Seriously, first in the world? “Rodeo” is a word with undoubted Spanish roots so what are the odds that no Moorish riders of old Spain — let alone no bunch of Spanish conquistadors, colonial settlers or Mexican vaqueros of the New World — had themselves a rowdy equestrian competition before July 4, 1869?
It was the first thought that struck me as I drove by Deer Trail one day and saw that faded sign outside the small arena fronting I-70 East, about 55 miles east of Denver. The date seemed like a “coulda-maybe” for at least being first rodeo in the United States. I had to find out.
Turns out, there are other towns of the Old West that make the same claim – from Pecos, Texas to Prescott, Arizona and more. Deer Trail’s claim to have held one on July 4, 1869, if true, would leave the rest in the dust. But despite the insistence of some of Deer Trail’s townsfolk, there is only an acknowledgment of the claim by Guinness World Records (last book mention was in 1993), according to Guinness’ own media relations department. As is the case with the National Rodeo Association in Colorado Springs. I checked.
Exactly what Deer Trail rests this claim on is an old newspaper story that few living people have probably ever seen for themselves. It was published on July 8, 1899 in a weekly Denver newspaper called Field and Farm, subtitled A Western Journal of Progressive Agriculture, owned and edited by a gent named Lucius “Lute” Merle Wilcox.
Copies of this long-defunct publication are rare, but a kind librarian who wished not to be named at the Denver Public Library’s Western History Genealogy Department sent me a scan of the issue’s relevant pages. The paper has darkened with age, which makes reproduction of the column here difficult, although if you click on the photo you can see a bigger version of the first part. You can get closer access to the real thing via microfiche at the library.
The story, under the double-column heading of “Frontier Sketches,” has no byline – traditional practice when a piece is written by the editor. Next to a cartoon of a cowboy on a bucking horse, the text begins:
The boys had gathered in Deer Trail thirty years ago the fourth of this month and decided on a little celebration in the way of a bronco-busting contest.
It goes on from there to describe how a handful of young men competed on “outlawed” horses for the prize of a suit of clothes. It’s an impressively detailed narrative, especially considering the many years since the event took place. Every contestant — man and horse – is identified, and practically every move from each man’s mount onto his horse to the finish is noted.
“Will Goff of the Bijou,” despite resorting to spurs, gave an unexciting performance on a “quiet looking bay pony.” “Drury Grogan,” aka “the pride of the Arickaree,” took on “a little sorrel of the Camp Stool brand” with more crowd-pleasing flair. Finally, an “Englishman” named “Emilnie Gardenshire” of “the Milliron”, who called for “the worst animal in the pen” got it in the form of “…a bay, from the Hashknife ranch, known throughout the section as the Montana Blizzard.”
The narrative ends thus:
The Englishman rode with hands free and kept plying his whip constantly. There was a frightful mixup of cowboy and horse, but Gardenshire refused to be unseated. For fifteen minutes, the bay bucked, pawed, and jumped from side to side, then, amid cheers, the mighty Blizzard succumbed, and Gardenshire round him around the circle at a gentle gallop. It was a magnificent piece of horsemanship, and the suit of clothes, together with the title ‘Champion Bronco Buster of the Plains,’ went to the lad from the Milliron ranch.
A Brit turned cowboy, especially one who turned out to be a real tootin’-tootin’ bronco buster, isn’t exactly common in Western history. One would think he’d have shown up in cowboy and rodeo lore elsewhere. And given that “Emilnie” appears nowhere else on the planet as a first name, I knew that had to be a typo.
A Google search for this mysterious foreign phenom came up with “Emiline Gardenhire,” an actual cowboy who, given his regular appearances, was one of early rodeo‘s closest things to a professional contestant. His real name was Emory Maryland Gardenhire.
“E.M.” inevitably got saddled with the once-popular feminine moniker “Emiline” early in life and was man enough to run with it anyway. As “Emiline Gardenhire” he wrote an article about a former employer, Texas cattle rancher John P. Daggett, for the December 1929 edition of Frontier Times Magazine. (Gardenhire is seen here on the left, sketched for The Galveston Daily News in July 1896, about more below.)
