McGonagill may have been the ropingest cowboy Texas ever produced. He’s for sure
one of the Lone Star State’s least-known characters, though cowboys still tell
stories about him around the campfire or over a cool beverage after a hard day
in the saddle.
Born Sept. 24, 1879 in Lavaca County, Clay came to Midland
County with his family in 1883.
In Clay’s case, the apple had not fallen
far from the tree. His old man, George McGonagill, had a widespread reputation
as a raiser of quarter horses and hell. He also liked to bet on race horses. George
McGonagill also knew how to throw a loop, a skill he passed on to his son.
the early 1900s, Clay had achieved fame earning prize money as a steer roper at
rodeos across the United States as well as in South America and England. When
not rodeoing, Clay supported himself working as a cowboy.
One day around
1910, Clay, then working on a ranch near Lovington, N.M., received an ominous-reading
telegram from his brother Charles in Midland: “Come quick. Old man’s in trouble.”
Reading those six words, Clay’s mind raced like one of his dad’s fast horses.
Had he taken sick? Was someone gunning for him over an unpaid bet?”
being able to think of anything good such a message could mean, Clay saddled his
best horse and picked two other fine mounts. Tying one after the other so they
could follow him at a fast lope, Clay soon had his horses kicking up dust on a
fast ride to Midland.
Riding one horse until it tired, he slung the saddle
on the next and kept riding, a self-contained Pony Express. Arriving at the home
place, Clay burst in to ask brother Charles what had happened to their father.
“He’s not here,” Charles said.
“Don’t tell me he’s dead,” Clay said.
“No, I’ll explain on the way.”
Clay followed his brother to a large tent on the edge of town.
a “hell fire and brimstone” evangelist held forth. Scanning the crowd, the two
boys spotted their old man sitting near the front, listening intently.
Now Clay understood the urgency of the telegram. George McGonagill did not cotton
to those kinds of preachers. With the old man in the crowd, serious trouble indeed
As the boy’s looked on in growing apprehension, the preacher
wrapped up his sermon.
“You’ve heard me,” the evangelist intoned. “How
many of you have also gotten the word of God.”
Old man McGonagill raised
his hand and the boys began looking for the closest exit. They figured they might
have to fight their way out, depending on what their father did next.
Urged by the preacher to stand and tell it loud, McGonagill rose from his wooden
chair. The attendees grew quiet, well-knowing the reputation of the rancher who
stood before the visiting evangelist.
“Preacher,” the old man said, “I’d
rather be a racehorse in hell than a jackass in heaven!”
of this brief-but-potent putdown is interesting: William M. “Bob” Beverley, Midland
County sheriff from 1908 to 1912 told it to rancher-historian-writer J. Evetts
Haley. Though he apparently never wrote it down, Haley in turn told the story
to many. San Marcos book collector and retired Institute of Texan Cultures employee
Al Lowman said the late El Paso typographer Carl Hertzog, a pal of Haley’s, told
him the tale. Dudley Cramer of Oakland, CA, who told the story at a recent gathering
at the Nita Stewart Haley Library in Midland, said Haley told him the story about
20 years ago.
Whether Beverly witnessed the incident at the tent revival
or got it second-hand is not knowable at this point. But Beverly was a good storyteller
in his own right.
In 1941, he self-published an account of his interesting
career as a cowboy and lawman, a yellow-covered booklet called “Hobo of the Rangeland.”
Lowman has a copy of Beverly’s pamphlet that the late book dealer Dudley R. Dobie
bought from the former West Texas sheriff at the Old Trail Riders convention in
“Several of those old timers like Beverly and Jack Potter
published pamphlets on their lives,” Lowman said. “Dobie said Beverly showed up
in San Antonio with one satchel full of clothes and another satchel full of books.
If he could sell enough copies of his pamphlet, he could pay for his trip.”
Unfortunately for posterity, McGonagill didn’t get around to telling his story
in a book.
He died at 33 on Oct. 24, 1921 in Arizona, having stopped his
hay wagon to remove a downed wire blocking the road. Unknown to him, the wire
surged with 11,000 votes of electricity.
More than a half century later,
in 1975, McGonagill gained election to the Rodeo Hall of Fame.