Texas prison rodeo was wildest show behind bars

This photo, courtesy of the Portal to Texas History, shows men competing in one of the Texas prison rodeos in 1952.

When the Huntsville Humdinger hit the streets that Monday, the feisty four-column competitor of the long-established Huntsville Item carried on page one a humdinger of a local scoop: The prison system would be starting a rodeo that fall.

On Sept. 4, 1931, new prison director Lee Simmons had presented the Texas Prison Board with his idea of staging a rodeo using inmates as the performers. Following “considerable discussion,” the board voted its unanimous approval. That was a Thursday, meaning that week’s Item had already gone to press. The Humdinger broke the rodeo story on September 7.

Simmons said the event, to be held each Sunday in October, would be for “the benefit of the convicts and employees.” All employees and their families would be admitted free. At 25 cents a head, the rodeo also would be open to the public. Proceeds would be divided equally among the 30 stripe-suited cowboys, Simmons told the Humdinger.

The director later admitted his biggest sales job had been in talking local preachers into “allowing” the prison to stage a public event on the Sabbath.

The blessing of the clergy having been secured, inmates on the Eastham Farm began cutting oak timbers to be used in construction of an arena east of the Walls Unit in the baseball field behind the warden’s house. The new facility would seat 800 people.

Having done the blue sky work and gained the needed buy-in, Simmons designated Albert Moore, who worked in the prison’s record office and livestock superintendent R.O. McFarling to make the rodeo a reality. Walls Unit warden W.W. Waid would be in charge of security.

The warden told the Humdinger that while Moore had selected “the roughest and toughest” inmates in the system to compete in the rodeo, he anticipated no trouble in keeping the cowboys corralled during the performances.

“I think it would be fine for the morale of both inmates and employees,” Prison Board chairman W. A. Paddock said of Simmons’ idea. “If the rodeo is successful this year, I am sure the Board will vote to make it an annual event.” He went on to say he foresaw people from as far away as Houston (60 miles) coming to enjoy the show.

Simmons said he hoped the rodeo would make $1,000 that year, which means he expected 4,000 paying customers. (If the arena could accommodate 800 people, with half the space reserved for non-paying prison workers and their families, he must have been allowing for standing-room-only attendees.)

No matter the numbers that first year, only two years later attendance had jumped to 15,000.

While the Humdinger’s coverage of Simmons’s rodeo plan appears objective enough, editor Petey Furp, who had been publishing the Humdinger since 1895, pulled no punches in an editorial on what he thought of the director’s brain child.

Beginning his three-paragraph piece with a reminder that the Humdinger “through the years…has demonstrated that it supports a policy of civic betterment for our community” Furp quickly got to the point: “We cannot look with favor on inauguration of a rodeo by the officials of the prison system. We are surprised that the Prison Board showed such poor judgment in approving it and that the governor, in effect, gave his stamp of approval by agreeing to attend the first performance on October 4.”

So why did Furp (seriously, that was his last name) have editorial heartburn over the rodeo idea?

Well, he wrote, “It will appeal to a rowdy element and bring into our fair city a boisterous crowd who will take up our parking space and tax to capacity our eating establishments.”

Furp’s concluding paragraph deserves to be memorialized as one of the best examples of wrong guessing ever spewed forth from a Texas printing press:

“While Lee Simmons and Albert Moore are upstanding citizens of sterling character, they are wrong in thinking that a bunch of convicts will have nerve enough to ride longhorn steers and bucking horses. Mr. Simmons stated that he hopes the prison rodeo will become an annual event. We confidently predict that it will not survive longer than two Sundays and will soon be forgotten.”

Instead, the rodeo grew yearly in reputation, star power and attendance to the point where it rivaled the State Fair of Texas as an October draw. During its peak years, the four-weekend prison rodeo pulled in some 100,000 annually. As it turned out, local restaurants and motels stood perfectly willing to put up with parking problems in exchange for a fall revenue surge that doubtless exceeded even their holiday business.

But the prison board giveth and the prison board taketh away.

In 1986, engineers found that the much-expanded brick rodeo arena was structurally unsound. Not having the funding to make the repairs, the panel voted to end the rodeo. The last bull shot out of a chute that Oct. 26 and the by-then famous Texas Prison Rodeo was history.

Billed as “The Wildest Show Behind Bars,” it had long outlasted the Huntsville Humdinger.

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