Tadpole's Outdoor Blog

April 21, 2013



Thinking back on my early years I have decided that my dad, Cecil, loved to go to rodeos.  We never discussed it but I recall that he usually attended any rodeo held in the San Augustine area.  I can recall several different locations for local rodeos in the 1940s and early 1950s.

My earliest memory of attending a rodeo was the most unusual of all, the Texas Prison Rodeo held in Huntsville, Texas annually.  In the mid 1940s I was quite young, but I remember our family riding in the car to Huntsville and taking in the rodeo on a Sunday in October.  I recall at least two occasions when we took the two hour trek.

I had never seen a really professional rodeo before the one in Huntsville.  I was even more awed because the participants were all prisoners, or “convicts” as we referred to them.  I saw many rodeo events including wild cow milking, calf belling, goat roping, wild mare milking, and bulldogging.  Of course, there was also the standard fare of bull riding, saddle bronc, and bareback bronc.  A recent addition to the fare was wild horse racing which I enjoyed.

I never did fully appreciate the background of the prison rodeo which began in 1931 and ended in 1986.  This event was launched during the depression years.  It was first held at the baseball park outside the “Walls” unit.  The baseball park, located on the east side of the prison, was normally home to the Walls Tigers baseball team.

The rodeo was the brainchild of Lee Simmons, General Manager of the Texas Prison System.  He envisioned it as entertainment for employees and inmates alike.  Welfare director Albert Moore, headed up the organization and planning for the early rodeos, along with Warden Walter Waid and livestock supervisor, R. O. McFarland.

The early attendants included a small crowd of local citizens and prison employees.  Simmons realized that he had a winner on his hands.  Two years later, over 15,000 fans traveled to Huntsville for the show.  Soon the Texas Prison Rodeo was drawing the largest crowds for a sporting event in the state of Texas.  With a lifespan of more than fifty years, the Prison Rodeo became a Texas tradition, held every Sunday in October.  Crowds grew to exceed 100,000 in some years.

A favorite event unique to the Texas Prison Rodeo was the “Hard Money Event”.  Forty inmates with red shirts were turned into the arena with a raging wild bull with a Bull Durham tobacco sack tied between its horns.  The object was for some brave inmate to get the sack and take it to the Judge. Fifty dollars usually was the prize stuffed inside the tobacco sack, but donations often ran the pay up, sometimes to $1,500.  This soon became a very popular event for the inmates due to the large amount of money involved, but it was one of the most dangerous ones as well.  The fast action kept fans on the edge of their seats throughout the rodeo event.


No rodeo was held in 1943 due to the war, but when it returned in 1944, all profits from the “Victory Rodeo” were invested in war bonds to contribute to the war effort.  The first and only time that the rodeo made a road appearance was in 1950 when it was held in Dallas in the early summer.  During this time a new structure made of concrete, steel, and brick was built to replace the old baseball stadium.  Weekday rodeos were added to the regularly scheduled Sunday performances in some years.  In the year 1942, the rodeos were all held on Thursdays.

Special entertainment began in 1951 with big stars such as Eddie Arnold, Guy Willis, Curley Fox, and Texas Ruby.  That started a yearly tradition which attracted the famous stars, Johnny Cash, Ernest Tubb, Willie Nelson, and Dolly Parton.  The most famous inmate performer, and one who sometimes stole the show from the paid entertainers, was inmate Juanita Phillips.  She was better known in the “free world” as Candy Barr.  Many of the inmates had never been in a rodeo or ridden on an animal in their lives.  But it was an honor and a status symbol to be among the cowboys selected to compete in the rodeo.

The last rodeo was held on October 26, 1986.  The fans, including several hundred inmates were entertained by the mother and daughter duo, The Judds.  Following the day’s performance, the chute gates were closed for good.  Due to costly renovations that the prison system said were necessary to the arena stands, the rodeo was shut down.  There have been discussions of resurrecting this rodeo event.  However, it will most likely remain only a fond memory for those who participated in, attended, or worked at the “Wildest Show Behind Bars”.


After my graduation from high school, attending college, and marriage, I never attended the Prison Rodeo again before it closed down.  That is regrettable as it was a fast-paced, exciting event.  But, I still have fond memories after more than sixty years.  That is one thing about a memory, one can go to the archives of the mind and relive events such as that.






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