A search of Census records found on Ancestry.com unearthed more clues about Gardenhire. He was born in 1872 in Brushy Creek, Texas, which should have meant he couldn’t have been “Emilnie Gardenshire,” the British cowboy from the Milliron ranch who won the 1869 bronco-riding contest. But there are other similarities too numerous for coincidence.
One of the “outfits” Gardenhire worked for was the Mill Iron Ranch, moved to Hall County, Texas in 1888 by the Continental Land & Cattle Company. The Mill Iron was so large it took up parts of several counties, and in 1896 its owners added the 152,320-acre Rocking Chair Ranch. The Rocking Chair’s previous owners were British investors; the principals were actual members of UK nobility, according to the Handbook of Texas Online (http://www.tshaonline.org/handbook/online/articles/apr01).
This is the likely origin of the unlikely British bronco buster Emilnie Gardenshire.
Until 1894, the Continental Land & Cattle Company saved money by having its stock driven by hoof to Montana instead of shipping the cattle via railroad. That makes it possible for Emiline Gardenhire to have been one of the Mill Iron’s drovers who came through Colorado.
But, obviously, not in 1869. Clearly, Field and Farm had gotten some facts mixed up about the Champion Bronco-Buster of the Plains, which now also made the claimed date of the “first rodeo” at Deer Trail problematic.
How did Denver publisher/editor Lute Wilcox come up with a story in 1899 set 30 years earlier, in which a cowboy who hadn’t been born yet won the “first rodeo”?
Newspaper history in the old West is full of printed hoaxes and hijinks got up by even well-respected publications, and Wilcox was no stranger to that tradition.
In a Denver Post interview published April 21, 1907 (a copy of the photo that accompanied the piece is reproduced here), Wilcox claimed he came to Colorado in 1878. He started out as a farmer, at some point got into “newspapering,” and became the editor of the Trinidad News in southern Colorado before he moved to Las Vegas, Nevada. He was city editor of The Las Vegas Daily Optic in 1881 when Lincoln County Sheriff Pat Garrett gunned down Billy the Kid at Fort Sumner.
According to a fine article by Robert J. Stahl, published by True West magazine on June 10, 2013 (“The Mysterious Journey of Billy the Kid’s Trigger Finger, online at http://www.truewestmagazine.com), Wilcox’s boss, Russell A. Kistler, claimed that someone sent him the dead Kid’s index finger preserved as a souvenir. As a follow-up, Wilcox apparently concocted a sorrowing sweetheart of Billy’s who sent a letter to the editor with a request for the pickled digit.
In the Optic issue dated Sept. 19, 1881, Wilcox claimed he broke the news to her that the finger had been sold for $150 cash and offered to see if the paper could come up with some other relic.
Field and Farm was started in Denver in 1886. By 1907, according to the Post interview, the paper had 30,000 subscribers — probably helped by the fact that Wilcox bought out rivals at every opportunity and “retarded their publication until their subscribers were faithfully his.”
Wilcox was also a regular contributor to magazines back East and wrote several agriculture-related books, some translated into foreign languages, before his eyesight began to fail. By 1901, he was blind and did most of his writing by dictation to a stenographer. Etta, his wife and assistant, had to do his reading for him, but they continued to run Field and Farm successfully until 1920.
All of this made Wilcox an unlikely candidate for being the first-person witness of his 1869-dated rodeo reminisces, something he didn’t claim to be. But it still didn’t answer the question of where he got the story in the first place.
If I had been more familiar with the origins of Texas rodeo I might have figured it out sooner. All was finally revealed when The Portal to Texas History (http://texashistory.unt.edu) arrived on the Internet with its trove of archived newspapers.
Emiline Gardenhire is mentioned at least briefly in a number of Texas newspapers that are reproduced page by page on the site. But it’s the report of a “Texas cowboy reunion” published by The Galveston Daily News on Tuesday, July 28, 1896, that hits the homer.
Parts of it are almost word-for-word identical to the story of the “first rodeo” at Deer Trail reminisced about in Field and Farm three years later.
The identity of the Galveston “special correspondent” was not mentioned even when the story appeared later in several other newspapers. Nor was an exact date for the event given. The article opened with a “rolling, jerky train” ride to Seymour, Texas, and referred to the later happenings of “Wednesday night” and “Thursday morning” there, which implies that they occurred on July 22 and 23, the previous week to publication in Galveston.
