Streets of Laredo (Old Style)Streets of Laredo (Old Style)
“Streets of Laredo (rock version)”streets of Laredo (rock version)
“Jack of Diamonds, you know, it’s a hard card to find….” Jack of Diamonds 3
“Nobody Knows the Trouble I’ve Seen” NOBODY KNOWS THE TROUBLE I’VE SEEN

These songs have been added to this article because of their theme — many a young man has ended up in the pen because of the lures of wild women, drink and gambling. (We could say the same about women, more or less, but it makes for a more complicated sentence. No pun intended.) USE THE MUSIC PLAYER AT BOTTOM LEFT to enjoy the music as you read the article.

Check out this video from the Texas Prison Rodeo in 1966.
Texas Prison Rodeo 1966 Video

Man vs. Beast is one of the oldest themes since humans started telling stories. This one is about Man vs. Beast plus a little more. Men (and later, women), who are in prison, proving themselves against beasts–bulls and horses, mostly, but also, the cowboy skills like roping and trick riding, and other dusty, sweaty, bruising skill exhibitions usually called “rodeo.” A brief moment of something like freedom, basking in something like love or admiration of tens of thousands of spectators, under the free and open sky, in the roiling dust and thundering hooves. Plus the possibility of being trampled to death.

Let this serve as an intro & addendum to my new story in New York Times / Texas Tribune (See here or in print Sunday 3.25.12) sparked by the January 2012 demolition of the arena next to the Walls Unit in Huntsville, Texas where they invented prison rodeo back in 1931.

Keep reading. We have video, photos, and even music. See the MUSIC PLAYER at bottom right?

The thing that prompted the story was the demolition of the rodeo arena at the Huntsville prison in January of this year. The arena had been sitting vacant and haunted since the last rodeo in 1986.

The creator of prison rodeo, or the person credited for organizing the first one, was Marshall Lee Simmons, then acting director of the Texas Prison System. Today it’s known by the awkward title Texas Department of Criminal Justice (TDCJ). Most histories will simply say that Simmons came up with the idea in 1931 as a little taste of entertainment for the prison staff and, if any profit was made, a bonus to help pay for inmates’ education, books, and other items.

Clyde Barrow was no cowboy, but he's part of this story.

But who was Lee Simmons, aside from being a guy who ran the Texas prison system in the early 1930s? Ever hear of Bonnie & Clyde? Sure you have. OK, Simmons was from Grayson County, up in North Texas. A guy with a shady past.

Here’s another B&W clip of the Texas Prison Rodeo:

Born in 1873, Simmons did two years at Austin College in Sherman, Texas, then three years at the University of Texas in Austin, working toward a law degree. His brother, D. E. Simmons, a state legislator, had a law firm. Lee planned on working there after he passed the bar. But he never passed the bar, and his excuse for dropping out of college was better than the usual “Got hooked on crack, Ma, I’m sure sorry” excuse you hear nowadays. In the summer of 1894 shot and killed a former West Texas county official who supposedly insulted a member of the Simmons clan. Simmons was found not guilty (one of those “stand your ground” deals). He got married to Nola Stark (interesting name) in 1895 and did some farming and mule trading until 1912, when things were getting too rowdy in Denison. He ran for sheriff, won election, and was promptly shot by an embittered supporter of his rival for the office.

Simmons recovered, served two terms, went into banking until 1920, then back to farming for a while. In 1923 he was appointed to a board to study and make recommendations for improving conditions in Texas prisons which were, believe it or not, much worse than today. Have you heard of the Dark Ages? If so, you get the picture. The governor liked Simmons’ recommendations and gave him a job.

So Simmons started the rodeo in 1931, succeeding beyond his wildest dreams. From the beginning the crowds were huge. By 1933, the 3rd year, 15,000 were coming every Sunday in October. The rodeo was a bright spot of good publicity in what was otherwise a giant black eye for Texas. Yes, even before Facebook, people frowned upon beating prisoners to death, feeding them maggoty food, and housing them in cages cruder and filthier than that shack on the corner where the old lady lives with 200 cats.

One more video clip; this one includes some vacation trip footage and gets to the rodeo after a minute or so: prison rodeo clip3

Not that Simmons was a great humanitarian. Life was hell at the Eastham Unit, just down the road from Huntsville. They called it “The bloody Ham.” Scores of inmates there chopped off toes, feet, legs, or arms just to avoid being sent to work on the farm, where they were worked to death. You may have heard the story of Clyde Barrow having a pal chop off two of his toes to avoid work and maybe obtain an early release. Eastham Farm was the unit where it happened. In fact, the medieval abuse Clyde Barrow suffered there was his big motivation for robbing, stealing, killing and basically, getting even with society. And good old Lee Simmons was the man in charge of the system.

