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KO Rodeo Ground's Oral Zumwalt - by Lee Hames - Part 9 - 'Zumwalt the Promoter / Missoula - Bud Lake & Bob Rooker / Hellgate Rodeo Co. / Miller Creek K.O. Ranch Rodeo / Zoomie Passes'

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Zumwalt the Promoter / Bud Lake & Bob Rooker / Hellgate Rodeo Co. / K.O. Ranch Rodeo / Zoomie Passes

When Hames returned to Missoula after WW II he found that the market for horses had changed.

“The ranchers and farmers were not buying any horses, but were mechanizing, and selling their horses. The Army and Forest Service were also quitting the horses and mules and disposing of their stock.”

His plans for raising and selling horses were also a casualty of these times. When he left for the Army he was a young owner of a band of horses that were given virtual free range in the hills south of Missoula in the Miller/Davis Creek area, but they were no longer a profitable investment. After rounding these horses up he sold almost all of them.

“Most of the horses went to the packing plant to be made into chicken and pet food for three cents a pound.”

He then leased a ranch and began a small logging operation, but he still found time to watch a few rodeos and many of his friends were still in the business.

“Soon after my return, the first rodeo held in Montana each spring was held at Billy Schall’s rodeo arena at Arlee. Roy King usually produced an annual show there but that year he was having a combination rodeo and dispersal sale. The King stock was well-known throughout the northwest so several other rodeo producers attended the show. This was like old home week for me, getting to see a rodeo and many old friends. Leo Cremer, the big-bronc rodeo producer from Big Timber was there and bought a lot of stock. Zumwalt was with Cremer. The last time I had seen Cremer and Zoomie was at the Colorado State Fair in 1943. . . I did not feel I was in condition to participate with that tough competition so I spent most of my time wandering around back of the bronc chutes, visiting. That was the only rodeo I saw that summer.”

Hames then recounted what evidently was the last rodeo he competed in.

“On the Fourth of July one year, Bud Lake asked me to drive a truckload of Brahma bulls to the Helena rodeo for him. I was right in the middle of my summer haying so I gave my crew a few days off and went to the Helena rodeo. I thought I would be paid for the truck driving and working the show and maybe win some money in the saddle bronc riding. If everything went as I hoped, I might even make enough money to pay my haying crew. The best laid plans of mice and men often go awry, and so it went with mine. I bucked off and lost my entry fee. Traveling expenses and the loss of my entry fee pretty well ate up all the money I made for driving and working the rodeo. When I returned to the ranch, I learned the crew had gone to town on a spree and only part of them had come back so I had to put another haying crew together.

“From the leased ranch I moved to a ranch west of Missoula that I purchased. For the next few years, I ranched in the summertime and horse-logged during the winter months as this ranch had some fine standing timber and the Forest Service had timber on adjacent lands which could be purchased. During these years I went to an occasional rodeo but did not participate in any way.

“This ranch was rather remote and quite a distance from schools, so when our oldest son became school age, I sold the ranch and moved into Missoula with no definite plans for earning a living. I became involved in a truck trade with a livestock hauler and ended up in the livestock hauling business.”

Ever the promoter, Zumwalt had moved to the next stage of the rodeo business. In 1948 he became a partner with Julius Peters from Browning, Montana, and they were staging small rodeos around Montana, while Leo Cremer continued to produce the larger ones. Everything changed in 1953 when Leo Cremer was killed in an automobile accident. Julius Peters also died at about this time and Zumwalt found that Montana rodeo needed someone to step up to the plate.

Once again Hames provides a description of the period:

“At about the same time Zoomie and Peters were going into the rodeo business, Bud Lake and Bob Rooker formed the Hellgate Rodeo Company in western Montana. Lake and Rooker dissolved their partnership leaving Lake in control of their bucking stock. During the time that Lake and Rooker were partners, they had bought the rodeo stock of Doc Sorenson who had been producing rodeos in southern Idaho and Nevada. From the Sorenson string came some of the best known bucking horses in the world. A man named Pinto Smith had raised many of them on a large horse ranch north of Elko, Nevada. Horses known as Fox, Copper, Centennial, Nicotine, Rummy and Inflammation were in this bunch of horses. Inflammation was an old shaggy, grey gelding who at 32 years old bucked a good cowboy off at the K.O. Ranch Rodeo. Inflammation was retired, and turned loose to graze in the Miller Creek hills after this rodeo and passed away there.

