55th Annual Cal Farley’s Boys Ranch Rodeo
Becky Willems Livingston
Photographs by Dale M. Livingston
The Local Legacies Project
The Library of Congress Bicentennial Program
© 2000 Becky Willems Livingston
Rodeo is a uniquely American tradition that was born in the West out of the exigencies of an industry that has long been important to the Texas panhandle. Each Labor Day weekend since 1944 the folks at Cal Farley’s Boys Ranch have held a rodeo. We choose to document the 1999 rodeo for the Library of Congress Local Legacies project not only because rodeos are rooted in the cowboy/ranching tradition but also because the mission of the Cal Farley’s Boys Ranch organization makes this rodeo special and unique.Former world champion athlete Cal Farley had a strong desire to do something for others. He perceived a need for homes, education, vocational training, and religious instruction for troubled boys deserving of a second chance or, as Cal put it "a shirttail to hang on to." His dream of meeting this need became a reality in 1939 when local rancher, Julian Bivins donated 120 acres and the townsite of historic Old Tascosa, Texas, a one-time booming cattle town turned ghost town when bypassed by the railroad in the late 1880s. In the 60 years since its founding, more than 4,000 children have called Cal Farley’s Boys Ranch home. In 1992 girls were added to those who lived, worked and prepared for their futures at Boys Ranch. Boys Ranch now has its own 12-grade independent school system. Its physical facilities consist of over 60 modern buildings on 10,000 acres of land, including rangeland for cattle and irrigated farmland. The Boys Ranch organization, which also includes Girlstown, U.S.A. near Whiteface, Texas and Cal Farley’s Family Program near Borger, Texas, accepts children in need from across the United States. Residents are accepted solely on the basis of need and no fees are charged. Support comes from donations by private citizens as well as a diverse spectrum of religious, civic, and social organizations. A guiding principle of Cal Farley’s Boys Ranch and Affiliates is to give children dreams and help them to look to the future. The annual rodeo is one way of doing this. Rodeo, according to anthropologist Elizabeth Atwood Lawrence, "is the direct outgrowth of the cattle industry and … serves to reflect and preserve that heritage" (5). During the years when civil war divided the United States, unattended cattle in the Southwest multiplied far beyond the capacity of the land and the people to sustain them. Thus it was that after the war "wild men on half-wild horses driving wild cattle thundered out of the Southwest" (Schnell, 50). Their destination was to the north where wide, rich grasslands were abundant and railheads connected to war-starved markets in the East. It was from these historic trail drives that the cowboy’s vocation was created (Lawrence, 50). The success of the developing cattle industry depended on the men hired to roundup and escort the herds of Longhorn cattle from Texas northward to Kansas or Wyoming and Montana. These cowboys were, of necessity, tough men – civil war veterans searching for peace and space, renegades escaping justice or responsibility, pioneers seeking thrill, adventure, and freedom. Mastering the longhorns and the land that would sustain them demanded aggressive strength and real courage from the cowboys and their horses as well as the cattle themselves. The journey north was difficult. Challenges faced by the cowboys and their herds ranged from extreme summer heat and drought to drenching rains and flooded rivers to freezing weather and blinding blizzards. Wild animals were a constant threat to cowboys, horses and cattle. Noises or sudden movements frequently caused the cowboys’ most feared calamity – the stampede. Bands of renegade Indians and cattle rustlers both posed serious threats to the men and beasts (Lawrence, 53-54). It was often months and sometimes years before the cowboys and cattle owners reached towns of any size and by then their pleasure had been "curtailed to such an extent that, in order to indulge in relaxation, play, and sports, they made their daily duties fill the need" (Westermeirer, 31). Once the cowboys had brought the cattle to the railheads, they had both money in their pockets and time on their hands. In the cow towns they found food and drink, and companionship, and it wasn’t long before their conversations turned to bragging about the feats of individual members of their outfits. The tales grew until the veracity of the claims was challenged. The inevitable arguments were settled by exhibitions of the skills in question (Westermeir, 30-31). After the trail-driving era was supplanted by the open range cattle industry, the seasonal roundup became the opportune time for the competitions "to see who could best stick to the back of a mean horse or rope a swerving steer with the most skill" (Schnell, 50). The contests became known as "rodeos," from the Spanish word rodear, which means to encircle or surround, and had come to denote a roundup. Lawrence notes that
After the open range cattle industry gave way to fenced ranching the cowboy skills of the roundup came to be practiced – and exhibited – for their own sake.Local roping and riding matches developed out of a spirit of competition between cowboys of one outfit or between those of rival outfits. Onlookers cheered for their favorites, and were likely to back their preferences with bets. Soon these small range contests grew to regional proportions, attracted spectators, and were moved to towns, central locations where more people could gather from the outlying areas (80).