Not that Clyde Barrow was a boy scout before he ended up at Eastham, but Eastham twisted him much harder in the wrong direction.

So… In 1932, Clyde Barrow was paroled early from Eastham, and he spent the next three years on a crime spree that had one central goal in mind: To get the guns, men and money necessary to organize an armed invasion of the Eastham Farm in order to free as many inmates as possible and kill as many guards as possible. Two years later, January 16, 1934, Bonnie & Clyde and friends pulled it off. Their pals Raymond Hamilton, Henry Methvin and several others were freed, and prison officer Major Joe Crowson was fatally shot. As Crowson lay dying, Lee Simmons vowed that all the culprits involved in the raid would be hunted down and killed. As we know from the movie, this really happened, except for Henry Methvin, the stool pigeon who sold them out. Retired Texas Ranger Frank Hamer was one of the primary men involved in hunting them down and organizing the ambush that claimed the lives of Bonnie & Clyde. They say Hamer was tough. Those who knew him best also say that the reason he killed several dozen men was that he was just a few shades lighter than the killers he killed.

Back to the rodeo. Supposedly Simmons presented the idea to the prison board in early September 1931 and, after a bit of discussion, the proposal was given unanimous approval, and they had that first rodeo in 1931. The site was the old prison baseball field, which also has a bit of history. Important thing here is that the old wood stands there only held about 300 spectators. Apparently they thought that was plenty of seating. Soon proved wrong. Every weekend, the prison had to turn away long lines of rodeo fans. Every weekend, prisoners worked hard building new seating using the saw mill at a nearby prison farm, but still they turned away hundreds upon hundreds of spectators.

Finally in 1950, at the cost of one million bucks, a new concrete and red brick rodeo arena was completed (after the rodeo season, so that year, only, the rodeo hit the road and was performed in Dallas, but that’s another story). The new arena seated 20,000, and that was just about the right number, because every Sunday in October, tens of thousands of rodeo fans showed up, bought trinkets and refreshments on the midway in front of the prison, also maybe enjoyed the fall fair on the town square of Huntsville, and then went inside to watch the rodeo.

What was the big attraction? Well, they say that these imprisoned individuals really worked hard to prove themselves. The obvious observation is, I guess, they didn’t have much to lose. What’s being trampled by a bull compared to the horrors and abuse and inhumanity one might experience in prison???

Not exactly an Eames chair. Old Sparky, crafted by inmates, at rest in the Texas Prison Museum in Huntsville.

So, anyway, in addition to the added impetus the inmates might have had, the rodeo was extremely fast-paced, with the individual sets during any event coming bang-bang-bang, one after another. An inmate cowboy gets thrown from a badass monster Brahman bull and he’s just getting up and out of the way when the chute opens for the next ride. The dust never settled on the Huntsville Prison Rodeo. No wonder they called it “The roughest and wildest rodeo behind bars.”

Women imprisoned at the Goree unit sewed the zebra stripe uniforms for the inmate cowboys. For a few years in the 1970s — after the inauguration of the Miss Texas Prison Rodeo pageant, women inmates were also allowed to compete in the arena — in the greased pig contests and other events. A huge step for gender equality it was not. But the crowds seemed to like it.

The Texas Prison Rodeo at Huntsville was the only such rodeo until its imitators at the state prisons at Angola, Louisiana and McAlester, Oklahoma. The rodeo at Angola, Louisiana, is still going, but McAlester rodeo bit the dust a couple of years ago after a 69 year run.

The best prison rodeo story I’ve learned from all this is the story of O’Neal Browning. I didn’t read about him in the Handbook of Texas or anywhere else. I’d never heard of him before I started working on this story, but I did suspect that I’d find some really compelling stories of convict cowboys. I was going through all the old rodeo programs when I turned a page and saw his face. I thought — that’s him. That’s my story. O’Neal Browning wore a cowboy hat and prison stripes. He spoke to me.

O’Neal Browning, an African-American, grew up on a family farm near Houston. His father beat him. O’Neal (I’m trying to find out the origin of his first name — must be a story there, too) was born in 1930 or 1931, I’m not sure when, but one writer claimed that his birth was around the same time that Lee Simmons started planning the prison rodeo — thus, it must have been 1930 or 1931. Maybe 1932. Who cares?

When he was 16, O’Neal started hanging around the stockyards at the Houston Fat Stock Show & Rodeo, and learned to ride bulls there for practice (the bulls needed to be ridden to keep them in a foul mood) at $5 apiece. One day O’neal made $100. That means he rode 20 bulls. Ouch.

