World War I almost killed the rodeo, but three men and two organizations brought it to prominence, not in the West where it came from, but in the big cities in the East. Tex Austin created the Madison Square Garden Rodeo in 1922. It immediately became the main event. Obfuscating Cheyenne Frontier Days, its winners were recognized as the unofficial world champions. In 1924, Austin produced the London Rodeo at Wembley Stadium, universally recognized as the most successful international competition in the history of the rodeo.
However, despite his triumphs, Austin lost control of the Madison Square Garden contest and his influence waned. A Texan, Colonel William T. Johnson, took over the Garden rodeo. He soon began to produce rodeos in other internal arenas in the East, which forever changed the nature of the sport. There was no room for indoor running, and time restrictions limited the number of events that could be included. The rodeos didn’t last all day anymore. However, Johnson was an important figure in the modernization and professionalization of the sport. He also allowed the big rodeo to thrive during the Great Depression.
Before the First World War, cowboys and cowgirls could not make a living from rodeo gains alone. Most were also performers in the West and rodeo exhibitions.
The main names appeared in Vaudeville, others found the jobs they could. But with the advent of producers and the expansion of the Western circuit, the rodeo gradually became a lucrative career for the best competitors, even when the West was diminished and disappeared. During the depths of the Depression, the rodeo media “Hoofs and Horns” estimated the average cowboys’ wages between two and three thousand dollars a year. This placed them well above teachers and close to or above dentists in income. Some stars have won much more.
In 1929, there were two events that divided the rodeo geographically: cowgirl Bonnie McCarroll died as a result of a riding accident in Pendleton, Oregon. His death caused many rodeos to abandon women’s competitions.
That same year, rodeo producers formed the Rodeo Association of America (RAA), in an attempt to bring order to chaotic sport. In large part, as a result of McCarroll’s death, the RAA was organized as an all-male entity. Despite requests, they refused to include any women’s contests. The RAA hoped to standardize rules and events and eliminate unscrupulous promoters who threatened the sport’s integrity. The RAA also decided to determine the “true cowboy champions”, based on a points system derived from the money earned in their sanctioned rodeos. This remains the basic system used today, but the dream of having only one “world champion” would not be realized for decades.
Change in History
If it weren’t for McCarroll’s tragedy, the rest of the rodeo story could have been very different. The producers lined up with Colonel Johnson, who ignored the RAA, and continued to include lucrative cowgirl contests in their rodeos. But it was short lived. Cowboys hated Cel Johnson, whom they felt was distributing unfair money and mostly to themselves, while treating them with disdain.
In 1936, they went on strike at their rodeo at the Boston Garden, demanding a larger portion as a cash prize. The Garden administration finally forced Johnson to give in, and the cowboys formed the Cowboys Turtle Association (CTA), which is now the powerful PRCA. Defeated Johnson, sold his company and retired, never to be seen or heard in the rodeo business again. Like the RAA, CTA did not sanction competitions for women. CTA’s original advice included some of the best cowboys in the business: Hugh Bennett, Everett Bowman, Bob Crosby, Herman Linder and Pete Knight. CTA and RAA maintained a long and contentious relationship, but cowboys finally prevailed.
Meanwhile, in 1931, promoters of the Stamford Cowboys’ Meeting invited all local ranches to send a young woman of at least sixteen to compete in a contest designed “to add femininity to the men’s rodeo.” The women were judged on who had the best horse, the most attractive clothes and the riding, while wearing a shamrock pattern around three barrels. The contest was a huge success and was widely copied.
In 1939, Johnson’s replacement at Madison Square Garden, Everett Colburn, invited a group of Texas sponsoring girls to appear at his rodeo as a publicity stunt. A second group appeared at the 1940 rodeo. It featured Hollywood singing Cowboy Gene Autry, and the women rode while he sang “Home on the Range”. It was a tradition that continued for decades. Soon after, Autry formed a rodeo company and took over not only Madison Square Garden, but Boston Garden and most other big rodeos as well.
One of his first actions was to interrupt the cowgirl ride, which was one of the highlights of the Madison Square Garden Rodeo since its inception in 1922. There was nothing left for the cowgirls, except for the sponsor girls event by invitation only. Because of Gene Autry, real cowgirl contests have disappeared from rodeos across the country.
Sponsor contests are the genesis of barrel racing, which today is the main women’s rodeo event. However, Autry’s influence was much broader and lasting. Its popularity was so great that producers across the country found that they could no longer attract a crowd without a singer to head their rodeos. Even today, rodeo is the only professional sport in which athletes are not the featured artists. Autry is also credited with keeping the sport alive during World War II, thanks to his business acumen and the strongly patriotic themes that permeate his productions.