond to the unpredictable action of rough stock.”
Jesse competed in bulldogging, steer (or bull) riding and bronc riding. He became legendary however for his bronc riding skills.
We first hear of Stahl at a big-time show in Salinas, California in 1912. The attendance of that event was reported at around four-thousand spectators. It was the first time Cowgirls were included in the performance and it was also the first time a black man performed there.
One of the highlights of the show was reportedly was none other than, Jesse Stahl, riding a bad bucker named, Glass Eye. After being awarded third place, Stahl climbed aboard again, on an exhibition horse who had a bad reputation as well. He rode this bronc facing backwards! 
Why did he ride this exhibition horse? Why did he ride facing backwards?
Although Salinas was the first big show we hear of Stahl riding at, he had probably been competing at smaller venues for quite some time before. Stahl later became known for his famous exhibition rides. He usually did this facing backwards or with a suitcase in his free hand or on occasion in tandem with another black cowboy, sometimes George Fletcher or Ty Stokes, in what was dubbed as the “Suicide Ride.” Many felt he did these outlandish exhibitions just to prove he could ride better than anyone else. Other reasons have also been given.
It has been said that Jesse was mostly remembered for winning (or earning) first but placing third. Accusations abound that Jesse was never placed higher than third by judges because of his skin color and prejudices of the day. Many have reported that Stahl put on these extraordinary exhibitions to mock the judges for their placing decisions. Perhaps skin color had something to do with being placed third when everyone else thought he placed first, but if he was truly mocking the judges, that probably did not help either.
It is also said that some white cowboys would refuse to compete if Jesse was entered. Perhaps because of prejudice and Stahl’s reputation as one of the best bronc riders around, these men did not want to enter because they thought it would make them look bad if they were bested by a black man. This could be another reason Stahl rode so much in exhibition.
Producers desperately wanted Stahl to ride in their shows because it pleased the public. It has been speculated they could make everyone happy by paying Stahl to ride exhibition horses instead of competing.
To mock Judges for perceived bad decisions? To prove he was the best? Because of prejudice and segregation? All of the above has been suggested as reasons why Jesse Stahl rode so many exhibition horses while preforming wild stunts at the same time. What ever the reason may be for the extraordinary rides, they have become fodder for numerous tales and legends.
After a long and colorful career in which he made headlines from New York to California, the great Jesse Stahl retired from bronc riding in 1929. Most rodeo historians say he was one of the best ever. He died in Sacramento, California in 1935. The first well-known black bronc rider, was posthumously inducted into the National Cowboy and Western Heritage Museum Rodeo Hall of Fame in 1979. Making him the second black cowboy (after Bill Pickett) to receive such an honor. 

Jim Olson ©2015

Thursday, October 9, 2014

Fox Hastings, One Tough Gal...

