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KO Rodeo Ground's Oral Zumwalt - by Lee Hames - Part 1 - 'Rodeo In the Raw'

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Lee Hames and Oral Zumwalt - ‘ Part 1’ - Rodeo In the Raw


A story flush with several of Montana’s colorful cowboys can be found in a book written by H. L. (Lee) Hames, titled Rodeo – The Suicide Trail, published in 1999 by Pictorial Histories Publishing Company in Missoula. The Suicide Trail refers to the imaginary rodeo circuit described by the legendary Montana cowboy, Oral Zumwalt, who became one of Hames’s mentors.

The Suicide Trail included Madison Square Garden, Boston Garden, the Cow Palace in San Francisco, Denver Stock Show, Fort Worth Stock Show, Cheyenne Frontier Days, Pendleton Roundup, and Calgary Stampede.

Hames’s book focuses on his early Montana days, beginning in the 1920’s, growing up around horses, cattle, and cowboys. It was a special time in Montana’s history.

Raised on Burnt Fork Creek in the Bitterroot in a ranching family, Hames learned early on that he wanted to follow the cowboy life. “I was born and raised to be a cowboy.” He didn’t have to travel far to realize what that life was like. His father, uncles and cousins were long time cowhands even as they eked out a living in the Bitterroot valley, raising cattle and horses. It was no surprise that Lee would follow their path when given the chance.

The first rodeo he saw was sponsored by a man named Ora Dishman at a place called The Riverview Pavilion “on the eight-mile flat east of Florence, Montana.” He was five years old and this was in the early 1920’s when organized Montana rodeos were not a common thing.

Hames’s father traveled to this rodeo with Walt Peery, who drove 15 miles in a dusty Model T Ford pickup from Stevensville. They came to ride bucking horses while young Hames and his brothers watched from the blanket covered box in the back of Peery’s pickup. They were treated to rodeo in the raw.

“The cows being used were wild cows right off the range. A wild cow jumped the arena fence and landed on top of woman sitting in the front seat of an open-topped car. The woman was trampled and kicked before the cow made its escape. The woman was taken to the Stevensville hospital where the doctor said she did not have any serious injuries.”

Further hazards of rodeo quickly became evident to the young Hames when his father drew one of Dishman’s “well-known” bucking horses named ‘Woodtick’, who spelled the demise of his father’s rodeo career when he was hurt when promptly bucked off.

A highlight of this rodeo featured one of the valley’s best riders, Jim Haddix, who won the saddle bronc event and left a lasting impression on Lee Hames. Haddix would later invite Lee along on his first horse ‘roundup’ in the hills above Burnt Fork, east of Corvallis, Montana and it helped set the stage for the rest Lee Hames’s young life.

Haddix arrived at their ranch one morning and asked if Lee wanted to accompany him while rounding up loose horses that were known to be in the hills above Corvallis. Lee jumped at the chance, “I had a sorrel mare that could run like a scared coyote and there was nothing in this world that I would rather do than chase horses.”

When Haddix’s mount played out at the top of a ridge, they caught a ‘big roan gelding’ and broke it to ride - on the spot. “The roan started running and bucking with Jim slapping him with his jacket and yelling as loud as he could.” Lee was hooked.

Wild horses from the east Bitterroot Valley later became famous throughout the country and would include the likes of the famous bucking horse ‘Trails End’, who is enshrined in the National Rodeo Hall of Fame. (More on Trails End later.)

Hames went on to witness the transition of rodeo from its infancy, where there were only a couple of events, to what would become a highly sophisticated affair with thousands of dollars at stake. Along the way he met and befriended a host of famous personalities of the era. Like many significant life events, it started locally.

Hames’s uncle, Jasper Hames, Walt Peery and Clyde Long produced one of the first real rodeos that Lee ever saw at the annual Creamery Picnic in Stevensville, Mt., again in the early 1920’s. The Hames family provided some of the cows, calves, and horses used in this rodeo. In addition to the local cowboys, it featured Powder River Jack and Kitty Lee, the famous duo who sang and performed for the crowd. Some famous cowboys were in attendance, including Bob Askin and Paddy Ryan. Even Jackson Sundown was there. (Sundown was immortalized in the Ken Kesey novel, The Last Go 'Round.)