Soon he was competing in local rodeos and making a little prize money. His father, unimpressed, beat him when he came home, complaining that he needed him around the family farm instead. O’Neal lost his left thumb in a calf roping accident. His parents didn’t know he’d lost it until the bandages came off.

O’Neal attended his first prison rodeo as a spectator in 1948. The following year, he was sentenced to life in prison for murder. He competed in his first prison rodeo in 1950. Being under age, his mother had to sign for him, even though she worried that he’d get hurt. His father wasn’t available to sign on account of having been murdered by his son with an ax. No more beatings.

In that first rodeo, O’Neal won the Top Hand title–awarded to the cowboy who won the most total prize money. He continued to compete and win top honors at the prison rodeo up through the 1970s.

Over the next three decades, O’Neal Browning won an unprecedented seven Top Hand awards. Even in 1974, when he was in his 40s, O’Neal kept beating his younger competitors. One year he suffered a broken leg during a bull ride, and returned for the next three Sundays to ride with his leg in a cast. He didn’t win Top Hand, but he did finish sixth overall, which was pretty respectable, even without a broken leg.

O’Neal won parole in the mid-sixties, but it was short-lived. He returned to his old ways, carousing and drinking, and resorting to burglary when his funds ran low. Drinking was a problem for him. He won at least one other parole, but it, too, was short-lived. On at least one occasion while still in the free world, he robbed a liquor store in order to get back to Huntsville in time for rodeo season.

He was a mentor and hero to other inmates. During one bull-riding practice, he saved another inmate cowboy who was being trampled and gored by a bull. Browning ended up being pinned to the walls of the pen by the bull’s horns, which gouged into the flesh on either side of his rib cage. “I’m lucky I’m not any bigger,” Browning said, “or I’d be dead and gone from this place.”

O’Neal Browning was a long-time rodeo legend by 1980, the year Rev. Carroll L. “Bud” Pickett began serving as chaplain at the Walls in Huntsville. Pickett spent most of his time ministering to prisoners on Death Row, but his duties also brought him into contact with many other inmates, including those injured in the rodeo.

In his memoir, Within These Walls: Memoirs of a Death House Chaplain, Pickett described the poignant scene of Browning’s last bull ride in the early 1980s, which would have been the fourth decade of his rodeo career.

After being thrown by a bull named White Lightning, Browning rose up momentarily to wave his hat to the crowd, then collapsed in pain with several broken ribs. When Pickett came to his side in the hospital, Browning just had one favor to ask. Browning asked him to go to the intersection by the rodeo arena, where he would find “a lady standing there, wearing a pretty dress, and I promise she’ll knock your eyes out.” The woman, he said, always waited there after the rodeo and when the inmates bus to drove past, she would blow him a kiss. “I don’t want her to worry about me when she doesn’t see me,” Browning told him.

Pickett found the woman and relayed the message, then agreed to deliver her response to Browning. “Tell him I love him and that I’m doing fine,” she said.

Gary Brown also devotes an entire chapter to the story of O’Neal Browning in his book of Texas prison stories, Singin’ a Lonesome Song–Texas Prison Tales.

In a feature story in the 1973 prison rodeo program, the 45-year-old convict was quoted as saying he looked forward to winning his seventh all-around cowboy title. He told the reporter that he’d had a great year already, because a federal court had agreed to hear an appeal on his life sentence.

Follow-up research revealed that O’Neal was severely injured in a subsequent rodeo, and although he did win parole a few years later, his freedom was short-lived. When he died in prison in 1997, there were no visitors on his list.

Imagine living behind bars for that brief moment of glory under the sun in the dust and smell of popcorn and cherry Cokes, sweat and manure. The roar of the crowd. Free world performances by the likes of Ray Price, Dolly Parton, Merle Haggard (who knew a thing or two about being in prison), Willie Nelson, movie stars, athletes… and the illustrious Candy Barr — possibly the only pop culture superstar who performed in the prison rodeo both as an inmate and as a free world celebrity.

I also love the story of Lee Smith, a popular rodeo performer who was stabbed to death after stealing another inmate’s commissary goods. With no one to claim his body, normal procedure at the time dictated burial in nearby Peckerwood Hill (since renamed Captain Joe Byrd Cemetery), under a simple concrete cross or tablet bearing only his prison number. Smith’s rodeo pals, however, chipped in to buy a nice headstone, engraved with the words: “Lee Smith, 97036, At Rest, In Memory of Rodeo Pals, October 26, 1941.”

I made a long visit to Peckerwood Hill when I was in Huntsville researching this story. I took a lot of photos. I’ll be posting more photos, of the rodeo and other things relevant to the story, in later blogs. I want to thank Jim Willett, director of the Texas Prison Museum, for all his help on the story for the Texas Tribune / New York Times. Also, thanks to the Texas State Library.

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