        When you think of pioneer ladies from the early days of rodeo, Fox Hastings name has to be there. She was one of the first female bulldoggers in rodeo history. She also rode broncs and was a trick rider. She was a crowd favorite. It has been said she could smile at the camera, while lying in the mud, and still be holding the horns of a steer she had just thrown.
Eloise Fox was born during 1898 in Galt, California to Wesley Galveston and Susie Agusta Fox. Somewhat of a maverick from the beginning, the rebellious girl was sent to a boarding school at age fourteen. Two years later she ran away. At sixteen, she joined the Irwin Brothers Wild West Show, and met and married Mike Hastings―a well-known performer on the rodeo circuit. She dropped her first name and became known thereafter as “Fox Hastings.” The press loved her name.
It was Mike who first taught her the ins and outs of rodeo. She started by riding broncs and doing trick riding events. Soon, her ability to ride rough stock became renowned. She was known for her enthusiasm, her physical strength, and her expert horsemanship.
In the early part of the 1900s, women competed right along side men in many cases. Fox served as a reminder that women thrive on competition just as men do. She became an inspiration to many young women who previously thought a woman’s place was strictly in the home. By 1924, Fox and Mike had a new plan however.
It was 1924 at Houston, Texas where Fox made her debut as a bulldogger! This was practically unheard of for ladies of the day. The main reason being, bulldogging steers were much bigger and wilder than what you find in today’s competitions. It was dangerous, even for the toughest of seasoned cowboys. She was a huge hit however and wound up being voted the best specialty act of the rodeo.
Thereafter, Fox and Mike gained fame as husband and wife bulldoggers. She put on exhibitions at Wild West Shows and rodeos across the country. Foghorn Clancy, rodeo personality and promoter claimed Fox, “was the most photographed and interviewed cowgirl of the 1920s.”
Fox was quoted in Hoofs and Horns magazine as saying, “I like bulldogging better than bronc riding. Bronc riding is a question of strength and endurance, but in bulldogging you don't tackle two steers exactly alike. You have to learn the difference in the animals size, strength, formation of the horns, build of neck and shoulders and a lot of things. Every move has to be perfectly timed to a split second.” Of course, the steers she was bulldogging usually weighed around 1,200 pounds, about twice what today’s bulldogging cattle weigh—and back then, they literally “bit them on the lip” to help bring ‘em down (hence the name bulldogging)!
Along the way, she suffered a myriad of injuries and broken bones. However, the old adage, “The show must go on,” rang true with Fox and she would continue putting on exhibitions, injuries or no.
In 1935, at the Fiesta De Los Vaqueros rodeo in Tucson, Arizona, Fox was a contract act performing a ladies bulldogging exhibition. On the first day, she suffered a broken rib. She still went on to perform during the next several days of rodeo in spite of the pain. She did not want to let show management down.
She remained one of rodeo's top performing women athletes through the 1930s. Fox was always a press favorite. Unforgettable is an image of her having just turfed a steer, covered in dirt or mud, and smiling at the camera, grinning from ear to ear. There are numerous photos like this in the archives. She literally traveled the world while rodeoing. She proved to be a charismatic, crowd pleaser whenever she appeared in the arena.
Fox summed up her ability this way: "If I can just get my fanny out of the saddle and my feet planted, there’s not a steer that can last against me."
Sometime in the latter half of the 1920s, her first marriage ended in divorce. However, in 1929, she remarried. Her second husband was another champion rodeo hand, Charles "Chuck" Wilson. Together they traveled the circuit from New York to Los Angeles, hitting all points in between. They also relocated their home operation to a ranch near Winslow, Arizona.
During the last half of the 1930s, there were great changes in rodeo. The Wild West shows had pretty well phased out by then (and with it the exhibitions such as Fox performed). Also, the new Cowboy Turtles Association (CTA) was born in 1936, and they soon became the primary sanctioning board for professional cowboys. The new association however, did not allow women performers to enter rodeos. As a result, the Women’s Rodeo Association was formed thereafter.
Whether it was the changes, or just her age (approaching forty by now) Fox Hastings retired from rodeo towards the end of the ‘30s. She and Chuck settled in and became full-time Arizona ranchers.
During the 1940s, Fox became plagued with health problems. Several reports have been given as to what it was, but the most popular theory is tuberculosis. Reports say that Chuck stood faithfully by his wife during this difficult time, often nursing her himself.
Tragically, on July 30, 1948, Chuck Wilson died in Winslow of a heart attack, leaving behind a sickly widow. Two weeks later, at the Adams Hotel in Phoenix, Fox took her own life. The coroner's report states she died of self-inflicted gunshot wounds to the abdomen and head. She left a note, saying, "I don't want to live without my husband."
In 1987, Eloise Fox Hastings Wilson was inducted into the National Cowboy and Western Heritage Museum Rodeo Hall of Fame in Oklahoma City. It was noted her career had included steer wrestling, saddle bronc riding, and rodeo trick riding. On October 26, 2011, Fox was also inducted into the National Cowgirl Hall of Fame at Fort Worth.

Jim Olson ©2014  

Sunday, November 17, 2013

A Christmas poem for you by Jim Olson...

Cowboy Night Before Christmas

Onward came the cowboy, came from afar 
Curiously following the glow of a star
Arrived at the livery, a place for his horse
Few extra oats on a chilly night of course
Told the stable man, hey, thanks for the light
Lit the desert nicely - such a dark night
The man just grinned and said with a nod 
Sir, it ‘twas not me - I believe it was God!