“Jackson Sundown, the famous Nez Perce bucking horse rider who won the bronc riding at Pendleton in 1916, came to the rodeo as a spectator. He was married to a Flathead Indian woman and was living at Ronan. Even though he was not riding, he wore his famous wooly chaps with the dyed orange spots down the legs, as he walked around the rodeo grounds.”

One of the first rodeos Hames rode in was in the 1930’s at an arena in Lolo, Montana, near the dancehall called ‘Rockaway’. This rodeo featured Bob Rooker and Ethyl Stokes, trick riders who performed all over the west. Ethyl Stokes later went by the name Trixie McCormick and settled at Ovando, Montana.

After working for “mount money”, Hames visited promoter Rooker’s office only to learn that he had left for “parts unknown.” It was his first introduction to the hard knocks of another side of rodeo life. Yet, it didn’t stop him.

Not long afterward, Walter Peery invited the young Hames to travel with him to a rodeo in Deer Lodge, Montana. Here, Hames first met Oral Zumwalt.

Arriving in Peery’s truck, they set up camp at the Deer Lodge rodeo grounds. Shortly, a fancy car appeared, pulling what Hames described as a “box-on-wheels,” that contained two “good looking” horses, accompanied by two tough cowboys. The driver, Booger Red Allen, called it a “horse trailer,” - apparently one of the first of its kind. Later, Hames couldn’t even lift the trailer’s heavy tailgate-gangplank off the ground.

“This was the first horse trailer I had ever seen and also my introduction to Oral Zumwalt and Booger Red Allen.”

When these travelers decided to camp together, Hames soon found that Zumwalt and Booger Red Allen had grand plans and they invited him along for the adventure. Hames was more than willing, but first, Zumwalt’s stock presented him with a challenge to show his stuff.

“Zoomie owned the horses and he told us that the Bay horse was used for calf roping and bulldogging while the little white horse was used for hazing during bulldogging. He said that the little white horse was extremely fast and was an excellent hazing horse with one exception. Ever so often the white horse was inclined to buck unless he had been ridden for a couple of hours before each performance. Zoomie offered to pay me to ride the white horse for him as he and Red were going to be busy working as chute bosses and pick-up men as well as performing and they did not have time to ride the white horse themselves. I saddled the white horse and rode him an hour or so that evening and the horse never offered to buck.”

Here, Hames related an odd incident that occurred at their camp, demonstrating the generosity that these rough men were capable of. It helps define what life in early Montana was really like.

“While Zoomie, Red, Walt and I were sitting around the campfire a tall, slim fellow in a cheap-looking dress suit walked into our camp. He introduced himself as Eddie Linbloom. He told us that he had just been released from prison [Deer Lodge is site of the State penitentiary] with a suit of clothes, a pair of flat-heeled shoes and $10. He said that he had been in prison for horse stealing. He also told us that he was a good bronc rider and would like to enter the saddle bronc riding but did not have enough money for entry fees. He camped with us that night and the next morning we chipped in to pay his entry fee. Walt loaned him a pair of boots and spurs, Zoomie had an extra pair of chaps and Red loaned him some Levis and a shirt. We fixed up a bedroll for him so he camped with us until the rodeo was over.”

Linbloom then placed in the saddle bronc event at this rodeo. Peery also later assisted Linbloom in finding a job at the U. S. Forest Service Remount station at 9 mile, west of Missoula. Linbloom may have recognized a kinship with these men that might never have occurred anywhere else. To his credit, sensing a spirit of forgiveness, and with a desire to move on with life, he was lucky when these men helped him get a second chance.

The mechanics of this rodeo were different from today. Cowboys often mounted a bronc only after it was blindfolded and snubbed by the ears before it could even be saddled. “Cowboys rode until they were bucked off [not timed] or the horse quit bucking. Judging was on the wildest ride on a tough horse.”

At this rodeo Zumwalt came booming to life from Hames’s description of him. His voice rivaled that of the rodeo announcer as he bossed the cowboys and he had the confident swagger of a man on a mission. Not even out of high school, Hames was astonished. From then on Zumwalt would be known as ‘Zoomie’.

“As I arrived at the arena I could hear the announcer telling the crowd about the coming events and I could also hear Zoomie down at the chutes . . .