In 1869 a bronc-riding contest that grew out of rivalry between neighboring outfits was held at Deer Trail, Colorado. Cheyenne, Wyoming hosted an exhibition of Texas steer riding in 1872. A more highly organized contest for which admission was charged and prizes were awarded was held in 1888 in Prescott, Arizona. A cowboy competition for trophies and money provided entertainment for the Montana Stock Growers’ Association meeting in Miles City, Montana in 1891 (Lawrence, 80-81). The idea caught on; today some 40 million spectators pay to attend rodeos. Although there now are men and women whose skills at riding and roping have been developed nearly exclusively for the sport of rodeo, the Professional Rodeo Cowboys Association (PRCA) sanctions but a fraction of the more than 3000 rodeos held annually in the United States. Many communities and organizations throughout the Western states sponsor their own rodeos each year. There are 4-H, youth, and old-timers’ rodeos, all-girl, all-Indian, high school and college rodeos, and countless others (Lawrence, 3-4, Carson, 72). Among these, the Cal Farley’s Boys Ranch Rodeo stands out.In 1944 when boys at the ranch asked Cal Farley if they could have a rodeo, Farley saw the idea as an opportunity for the kids to develop and exhibit new skills. He not only gave his approval, but also invited neighbors from surrounding communities to watch and support the children. Folks seemed to like the idea. As the rodeo expanded over the years to include residents and staff kids from Girlstown, U.S.A. and Cal Farley’s Family Program, as well as Boys Ranch, the number of fans cheering for the children grew from 100 in 1944 to nearly 10,000 from all across the United States, and even Japan, in 1999. A festive atmosphere prevailed on the Boys Ranch campus during the two days of the 55th annual rodeo. Flags for each of the United States lined the entrance. Tents and horse trailers dotted the grounds where alumni, family members, riding clubs and participants from Girlstown and Cal Farley’s Family Program had set up temporary camps. Strains of country music sung by Britt Hammond, a 1977 graduate of Boys Ranch, mixed with the aroma of Texas barbecue to tantalize the senses of visitors as they drove and walked across the campus. Everyone at Boy Ranch pitched in to make the rodeo possible. Kids manned the booths where barbecue dinners, cokes, and popcorn are sold. The high school band provided pre-rodeo music. Still others cleaned the grounds before and after the rodeo. The rodeo opened with the Boys Ranch Honor Patrol leading a serpentine parade of riding clubs from around the Texas panhandle and as far away as Lubbock, Texas. Following an invocation and the national anthem, performed by the Boys Ranch Variety Glee accompanied by the high school band, the arena was cleared for a Boys Ranch rodeo tradition. When the announcer called "Let the colors fly" the two carriers of the American and Texas flags rode in opposite directions around the arena at what appeared to be break-neck speed so that the flags did indeed fly. Although rodeo practice is held twice weekly to get the kids prepared for the rodeo, there were more than a few jitters and even some tears as the youngsters climb on their animals on rodeo day. Prayer and words of encouragement from adult assistants and from other participants help. According to senior bull and bareback bronc rider, Travis Richardson, so does eating a hot pepper! The 1999 Cal Farley’s Boys Ranch Rodeo included a variety of traditional and non-traditional riding events, ranging from mutton busting and calf riding for boys and girls aged seven to nine to pole bending and barrel racing for girls, and steer and bareback bronc riding for the older boys. The youngest participants "raced" stick horses, with names like Firewood, Twinky, and Jethro, around barrels. In a particularly delightful event a group of children aged 12 and under from Boys Ranch, Cal Farley’s Family Program, and Girlstown, U.S.A. chased a group of calves around the arena attempting to remove ribbons from their tails. The first two to do so were rewarded with gift certificates from the Boys Ranch country store. Other prizes included the traditional belt buckles, gift certificates from the Boys Ranch Alumni Association, and saddles (this year donated by Texas Congressman Larry Combest and his wife, Sharon, in memory of their daughter; and Bobby Edmond of Stratford, Texas) for the All-Around Cowgirl and Senior All-Around Cowboy. A special "Hard Luck Cowboy" award was presented to a cowboy who gave his all during rodeo practice but was unable to participate in the Labor Day weekend rodeo. The 1999 winner suffered a punctured lung during the summer and spent a month in the hospital. Although he was still recuperating and could not compete, he was in the arena working the chute gates for the riders. It didn’t seem to matter to these young cowboys and cowgirls, however, that not every participant in the rodeo won a gift certificate, buckle, saddle, or even a victory lap around the arena. All of those interviewed, from the youngest to the oldest, said they participated for the excitement, challenge, and sheer fun of it. That spirit permeates the Boys Ranch rodeo. Throughout the rodeo a group of daring "bullfighters," also known as clowns, entertained the audience with jokes and stunts. Their more important job, however, was to help protect the riders once they were off the animals. These young bullfighters take the risks involved, two of them declared, not only for the fun and excitement they get out of it, but also in hopes of bringing laughter and inspiration to others. Great pride is taken in participation in the rodeo. Girlstown resident, Robin Brown, a second year barrel racer and pole bender, commented that riding a "thinking animal" makes rodeo more challenging than the "extreme" sports and allows the competitor to feel "other emotions besides power." The place winners in the senior calves event, who all happened to be girls, suggested that beating the boys added to the fun! But more importantly, they maintained that doing hard things, like the rodeo, helps the participants feel good about themselves and that, in turn, helps them get through life’s other hard things. These comments exemplify the heart shown at the Boys Ranch rodeo. Youngsters who hit the ground almost as soon as the chute gate opened, hopped up, brushed themselves off, and ran from the arena smiling. They knew they had done something that few would ever try. Rodeo, in many respects has become a highly competitive, commercialized sport, far removed from its cultural roots. However, the Cal Farley’s Boys Ranch rodeo hearkens back to the fun but still purposeful competitions of those first cowboys who took pride and pleasure from the skills they developed in their daily work. The point is, as Genie Farley Harriman, Cal Farley’s daughter, so eloquently puts it, is to "give children a way to shine." And shine is exactly what every participant in the Cal Farley’s Boys Ranch rodeo does.
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Westermeir, Clifford P. Man, Beast, Dust: The Story of Rodeo. n.p., 1948.