The Galveston Daily News gave the event big coverage, almost a whole inside page taken up with text and drawings (shown on the right, from The Portal to Texas History web site). Under the headline “Texas Cowboy Reunion” and several tiers of ballyhoo in the form of subheads, the article led with:
Seymour has had its first cowboys’ reunion, and as claimed by the originators, the first ever held in the United States, which practically means the first ever held at all.
There were fireworks, free barbecue, and a big crowd. Despite the air “laden with the shrill cowboy yells,” it was an orderly event with “Not an arrest made or a disturbance reported.” On Thursday morning the roping and riding contests took place.
“Will Goff of Throckmorton county” was the first to ride. He was given a “quiet looking bay pony” that refused to pitch. “Drury Grogan of Fort Griffin, Shackelford county” rode a “skittish little sorrel of the Heart L brand” and gave a more crowd-pleasing performance.
Finally, “Emiline Gardenhire of the Tip ranch in Archer County” selected “what was said to be the worse horse in the pen,” a “blood-bay from the Hashknife ranch, and known as the Montana Blizzard.” The review of his ride went thus:
He took off his hat and slapped the ‘Blizzard’ over the head and for a few minutes there was the wildest mixup of pitching horse and cowboy imaginable. Gardenhire rode with his hands free and plied his whip over the horse’s hips and shoulders. ‘Blizzard’ bucked and pawed and jumped from side to side, but Gardenhire never moved out of his saddle and seemed to maintain his seat with perfect ease. After about fifteen minutes mingled bucking, side jumping and running, ‘Blizzard’ succumbed and Gardenhire galloped around the circle swinging his hat with everybody in the crowd cheering him.
And there it is, folks. Lute Wilcox “borrowed” the story of a Texas town’s first rodeo for Field and Farm three years later. Whether he did it as a prank or simply to fill a hole in his “Frontier Sketches” column with a fun story is unknown.
What can be proven is that he altered the date to place the event 30 years earlier and tweaked some of the language and only a few facts of the original news story. The repercussions have been greater than he probably imagined they would be when he relocated the setting to a place that might not have been on the map in 1869.
According to “Treasured Memories: Deer Trail Area,” a book published for the Deer Trail Pioneer Historical Society in 1990, there is little known about the town’s earliest beginnings until Wilcox’s rodeo story fixed the date for its start as a permanent gathering site. The railroad didn’t arrive in the area until 1870, and the official laying out of the town site didn’t happen until 1875.
There were also “no records of any Fair or rodeo held until 1913.” However, the Second Annual Board of Trade Fair, Race-Meet and Rodeo held that year implies there was a First held the year before. Without the confirmation of a 1869 event, dates for both the town’s beginnings and its first official rodeo will have to be reconsidered.
Wilcox’s colorful journalism aside, he was an expert on farm irrigation, vice president of the Denver Press Club, and later president of the Society of the United Workers for the Blind of Colorado. He died at the age of 90 on Jan. 17, 1947.
Emory Maryland “Emiline” Gardenhire became a rancher and died at age 84 on Sept. 22, 1956 in Wichita Falls, Texas.
The Seymour Rodeo & Reunion still takes places in Baylor County, Texas every year.
Deer Trail (www.deertrailcolorado.com), is a neat little town well worth getting off the interstate to investigate (just don’t miss the turnoff!). And the rodeo it’s been putting on for decades is still a dandy. Yep, been there, done that, ate the nachos.
Starts off with a parade on the street alongside the railroad tracks and finishes with what may well be a truly unique event in all of rodeo everywhere — “cattle dressage,” wherein agile contestants vie to see who can get a gi-normous pair of women’s underpants on a young bovine.
What it lacks in bling (except for the large bejeweled crosses on the bosoms of lady spectators), it more than makes up for in the feeling of a genuine, old-time, community-supported, howdy-stranger tradition of the old West.
Like the story? Please remember to credit Charmaine Ortega Getz and Weird Colorado.net when you mention it. Gracias!
Right, a glorious sky over Deer Trail’s rodeo. Click on it for a better view.