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Texas History: Where Have All the (Convict) Cowboys Gone?

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Where have all the cowboys gone? If you're talking about the bronco-riding inmates who kicked up the action each October in Huntsville, you can blame changing tastes, celebrity appearance fees and lawyers.

The Texas Prison Rodeo is a distant memory for some long timers – it began in 1931 and the last one was in 1986 – but for a while it was the hottest attraction around. At its peak, 30,000 locals would travel to Huntsville on a Sunday afternoon to see the stars (Johnny Cash, John Wayne, Steve McQueen) and watch the death-defying acts by those who had (almost) nothing to lose. Considering Huntsville logged just 38,548 inhabitants in its most recent census, those numbers are fairly remarkable.

History and crime buff Mitchel P. Roth (he has a Ph.D. in history and is a professor of criminal justice and criminology at Sam Houston State University) became fascinated with the subject when he and his family moved to The Woodlands from California about 25 years ago.

Roth, who has written or co-written more than a dozen books, soon found out that Huntsville was the first prison that Johnny Cash ever performed at and the whole thing was lost to history: no pictures, video or audio from the event. “He went on to perform at 30 to 40 different prisons, most famously Folsom,” says Roth, who says memories of those days were kept alive through folklore and oral tradition.

Roth ended up researching the prison and writing a new book, Convict Cowboys: The Untold History of the Texas Prison Rodeo, which takes us through the highs (parachuting prisoners) and lows (one death in 1938) and eventual demise of the nation's first prison rodeo.

Before incarceration, many of the prisoners herded cattle and worked in the fields, developing skills that transferred to the rodeo. They looked forward to their day in the sun and out of the cell (though they didn't get much applause), vying for the prestigious Top Hand buckle and enduring the inevitable injuries. “They weren't going to sue the prison — that might end the rodeo; [there was] pressure from other inmates,” says Roth. “By the '70s and '80s, prisoners were becoming more litigious; the administrators didn't have the insurance they needed.”

He says the rodeo ended, in part, because our tastes for entertainment changed and also because of the expense associated with booking big-name stars. “The community felt that it didn't need to have tens of thousands of tourists,” says Roth. “Top-notch entertainment was becoming more expensive. Celebrities from Hollywood were the big draw. They were getting Willie Nelson, George Strait, the Judds – the whole rodeo revolved around making money.” He says that, after a few years of “creative bookkeeping,” administrators realized that they had been losing money when they thought they were making money. Roth says the administration used the excuse that the stands were falling apart, but points out that it took them 12 years to dismantle those stands after the rodeo closed.

As for that coveted Top Hand award, which was given out only once a year "to the cowboy who earned the most total money by riding in or scoring highest in the major riding events," Roth points to a local man. “The biggest winner, O'Neal Browning from Houston, he was missing a thumb. He won it seven times over a 40-year period; four different decades. These guys were competing into their fifties, these old-timers, the really big cowboys. It was probably the first desegregated sporting event.”

In researching the book, Roth pored through thousands of pages of prison meeting reports and uncovered a treasure trove of photographs, many of which have been reprinted in the book.

Roth will be reading from his book and signing copies on August 22 at 7 p.m. Brazos Bookstore, 2421 Bissonnet, 713-523-0701, brazosbookstore.com. Free.

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