There ‘tween a burro and sheep freshly shorn
Cooed a little baby, not long ago born
Parents huddled, three men gathered round 
Gazed lovingly, at a babe on the ground
Well Cowboy was curious as men usually are 
& Knew right there, the purpose of the star
No doubt in his mind, that he was on hand,
To witness a miracle, the worlds only perfect man

Well the Babe stared at him, right into his soul
Knew all about him, but how did he know?
Had piercing blue eyes that seemed to speak 
Cowboy got a message & his knees grew weak
Then a horse rip-snorted, he sat right up in bed
Guess he’d been dreamin’, twas all in his head
Jumped up with a start, realizing the dream 
It seemed so real, these things that he’d seen

A voice came to him from somewhere within 
Said Cowboy - past is gone, you’re forgiven
Trust your instincts inside - I put ‘em there, 
Remember I’m with you, here and everywhere
Tend your horses, cattle and your fellow man
For to do right by me, treat ‘em best as you can
Remember now, to be kind to children 
And care for your soul - you must make amends

He pondered a while this message received 
Shore enough a miracle, is what he believed
It rattled round in his head loud and clear
Help your fellow man - both far and near
Cowboy resolved to do better, best he could 
The world surely needs, a bit more good
Why then he felt warm and fuzzy all over 
Like a wild horse herd, running through clover

He sat there a-rubbin’ grog from his eyes
Looks to the window - saw another surprise
Perched on the sill - a snow-white Dove 
Knows it has to be, a sign from above
Cowboy smiled, thought man what a night 
Dove then nodded and took off in flight
Twas no use a-trying to sleep after that 
Got up, got dressed - stuffed on his hat

And he passed the calendar - on the wall
December 25th - well don’t that beat all?
Now out in the barn, it’s time to throw feed 
But the horse is sweaty, what’s wrong with the steed
Why he’s been ridden - evidence clear showed 
Looks in the bin and & oats have been throwed
A cold winter chill went straight down the spine
I knew then I’d encountered  - something Divine!