‘“Don’t pull that flank rope too tight, these are green horses, if you cut them in half they won’t buck. All they will do is kick high or run off and lay down . . . Get those kids off the back of the chutes before one of them gets hurt. Tell those people at the end of the arena they better get off the arena fence, some bronc will run into it and pile the whole bunch of them into the ground . . . Who the hell has some snooze? I must have lost my can during grand entry. Cowboys, get your belly ropes on your horses. Help that man in chute one to get mounted . . . Better put a neck rope on the horse in chute two . . . Chute men, get ready to turn your horses out. Somebody give me a chew of snooze . . . .’”

“A cowboy tossed a can of Copenhagen towards Zoomie who stood up in his stirrups, deftly catching the can, and grinning, relaxed in the saddle. Zoomie doubled up his fist, thumped the bottom of the can of snooze, removed the lid and with his forefinger scooped out a big wad of snooze and placed it in his lower lip. After replacing the lid, he put the can in his shirt pocket as he rode into the center of the arena to wait for the bareback bronc riding to begin.”

Hames earned his first money at this rodeo – bareback bronc riding for mount money and wild cow riding for 4 dollars.

Following this rodeo Zumwalt offered Hames the chance to rodeo in earnest.

“He asked me if I would be interested in traveling with him and Red for the rest of the summer.

“‘We will teach you how to haze for us on the little white horse in the bulldogging as you seem to be the only one he doesn’t buck with. If you want to travel with us, we will pay all expenses on the road and give you a small part of our winnings. If you want to enter any of the other events that will be up to you. We will help you to get mounted but you will have to pay your own entry fees. There is a rodeo in Havre in about 10 days but we are going to go to Winnett for a few days where a friend of ours has a roping arena and some Mexican steers. We need some roping and dogging practice and we can be teaching you how to haze for us at the same time.’”

This was an opportunity that many young men could only dream about and Hames jumped at the chance.

“By next morning I had decided to go with them, so after breakfast Zoomie and I started to load the horses. The horses were scared to death of the trailer. They would balk, rear up and paw the air. After much pushing, pulling, dragging and turning the air blue with profanity, they were finally in the trailer and we left for Winnnett.”

They were on their way to a ranch that belonged to an old friend known as Mack. His place came complete with an arena, Mexican steers, chutes and pens that resembled arenas of the time. Here, Hames learned the art of hazing steers for rodeo events.

“The hazer’s job was to keep the steer running straight and to prevent the steer from turning away from the dogger. A good hazer was very important in positioning a steer for the dogger. Mack was an old experienced, skillful hazer that really showed me how hazing should be done. I studied every move that Mack made as he positioned the steers for Zoomie and Red.”

“For the next few days Zoomie, Red and Mack practiced roping and dogging while I hazed for all of them on Breaky (the little white horse). Day by day Breaky got so much better that by the time we were ready to leave for Havre he was acting as though hazing was all he had ever done. Mack decided he would not go with us, so early one morning we loaded Streak and Breaky and started for Havre.”

After arriving at Havre, they set about locating the rodeo office at Havre’s Mint Bar. It wasn’t hard to find and soon they walked in and introduced themselves.

“We three cowboys walked through the swinging doors into the bar and saw a fat man in the far corner sitting at a table chewing a cigar. Over his head was a sign that read ‘Rodeo Contestants sign up here’.

“Zoomie walked over and asked how much the entry fees and purses were for each event. The fat man replied that saddle bronc riding and steer roping each had $100 prize money with $10 entry fees. Bareback broncs, calf roping and bulldogging had $50 in prize money with $5 entry fees. Prize money to be divided 40, 30, 20 and 10 percent with entry fees added. Steer riding was paying $2 mount money.

“Zoomie told the fat man that he and Red would enter both bull-dogging and saddle bronc riding and that I would enter the bareback bronc riding and the steer riding and asked him how much it would cost.

“The fat man looked at Zoomie and asked if he couldn’t add. Zoomie admitted to being a little short on education but said that he ‘Shore’ as hell can cowboy and he planned to take a lot of their prize money with him when he left town. The fat man looked at the scrawled signature, and said, “’I don’t recognize the name Zumwalt, I don’t think I have ever heard of you.’”

“’Maybe not Mister, but you will,’ was Zoomie’s reply.”

Calling it his introduction to real rodeo, Hames then described several events at this Havre rodeo and the results didn’t disappoint these travelers. Zumwalt and Booger Red were at the beginning of long careers in the rodeo business and Hames could only marvel.