Sometime between 1948 and 1950, Bud Lake and Bob Rooker ended their partnership in the Montana Hellgate Rodeo Company, with Lake maintaining the business.

“Zoomie and Lake pooled the two outfits into the K.O. Rodeo Company with headquarters in Miller Creek, south of Missoula [1950]. They leased a large tract of hill range (the same range where I had left my horses grazing during World War II) and built a rodeo arena at the base of the hill. There was already a large set of good corrals that my cousin and I had built during the time we used this range for raising horses and mules. Zoomie eventually bought Lake’s share of the K.O. Rodeo Company.”

Hames later stated that Bud Lake “eventually sold his share of the KO Rodeo Company to Bill Lawrence, Zoomie’s son-in-law. Bill and Zoomie continued to contract rodeos until Zoomie’s death.”

“During the month of May each year, the first rodeo held in the northwest was in this arena. There was nothing there but the chutes and the arena, no seats of any kind, so the spectators had to use the grassy hillside for bleachers. This was only a one-day rodeo, but it drew the top contestants of the world. The spectators numbered in the thousands. Tickets were two dollars and one year Zoomie grossed $8,300. It was Zoomie’s most profitable rodeo as he gathered the rodeo stock right off the hills the day before the rodeo. The stock was always fat, and sassy and wild from their winter vacation. There were no trucking expenses, no traveling expenses, no stock feed to buy and most of the arena labor was free.”

Zumwalt and Lake were soon sponsoring rodeos all over Montana and parts of Idaho, Wyoming, and southern Alberta.

“Zoomie was quick to adapt to the changes as they came about, especially the trucking, as he could now load his stock at home and be able to produce a rodeo several hundred miles away the next day. He could also produce two rodeos several hundred miles apart in a short time with the same stock. He encouraged the start of high school and college rodeos and rented them practice stock and helped promote them. Within a very few years, Zoomie had developed a rodeo circuit which he followed every year until his untimely death.

“When Zoomie started to develop his rodeo circuit, I became involved with him again. I had some livestock hauling trucks so another trucker (Sonny Lundwall) and I contracted to haul Zoomie’s rodeo stock from rodeo to rodeo. I traveled with the stock most of each summer and when I was at a rodeo, I helped with the production and did some picking up.

“Soon after the spring K.O. Ranch Rodeo, the stock was hauled to Belt, Montana, where Zoomie had his first rodeo contract of the season. From Belt, the stock was moved to Greybull, Wyoming, back to Big Timber, Montana, down to Idaho Falls and Blackfoot, Idaho, and back up to Butte, Montana. From Butte we went to Drummond and Augusta, then to Livingston for the Fourth of July and their annual celebration. After Livingston the outfit crossed the line into Canada to produce rodeos at Lethbridge, Medicine Hat, Tabor, Brooks and High River. From High River, Zoomie sent 10 of his top Brahmas and 10 of his top bucking horses to Calgary for use in the Stampede.

“The rest of the stock crossed the line back into Montana to produce a rodeo in Anaconda. The stock that was sent to Calgary rejoined the outfit in Bozeman, Zoomie’s next rodeo. From Bozeman Zoomie went on to Billings, Forsyth, and Miles City. Next came the longest haul on the circuit from Miles City to Missoula, Kalispell and Plains and from there to the last two rodeos of the season at Dillon on Labor Day and Salmon, Idaho, on our way home.

