They Rode That Horse Until His Head Came Up

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Cast your mind back to 1884. That's the first year a bunch of cowboys who had spent the summer brushing cattle out of all the cracks and crevices of the Rim Country started bragging and racing and strapping saddles onto irritated bulls.

That's the first year they held a rodeo in Payson, which was then just a flat, grassy basin where cowboys from a great scattering of ranches gathered up their cattle -- which had been grazing wild all over the countryside.

Payson's population stood at maybe 42, ranch families living in a remote place the world little noted, Jayne Peace and Jinx Pyle wrote in their book Rodeo 101 on which we are relying on for this account of early rodeo days.

The long, brutal war of attrition with the Apaches was in its final stages. Geronimo was about to stage his final breakout from the nearby Apache Reservation, to run wild for two more years with a quarter of the U.S. Army on his trail.

The wounds of the Civil War were still fresh, Jesse James was but recently laid in his grave, the first commercial electric lights were burning in New York's Central Station, Congress had just banned the entry of Chinese laborers, John D. Rockefeller had just created the avaricious monopoly of Standard Oil, Mark Twain had just published Huckleberry Finn. In New York, they were laying the foundations for the Statue of Liberty, Alabama passed a law making it illegal to chain up black and white convicts in the same cell, the first telephone connected Chicago and New York, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that American Indians were legally aliens and dependents, and Samuel Gompers captured the Dawinist flavor of the industrial revolution when he said of his workers: "I regard my employees as I do a machine, to be used to my advantage, and when they are old and of no further use, I cast them into the street."

But in Payson where ranch families had to get along on their wits and cows, life remained simple, decent, hard. Those cowhands rode the rough country, surviving the life that in the century since has so gripped the public imagination. Zane Grey, who did as much as anyone to create the enduring epic of the west in the public imagination, would set his novels in that rough country.

Cowboys being cowboys, they naturally started trying to figure out who was the best rider, roper, steer wrestler and all around tough case. So that first rodeo in the grassy sprawl of the Rim Country roundup camp then called Green Valley was the natural and inevitable expression of a whole way of life.

Arizona Charlie Meadows, who toured with the Wild West Show, and John Collins Chilson got the whole thing organized and turned it into an annual event, shortly after Charlie's father and brother were killed in an Indian attack on the family ranch on the East Verde.

In those early Payson rodeos, participants raced and roped and staged silver dollar pitches, cock fights, greased pig contests, sack races and foot races up and down the wide, dirt course of Main Street. One early event involved a mostly buried chicken and rider dashing past at a gallop trying to grab the chicken's head and yank it from the ground. Riders rode those broncs until their heads came up. For a while there, they even saddled those big, loose-skinned bulls -- although the spectator's probably enjoyed the spectacle of saddling the beasts as much as the ride itself.

Epic horsemen like George Felton, delighted onlookers. Felton rode broncos with a silver dollar on the stirrup beneath the toe of his boot -- and he had a standing $1,000 bet that the dollar would still be there when that bronc had bucked itself into exhaustion.

The world has made a 124 trips around the sun since then.

Everything has changed. Except bulls and horses and the grit it takes to climb up there and stick for the full eight seconds.

We cling to rodeo because it connects us to ourselves -- the being and becoming.

And maybe rodeo is no longer the natural expression of the life we live -- in our shopkeeper jobs and our climate controlled second homes and our shopping trips to the Valley. But still, we're Americans. And that must mean we have a little cowboy in us somewhere.

So we hope you'll saunter on down to the rodeo at some point this weekend. Lots of folks have put their heart and soul into it -- and lots of great riders have spent their lives learning to do stuff you can't hardly believe. The circle remains unbroken, between all of us and those tough cowboys who paid their toll in blood and sweat for passing this way -- and then left it all to us.

They did their bit -- rode that horse til his head came up. Our turn now. So pull on your boots.

The rodeo's back.

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