“Saddle bronc riding was always the first event at early day rodeos. Zommie and Red had both drawn tough horses who were big, high, crooked, sunfishing horses that drew a lot of applause from the crowd. Zoomie told Red he was sure Red had won first money.

“Red was the first man out in the steer roping. Red had been looking the steers over and shook his head as these steers must have left Mexico years ago and had grown bigger each year. He had never seen Mexican cattle this size before. He estimated the steers weighed at least 1,000 pounds and stood nearly six feet tall. By giving the steers a 40-foot start plus their size Red knew this was going to be tough roping. Red backed Streak into the box and nodded his head for the steer. When the flag man dropped the flag, Red left the box flying. Streak overtook the steer and Red threw the loop around the steer’s horns and tossed the rope’s slack over the steer’s back end for the trip, riding off at an angle caused the rope to pull the back legs from underneath the steer and down he went. Red stepped down from Streak and tied three of the steer’s legs together. The announcer gave Red’s time as 38 seconds.

“The next roper missed his steer and took no time. After the next roper caught his steer he couldn’t get the big brute down so he also was out of the money.

“Zoomie was the next steer roper, he shortened his stirrups a notch, got on and backed Streak into the box. The nod for the steer was given and Zoomie made a neat, clean catch and set his trip. The steer went down but one leg was doubled underneath. Zoomie ran to the steer, rolled him over on his back and tied the other three legs for a time of 40 seconds. The steer roping was completed without any faster times being made so Red and Zoomie won first and second.”

Competing in the next event, bareback bronc riding, Hames failed to place, but Zumwalt won the following event – bulldogging. Zumwalt would make a career out of this event. He still holds a record for the fastest time ever recorded in this event.

“Zoomie was the first dogger out. Zoomie was about five feet ten inches tall and weighed about 190 pounds. It was a good thing he was big and tough, too, because these dogging steers were twins to the roping steers. While the steer roping was going on I was exercising Breaky to have him warmed up for the bulldogging. Zoomie bulldogged from the left side of the steer so I backed Breaky into the box on the right. Both horses stood quietly until Zoomie nodded for the steer. When the flag dropped, the horses left the box together. Breaky pushed the steer over to Zoomie with his shoulder and Zoomie dropped onto the steers horns, dug his heels into the dirt and brought the steer to a halt. With a quick twist of the horns, Zoomie laid the steer on its side. The time was 18 seconds. As the bulldogging continued, several cowboys missed their steers while others caught their steer but had trouble throwing it. Some of the other cowboys did get their steer down but no one bested Zoomie’s time.

“Red was the last dogger and bulldogged from the right side of the steer. Red looked at the steer, then at me and nodded his head. When the flag was dropped, Breaky and Streak left the box nose to nose. With the steer boxed between them the timing was perfect. Red leaned over and reached for the horns but the steer suddenly stopped and Red landed on his feet in front of the steer and the horses. Red had to run to maintain his balance and keep from falling. I tried to rein Breaky to the left but it was too late and Breaky ran into Red and flattened him. I reined around and rode back to where Zoomie was helping Red to his feet. Zoomie said Red was all right, just had the wind knocked out of him. He would be fine as soon as he caught his breath.

“I hurried down to the steer chutes. There weren’t many steer riders so I rode three steers and made $6. Zoomie gave me $5 for hazing for them so even after losing my $5 entry fee in the bareback riding, I still came out with $6. I now felt I was a full-fledged cowboy. I had ridden on the range as a real cowboy and now I had actually made some money in a rodeo arena.”

Collecting their winnings at the Mint Bar in Havre, the fat man inquired where they were headed next. Zoomie explained they would next go to a rodeo in Lewistown, and then go to Miles City, “to ride for Vollin on the last horse roundup for the CBC.”

The trio stopped in Great Falls that night, staying at the Rainbow Hotel after taking care of their horses at the fairgrounds.

“The only available room in the hotel had a bath but only two single beds. This meant that Zoomie and Red would have a bed but I would have to make a bed on the floor. I watched the older men bathe and shave, polish their boots, put on clean clothes and get ready for a night on the town. I cleaned up and got ready to accompany them. The Havre Rodeo winnings were about to find a new home.”

Making the mandatory visit to the Mint Bar “that Charlie Russell made famous,” Hames had a shot of whiskey, “but really did not care for it.” He did take note of the famous artist’s artwork that still blessed the walls there.

