Tuesday, January 15, 2013

Last Rodeo Pioneer

Bart Clennon

In sharp contrast with rodeos of today, back in 1945, Madison Square Garden’s, “World Championship Rodeo,” in New York was a grueling fifty performances over a thirty-day period! A man named Bart Clennon won the saddle bronc riding contest at that show. As a matter of fact, he won many bronc riding championships in the early days of rodeo; Reno, NV; Fort Worth, TX; San Angelo, TX; Burwell, NE; Red Bluff, CA; Salt Lake City, UT; Deadwood, SD, Miles City, MT; Kissimmee, FL and Boston Garden to name a few. Bart says, “I never kept any records, but I know that I made a living rodeoing for over twenty years.”
While his rodeo resume is quite impressive, what is even more notable is that he was the last living person of the original sixty-one fellows who signed the famous “Boston Garden strike document,” then walked out of performing at the rodeo in 1936. (Bart Clennon was born in Aberdeen, SD, 1910.)  This led to an eventual formation of the Cowboy Turtles Association (CTA) - the predecessor of the Professional Rodeo Cowboy Association (PRCA). 
Clennon, lived for many years in the Tucson, AZ area, a few miles north and west of the back entry road to old Tucson Studios, with his two sons, Bart Jr. and Terrance. His family went with him during much of his career and they saw many things together. Not all that happened on the rodeo trail was glamour and nostalgia though, as is often reported. The family recalls a tragic event in 1946 when two Army bombers collided mid-air as they performed for the crowd in Great Falls, Montana during the state fair. Bart and a friend were working stock behind the chutes when debris fell everywhere, killing over twenty horses and at least eight men.
Bart once said about the early days of rodeo, “We didn’t always get paid for winning. Sometimes the winners were determined (unofficially of course) before the show even started. But other times when you did win, the contractor may not pay the prize money out. We were kind of at the mercy of the producer in those early days.” 
It was not all that bad however, as a matter of fact, most of it was good times and Clennon said about getting started in the sport, “Back in those days, you would work for those old ranchers and farmers and make maybe $1 per day. Then those old tightwads would deduct days when the wind blew too hard or it stormed and you couldn’t work. So when I won $35 dollars at my first rodeo, I was hooked.” That was Ash Creek, SD and the year was 1928. He went on to work for several different rodeos and wild west shows (there was not much difference between them at the time) and sometimes got on as many as thirty to forty broncs per week!
In part due to grievances listed above, in 1936, at the Boston Garden rodeo, cowboys who were fed up with the status quo of rodeo production at the time decided to stand up for themselves, demanding better treatment. It was not easy. First off, Colonel W.T. Johnson, the producer, had paid to ship most of the contestants and their horses to Boston by train from out west. He also had sponsored rooms for a good many, making most of the cowboys indebted to him in some manner. When the cowboys threatened to strike if certain demands were not met, he told them they would have to find their own way home if they did - he would do his best to strand them in the east.
Clennon was worried, but the cowboys stuck together and walked out on the first of thirty scheduled performances. Johnson attempted to put the show on without them, using grooms and stable hands to fill in. That night Bart, “...paid $2 for a ticket to the rodeo and sat in the stands next to Howard McCrorey. When someone would come out of the chutes us cowboys would holler. Ol’ Howard was hollering so loud that I hardly had to...he’d beller like a bull!” Things eventually worked out and the cowboys soon thereafter formed the CTA. “We called it the Turtle Association because we were so damned slow to start and finally stick our necks out,” Bart recalls with a smile. He signed up and was given card number 418.
Bart is proud of his involvement with the formation of what was to eventually become the PRCA. With a gnarled finger, he smiles and points to his name on a nicely framed copy of the original strike document and says, “They’re all gone. I am the only one left.”
Bart was known as “a cowboys, cowboy.” Casey Tibbs once told a magazine reporter that Clennon was, "One of the best bronc riders I ever saw, and I can't figure out why he never won the (world championship)." 
Clennon recalls many good times with the prankster Tibbs including riding to a rodeo in California with a group of top cowboys from the day, one of them was Bud Linderman. Tibbs was driving wildly, and when they arrived, Bud jumped out of the back seat and said, “Anyone who rides with that S.O.B is plumb crazy!” Bart and Casey were friends and it was an honor for Bart when he was inducted into the Casey Tibbs Rodeo Center in his native South Dakota in 1995. He was also inducted into the National Cowboy and Western Heritage Museum’s “Rodeo Historical Society” in 1996 and remained a PRCA gold card member to the end (believed to be the oldest ever). 
Clennon quit rodeoing when he was about forty - after receiving his second broken neck. He then went to work as a hard rock miner and was in such amazing shape, he passed for 28, which was the age limit for new hires. He later was in the hardware business and eventually retired from that in his eighties.
Bart would recall the many broncs he rode with an amazing clarity of mind, for a man of any age, much less 101-plus. He did this with friends and rodeo buffs who stop by and listen. However, he once said in an interview that the greatest accomplishment he ever had, “...was when I married Geraldine Parkinson...the family traveled with me all over to rodeos...” Clennon lost his wife in 1982. Then he was fueled on by the many cherished memories of traveling the rodeo circuit and being together with his family.
Men like Bart Clennon changed the game of rodeo forever. His story ended on the night before turning an official 102 years of age. A few days before, he came down sick one last time. The legend died only hours before midnight - he almost made 102.
  1. Jim Olson 2012

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