by promoters who must have studied advertising under P. T. Barnum,
early Hill Country
rodeos, were "as thrilling as warfare and dangerous as aviation."
They were part riding, part roping, part Wild West Show and part vaudeville.
They featured "daredevil cowboys performing daring stunts." Best of
all they were, as one old cowboy observed, "as much fun as turning
loose a basketful of mice at a ladies sewing circle."
Although small Wild West Shows came through the Hill
Country as early as 1909, Fredericksburg's
first rodeo, no pun intended, may have taken place in 1921. For 3
afternoons that February, fans packed the stands at the old fairgrounds
(today the HEB parking lot) to watch bronco busting, steer riding,
bulldogging, goat roping, wild mule riding and "the most sensational
act known to the cowboy world - the death defying leap from the back
of a running horse to a wild Mexican steer." The star of the show
was Kid Eagan, a trick roper from Wyoming, who could, they
say, rope 4 horses at one time.
In August 1921 Kerrville
hosted a Wild West Fair. A part of the entertainment was a "rodeo
exhibition by professionals each day at the Fair Grounds." Performed
in the infield of the horse track between races, the show featured
"steer riding, bronc busting, bulldogging, mule riding and "many other
amazing stunts." Advertisements promised "Bad horses. Good riders.
Annual Rodeo ad
Courtesy Fredericksburg Standard
| The best known
Hill Country rodeo
in the early years was the Wild West Rodeo and Roundup held at the
Hardin PL Ranch 21 miles northwest of Fredericksburg
near Willow City. Clint Hardin produced
the Hardin Rodeo every year from 1931 until the start of WWII.
Events at the Hardin Ranch Rodeo included bronc riding, bull riding.
bulldogging, calf roping, mule riding, hog roping, wild cow milking,
goat roping and double mugging (an event where one cowboy ropes a
steer and another cowboy on foot attempts to bulldog the steer to
An advertisement in the Fredericksburg Standard described the
Hardin Rodeo cattle as "the wildest brahma type, especially imported
for the occasion." For the goat roping, the producer used carefully
selected black goats as "wiry as a keg of eels."
Those early rodeos were great shows featuring legendary performers
and a variety of acts. Bob Paulson, "The Yodeling Cowboy,"
played his guitar and sang to entertain fans in the lull between events
at the Hardin Rodeo, but the most popular act in Willow
City was "Friday" Ellis the rodeo clown and his mule of
a thousand tricks. The mule would sneak up behind Friday and pull
down his pants. When Friday sat a rocking chair, the mule sat in his
Toots Mansfield from Bandera
won the calf roping and the double mugging events at the Hardin Ranch
Rodeo in 1935. Toots was a 6 time World Champion calf roper and a
member of the Pro Rodeo Hall of Fame.
The promoter of both the Fredericksburg
and the Kerrville
rodeos in 1921 was H. A. "Hackberry Slim" Johnson. Hackberry Slim,
who performed at both rodeos as well, was a rodeo legend. He claimed
to have busted his first bronc at age 5. He lost a leg in 1906 when
a horse fell on him while working cattle at the XIT
Ranch, so he carved himself a new one from the limb of a hackberry
tree. He billed himself as the only one-legged bronc rider and bulldogger
in the world. Next to rodeo, his enjoyed stomping rattlesnakes with
his wooden leg.
It may interest you to know that Hackberry Slim, a member of the Texas
Cowboy Hall of Fame, died just as he wanted - with his boots on. At
age 91 he had a small part in the Willie Nelson film Honeysuckle
Rose. When filming was over, Willie and his band performed at
a party for the cast and crew. The band dedicated a song to Hackberry
Slim. As the crowd applauded, the old cowboy stood up, danced with
a young lady, sat back down, put his head on the table and died.
"Hardin Rodeo is Grand Success," Fredericksburg Standard, August
"Hardin Rodeo To Be Repeated On October 30," Fredericksburg Standard,
October 21, 1932.
"Reuben's Half Acre," The Austin American, June 1, 1950.
"Thrilling Rodeo And Roundup At Hardin's Ranch," Fredericksburg
Standard, August 5, 1932.
The story of the death of Hackberry Slim Johnson comes from a bulletin
from Texas Governor Greg Abbott's office entitled "Disability History
Fact," October 31, 2013.