“Behind the bar there was a full-length mirror that covered most of the wall. At the base of the mirror, there was a long counter lined with various brands of whiskey bottles. Above the mirror was a full-length shelf displaying nothing but Charlie Russell paintings and drawings. Other Russell art was hanging on the other three walls.”

“While Zoomie and Red were at the bar, I wandered around gazing at the Russell art. I admired the art but some of Russell’s horses did not seem to be proportioned quite right. The horses were scrawny, too straight-legged in front and crooked in their hind legs. Almost all of Russell’s horses seemed to be cow hocked and too long in the back in my opinion. They just didn’t seem to have the same movement and muscling as the horses I was familiar with. I decided the early day cowboys must have ridden rather poor horses or the artist had not done a very good job of drawing them. I didn’t believe that Russell’s art would ever be worth much or he would not have traded so much of it for drinks for him and his cronies.”

While acknowledging his distaste for whiskey, Hames kept a skeptical eye on his partners, who didn’t subscribe to his preference.

“Zoomie and Red were standing with their elbows on the bar talking to a pair of big-hatted, high-heeled-booted cowboys. Of course, the conversation was of wild horses and mean cows. What else would a real cowboy be talking about unless it would be whiskey and whores? There were probably more double-tough broncs ridden and wild steers roped in front of a bar than any other place. As the evening went on, the whiskey flowed, the horses bucked harder and the rides got longer and tougher.”

Continuing their journey to Lewistown early the following morning, they encountered a long hill not far from Belt and their smoking brakes gave out. Unable to solve the problem on the road they kept on even though the weight of the trailer became more dangerous on every new hill. Unloading the horses every time they met a hill seemed to be the better part of valor and they repeated this process until they found a mechanic at Stanford. The mechanic gave them a warning they apparently heeded, “Remember that when you go downhill with that contraption hooked on behind, to shift into your lower gears. . . If you intend to pull that thing behind you very much, you had better figure some way to put brakes on it or rig up an anchor that you can drag behind it.”

Hames then delivered an example of his self-effacing humor:

“You could tell this country was going to hell when they started selling cowboys mechanical equipment.”

Next on their trip was the Lewistown Fourth of July rodeo and Zumwalt had already experienced a bad time there once before. It proved to be no better this time around. Here we see that Zumwalt also possessed the gift of storytelling.

Zoomie – “We had been gathering wild horses north of here in the Missouri breaks and decided to come here to the Fourth of July rodeo. We got to town the day before the rodeo and that night we were in a bar drinking when one of the rodeo judges came in. I had met him before so we shook hands and he says, ’I heard that you were in town, Zoomie, and you have fourth place in the saddle bronc riding.’ I asked what had happened to first, second, and third and the judge says that they have already been spoken for. The rodeo would not be until the next afternoon and they already had decided who the winners would be. The next day I probably rode the toughest bronc I have ever been on and sure enough I placed fourth. I surely hope they have a better judging system now.”

After noticing that the affair had attracted a sparse crowd, the three entered their events – Hames in bareback riding and Zumwalt and Red in two other events.

“Zoomie drew a big red roan horse that looked as though he should be pulling a plow instead of being used as a bucking horse. Almost all of the really good bucking horses at that time were cross-bred saddle and draft stock. Ranchers crossed Thoroughbred or Standardbred stallions with Percheron, Belgian or Clydesdale mares to produce 1,500 or 1,600 pound horses. They had the fire, speed and agility of the saddle horses and the weight and strength of the draft horses. This type of horse was very hard to ride. The roan bucked very high, twisting and turning, kicking hard and landing on all four feet with terrific jolts. Zoomie spurred high and hard, never loosened in the saddle and made a winning ride.”

By the end of the Lewistown rodeo all three of these travelers won an event. However, their glory was short-lived. On their way to the pay window Zumwalt again mentioned the empty grandstands and when they arrived they found an empty rodeo office. Although everyone had disappeared, Hames was upbeat, “This was the first real contest money I had ever won and I was cheated out of it. Even though I didn’t collect my winnings, I felt really proud and very good. I was now certain that I was ready to travel down the Suicide Trail with the best of the cowboys.”

Hames already had experienced things that his classmates would marvel at, but it wasn’t over yet. Next, they were on their way to Miles City and the famous CBC Company horse roundup, where he would really become a cowboy. (See Part 2)

Last Updated on Friday, 01 April 2016 17:51