“These were the year to year contracted rodeos but at different times, Zoomie had rodeos in Las Vegas, Salt Lake, Spokane and other towns but not on a regular basis. He also rented stock sometimes to other rodeo producers. Turk Greenough had two sisters, Alice and Marge, who contested in all girl rodeos and followed Cremer’s rodeos making exhibition rides on saddle broncs. Marge had retired from rodeo but Alice and rodeo rider, Joe Orr, started producing small rodeos in eastern Montana and northern Wyoming. Zoomie rented them stock whenever they needed it.

“The highlight of Zoomie’s rodeo season each year was probably the Matched Bronc Riding at Deer Lodge promoted by Tony Sneberger. Each year Tony invited the 15 top-rated saddle bronc riders in the United States and Canada to compete. Each cowboy rode two saddle broncs and the six who totaled the most points on two horses had to ride a third bronc for a winner take all pay off. One year, Casey Tibbs, resplendent in purple hat, shirt, chaps, and boots drew “Black Gold” (one of Zoomie’s toughest saddle broncs) in the six high ride off. About an hour before the bronc riding there had been a regular cloudburst in the Deer Lodge Valley and the rodeo arena was a sea of mud, six inches deep. When the pickup man was helping Casey get off Black Gold, he accidentally (maybe on purpose) dropped Casey in his flashy attire into the mud. Casey was always playing practical jokes on the other cowboys so the pickup man had probably been the object of one of Casey’s jokes.* Casey got to his feet and waded through the mud to the chutes amidst a roar of laughter from the crowd. Just before Casey came out of the chute, he had asked the judge how high he had to mark to win the bronc riding and the judge had told him 80. Casey marked 83 and everyone who saw the ride thought it was the classiest bronc ride they had ever seen. Casey was sort of a smart aleck for the pranks he pulled, but when the chips were down, he was as good a cowboy as there ever was. He was well known for his practical jokes and wild behavior but everyone liked him. The two most outstanding bronc rides that I can remember are “Casey’s” ride at Deer Lodge and “Winston Bruce’s” ride at Missoula where he won the saddle bronc riding. Both rides were made on “Black Gold. . . ”

“At the end of the northern rodeo season, Zoomie brought the stock back to the Missoula ranch where they were turned out to graze for the winter, and a well-earned rest. During the winter months, Zoomie was busy making contracts for the coming year and searching for additional bucking stock to add to the outfit.

“Most of the time, Zoomie bought his rodeo cattle down in the southwest or Mexico. The Brahma bulls were hot weather cattle so they usually came from Texas, New Mexico, Arizona or California. Corriente cattle for bulldogging and roping usually came out of old Mexico. . .

“Anyone who did not have the privilege of knowing Zoomie missed meeting a great character who became a legend in his own time. For many years Zoomie dominated the world of rodeo, first as a contestant and then as a stock contractor and rodeo producer. He began his rodeo career as a saddle bronc rider and slowly drifted into calf roping and bulldogging, excelling in all three events. From contestant to producer seemed to be a natural progression.

“Zoomie told stories by the hour, all of them wild and mostly true, embellished a little in the telling, according to the way he saw things. On the range or in the arena, he was absolutely fearless, with nothing too dangerous to attempt. At one of his rodeos, a cowboy was heard to remark, ‘You always know when Zoomie is here, because you shore as hell can hear him all over the rodeo grounds.’

“Zoomie always arrived in a hurry, shouting orders and bawling out cowboys. When he had the rodeo functioning to his satisfaction, he’d calm down, start telling stories and jokes, and seemed to forget he had just chewed you out for something. Everyone who knew Zoomie had a different story to tell about him, all of the stories wild and most of them true.

“Zoomie produced a fast, colorful rodeo that was always a crowd pleaser. His bucking stock was double-tough and his rodeos were fast, well-organized and well-managed. He had a reputation for having the best bucking horses in the business and was constantly looking for additional stock. His motto for his rodeo business was, ‘I always start on time and finish when I damn please.’ He never started late.