Jim Olson © 2011 - 2013

Sunday, September 22, 2013

Lucille Mulhall — First Cowgirl

        To see a petite young lady roping and tying a steer or performing stunts a-horseback is special. To do it in the early 1900s, an era of rough and tough, “real” cowboys, and do it as well as, or better than the men is incredible.
Lucille Mulhall was born October 21, 1885, in St. Louis, Missouri, to Colonel Zack and Agnes Mulhall. The family relocated to Oklahoma during the great land rush of 1889 and homesteaded one-hundred-sixty acres. The Mulhalls eventually laid claim to about eighty-thousand acres of rangeland located north of Guthrie—some of which was leased land. However, much of it was open range they simply controlled and claimed by virtue of use and being on it (a common practice of the day).
By age seven, Lucille was riding the range, being taught cowboy ways by the men who rode the plains, in what was then “Indian Territory.” Zack Mulhall once claimed that when his daughter was only thirteen, he told her she could keep as many of his steers as she could rope in one day. He bragged, “She didn’t quit until catching more than three-hundred head!”
Col. Zach Mulhall (a title bestowed upon him despite never serving in the military) started a “Wild West show” in the early 1900s. Many early movie cowboys, including Tom Mix, and Will Rogers got their start in Mulhall’s Congress of Rough Riders and Ropers. Lucille also starred in the show. She was among the first women to compete in roping and riding events with men and earned many championship titles. Today she is celebrated as the first cowgirl. 
Will Rogers wrote, “Lucille's achievement in competition with cowboys was the direct start of what has since come to be known as the Cowgirl. There was no such a word up to then as Cowgirl.”
The term was coined to describe Lucille when she dazzled Easterners in her first appearance at Madison Square Garden in 1905. "Against these bronzed and war-scarred veterans of the plains, a delicately featured blonde girl appeared,” a New York reporter wrote. "Slight of figure, refined and neat in appearance, attired in a becoming riding habit for hard riding, wearing a picturesque Mexican sombrero and holding in one hand a lariat of the finest cowhide, Lucille Mulhall comes forward to show what an eighteen-year-old girl can do in roping steers. In three minutes and thirty-six seconds, she lassoed and tied three steers. The veteran cowboys did their best to beat it, but their best was several seconds slower than the girl’s record-breaking time... The cowboys and plainsmen who were gathered in large numbers to witness the contest broke into tremendous applause when the championship gold medal was awarded to the slight, pale-faced girl.” 
However, Lucille was a cowgirl long before becoming an entertainer. "By the age of fourteen,” the New York Times reported, "She could break a bronco and shoot a coyote at five-hundred yards.”
Newspapers tagged her with titles like "Daring Beauty of the Plains,” Queen of the Range” and "Deadshot Girl,” but the one that stuck was "Cowgirl.” It has been argued that the term "cowgirl" had been in use since before she was even born, but few would argue that Lucille was the first to give it national meaning.
Even the great Geronimo was an admirer of Lucille's talent and once gave her a beaded vest and decorated Indian bow—items she reportedly treasured her entire life.
Teddy Roosevelt was also among Lucille’s fans. While campaigning in Oklahoma as a vice presidential candidate in 1900, he saw her perform. It was the Fourth of July, and she roped in front of a large crowd at a "Cowboy Tournament” in Oklahoma City. 
The Daily Oklahoman reported, "Roosevelt was most enchanted with the daring feats of Lucille Mulhall. She rode beautifully throughout the contest and lassoed the wildest steer in the field.”
Teddy Roosevelt was so impressed by Lucille’s skills that he invited the Mulhalls to join him and a select group of the Rough Riders for a private dinner. That night Lucille gave the hero of San Juan Hill a silk scarf she had worn during the contest.
Zack Mulhall then invited Roosevelt to stay at his ranch—Teddy accepted. After watching Lucille’s skills with a horse, rope and gun on the ranch, Roosevelt encouraged her father to get her more exposure. "Zack, before that girl dies or gets married or cuts up some other caper,” Roosevelt reportedly said, "you ought to put her on stage and let the world see what she can do.” The rest, as they say, is history.
Legend has it that during the visit, Roosevelt went riding with Lucille and they spotted a grey wolf. This whetted Roosevelt’s appetite for a hunt. The wolf eluded them that day but Roosevelt told Lucille if she could catch the wolf, he would invite her to his inaugural parade.
Some claim she later roped the wolf, then killed it, others say she shot it at five-hundred yards. But by all accounts, she sent the pelt Roosevelt who displayed it in the White House after he and McKinley won the election. Lucille and family attended the inauguration and Roosevelt reportedly gave her a saddle and an 1873 Winchester.
Besides starring in Mulhall's Wild West show, Lucille also performed in the Miller Brothers 101 Ranch Wild West show (another well-known wild west show from the day), in Vaudeville, and Lucille’s career even took her to Europe, where she performed for heads of state and royalty. In 1913 she and her brother, Charley, formed a company and produced “The Lucille Mulhall Roundup.” 
Lucille became known world-wide as the greatest (and first) cowgirl—the result of her fine roping skills and an uncanny knack with horses. Her talents were, in part, fine-tuned by another natural cowboy—Will Rogers, who was a life-long friend of Lucille’s (both came from Oklahoma ranching backgrounds). Couple that with her slight figure and ladylike demeanor and you had a cowgirl anomaly. More important however, she was authentic, genuine and generous—crowds loved her. 
  It has been said that she had a natural connection with horses. She claimed her horse, Governor, knew many tricks. In an interview Lucille said, “My system of training consists of three things: patience, perseverance, and gentleness. Gentleness I consider one of the greatest factors in successful training. Governor, the horse I ride in our exhibitions has nearly forty tricks. He can shoot a gun; pull off a man’s coat and put it on again; can roll a barrel; can walk up stairs and down again—a difficult feat; is perfect in the march and the Spanish trot; extends the forelegs so that an easy mount may be made; kneels, lies down and sits up; indeed, he does nearly everything but talk.”
She was briefly married in 1907 to Martin Van Bergen, a cowboy singer who was an opening act in the show. Together they had a son. She was also married in 1919 to Tom Burnett, whose father had established the Four Sixes Ranch in Texas. Each marriage lasted only a few years and it was reported that Zach Mulhall remained the most important man in her life.
Lucille basically retired from world-wide travel in 1917 as live Wild West performances were being overshadowed by the up and coming Hollywood westerns. However, she continued to perform throughout the 1920s and 30s, mostly in Oklahoma and Texas. She made her last known public appearance in September of 1940.
Lucille Mulhall died near the home ranch in an automobile accident on December 21, 1940. She was only fifty-five years old. She was posthumously inducted into the Rodeo Hall of Fame in 1975 and National Cowgirl Hall of Fame in 1977. Long live Cowgirls!  

Jim Olson (c) 2013