“Zoomie passed away at the Big Timber rodeo on June 10, 1962. That morning he had said something about not feeling well but blamed it on a sore foot that a saddle horse had stepped on. Zoomie always flanked the bareback broncs himself so he was standing on the back of the chutes. Bill Lawrence was coming out on the great sorrel bareback bronc ‘Centennial’ and as Zoomie tightened the flank strap, he fell over backwards and passed away from a heart attack. An ambulance quietly removed his body and Mae (Zoomie’s wife) said to go on with the rodeo without saying anything to the crowd. At the end of the day’s performance, Mae and I went to the announcer’s stand and informed the audience of Zoomie’s passing.

“A couple of years before he passed away, Zoomie had gone to the doctor for a physical. The doctor told Zoomie that his blood pressure was a little too high and that he was slightly overweight. The doctor advised him to stop chewing snooze, ease up on his drinking, eat less (especially fatty meats) and avoid losing his temper. Just slow down in general. Zoomie thought it over and said, ‘Hell, if I have to do all of those things, what will I have to live for?’ It was no wonder he had a heart attack as he went full bore until the end.

“Zoomie’s widow finished the 1962 season with the assistance of the old rodeo crew and then began contracting to furnish stock for the 1963 season. Mae was getting fairly well along in years and wanted to retire. At first she tried to sell the business intact as an operating rodeo concern complete with locations and contracts. When she was unable to do this, she produced one final K.O. Ranch Rodeo in the spring of 1964 and had a dispersal sale of all the livestock and equipment. As each animal was bucked out, an auctioneer would sell it. Rodeo equipment was sold in the arena at the end of the rodeo. All of the major rodeo producers in the United States and Canada attended this sale and the stock ended up being scattered all over the country. . .

“About a year before Zoomie passed away, he and I were driving down the highway reliving some of our experiences and telling each other ‘Western Stories,’ when he made remarks about the changes in the country we had seen during our lives. As I remember it, Zoomie said, ‘We have seen the best times of the United States, we have seen the last really true freedom that will ever be seen. The old-time range cowboy was the only one who was really free to do as he wished and he is now long gone. With the disappearance of the last real cowboy, everything will be downhill from now on. We have seen the last of the open range and the free-roaming cowboy. The country started going to hell when they started selling cowboys equipment. I am glad that I do not have too many years yet to go as I do not think I could stand living in the crowded, regulated world that will be here in a few more years. I would just like to live long enough to break out the crop of colts that I produced this year. They are the best looking colts that I have ever had.’ Zoomie did not get his wish as he was gone before the colts were old enough to be ridden.”

*To give you an idea how small the world is, this author met a grizzled old man, Mel West, walking his dog one day beside the Cedar River outside of Renton, Washington. I walked my dogs there also. When he asked where I was from, I responded, Missoula, and he promptly lifted his pant leg, pointed at a scar, and said he had broken his leg in a rodeo in Missoula before the war.

That would be WW II. I believe he was in his nineties. When asked if he knew some of these characters in the Zumwalt / Hames stories, he responded he couldn’t remember, but asked if I had heard of Casey Tibbs.

I answered, “You bet.”

He then told numerous stories about Casey Tibbs over a period of several days – every time I would meet him on the trail, I asked him more questions about Tibbs. He stated that he grew up not far from Tibbs in South Dakota and being slightly older had furnished Tibbs and others a ride in his truck to various points of interest, including rodeos. He stated he took Tibbs to one early rodeo where they refused to let him ride until he produced a note from his mother. He said that he told Casey he had to quit giggling so much.

He stated Tibbs seemed to float on his rides. He also mentioned that Casey was a joker and some of his mates would respond in kind. Bumping their luggage with his Cadillac was one of Casey's pranks. Some of his mates responded by loading one piece of luggage with rocks and planted it where Casey would run over it. Apparently he did.

He stated Tibbs called him not long before he died and said, “I’m riding one that I can’t get off of.” Tibbs died of cancer in 1990.

It took a minute for Mel to recover from telling me this.

Below is a link to the Life Magazine whose front page featured 22 year old Casey Tibbs.


Last Updated on Saturday, 23 January 2016 20:02