BEHIND THE CHUTES AND ELSEWHERE

  COLONEL JIM ESKEW & THE JR RODEO

 

            Colonel Jim Eskew made the eastern section of the United States rodeo-conscious in the days of early rodeo.  He produced rodeos in Baltimore, Chicago, Cleveland, New Haven , Philadelphia , Pittsburgh , Rochester , Syracuse , Washington D. C. plus numerous small towns, and at county and state fairs.  He was known as one of the first producers to use stars, such as Gene Autry, Roy Rogers, The Sons of the Pioneers, The Cisco Kid and Pancho, Hopalong Cassidy, Lash LaRue, Dale Evans and Andy Devine, to entertain rodeo crowds.

 

            Colonel Jim bought two horses, for $225 from Charlie Mitchell, while staging a Wild West Show in Canada in 1928.  In turn, Eskew sold these horses to McCarty and Elliott, well known rodeo producers and stock contractors.  Eskew rode in the boxcar with the horses when he took them to Fort Worth to the new owners.  Those two Canadian broncs became two of the more famous horses of all time, Midnight and Five Minutes to Midnight .

 

            James William Eskew was born in Wilson County, Tennessee, January 12, 1888 , to a horse and cattle dealer who gave the young lad a spirited pony early in life.  Later Eskew admitted this probably began his lifelong career atop a horse.  As a youngster, Jim Eskew was sent to live with an uncle in Garland , Texas , because of a defect in his eye.  In Garland he could receive the proper medical attention.  He and his uncle became fast friends and Eskew stayed with him until he was eighteen.  He learned to work on ranches and became an accomplished horseman and cowboy that could use a lariat and handle cattle with the best.  In 1908 he joined a wild west show in Wichita Falls .  From that show he went to the Mulhall Wild West Show.  When it ran in to financial trouble he hired on with the wild west portion of the John Robinson Circus.  After moving from one wild west show to another and learning something new with each move, Eskew managed the wild west concert with the Sparks Circus for three years, 1915 through 1917. 

 

            He formed his own wild west show in 1918, which he maintained for many years.  By 1930 he also started staging small rodeos from time to time and by 1933 had abandoned the carnival wild west and formed his own organization, The JE Rodeo.

 

 Colonel Jim was well known for his abilities to produce wild west shows and rodeos with ease, in an era when the country was making major changes and wild west was on it’s way out.  Rodeo was becoming more popular each year.  Eskew allowed his performers, who were paid a salary on his wild west payroll, to perform as cowboys and cowgirls in rodeos produced by him.  This was not the case with all producers, but Eskew demanded it.

 

            Eskew was enticed to move to Waverly, New York , in 1939, with the offer of 300 acres for three years, and in turn Eskew would put on a rodeo at Waverly.  It turned out so successful that he made a permanent home there.  Every 4th of July Eskew entertained the people of Waverly at a rodeo held on his property.

 

            The entire Eskew family participated in the shows and later the rodeos he produced.  The family, in addition to showman extraordinaire, Colonel Jim, consisted of his wife, Dolly, sons Jim Jr. and Tom Mix Eskew (named after the Colonel’s good friend, Tom Mix, the early western movie star).  Jim Jr. trick roped and both boys were a great pick-up team, but they also worked as arena directors and managers.  Junior Eskew married Mary Louise, the daughter of rodeo greats, Floyd and Florence Randolph.  They in turn had one daughter, Madonna, who began performing at age five as a trick rider and by nine was also a trick roper.  My grandma Florence taught me to trick ride on her horse ‘Boy’,” recalled Madonna Eskew Pumphrey, who now lives in Ardmore , Oklahoma .  Madonna also remembered watching her beloved grandfather, Colonel Jim, “squat down and roll Bull Durham cigarettes and continue to squat forever and visit with the cowboys.”  She also recalled that Eskew always had a cook tent where he fed the cowboys and their horses.

 

            Madonna said that she always enjoyed traveling with the rodeo and Colonel Jim.  “I would get sick when fall would come around and I would have to go home to Oklahoma to go to school.  All the kids of the rodeo hands and performers would play together and we were just like one big family as we all lived in trailer-houses on the rodeo grounds.  I’ll never forget when I grew up and got my first job, as an employee in a doctor’s office.  My paycheck was so small, compared to what I got performing trick riding as a five year old, I wasn’t sure I wanted to live away from rodeo!”

 

            Dixie Reger Mosley was only five years old when she met Colonel Jim in 1935.  Her family worked as contract performers with the Colonel’s wild west show.     Dixie was a trick rider when she was five and a half.  She remembered the Colonel as a nice, gentle man with a good reputation and integrity.  One of her memories was seeing Uncle Herbie Maddy, a PR man for the show, Foghorn Clancy, early day rodeo announcer, and Colonel Jim all sitting around talking.  Colonel Jim would smoke cigarettes while squatting, and seemed to never tire in that position,” said Mosely.

 

            Frank Merrill was hired by Colonel Eskew to work on his Waverly, New York , ranch.  “I started out as a ‘road apple jockey’, and shoveled manure out of the barn,” Merrill said laughingly.  After a skirmish with a mean foreman the Colonel promoted Merrill to ‘baby sit’ the ranch while the wild west performers were away.  The following year, 1942, Merrill went on the wild west  road with Eskew, who called him “Pichandle”.  The jovial character stepped in to help the Colonel when his bullfighter was injured and held that position of rodeo clown until he was drafted in to the Army in 1950.  I loved Colonel Eskew.  He was an honest man.  He paid us $5.00 a week to work on the ranch, plus room and board, and all the Bull Durham we wanted.  When I clowned I got $25 a performance,” remembered Pic.  Joking he said that whenever the Colonel asked him to do an additional chore and he answered with “as soon as I finish this ---“  he said the Colonel’s favorite saying was, “Pichandle, you’ve got more stalls than a livery stable!”

 

            Colonel Jim Eskew, master showman, retired in 1957 from the rodeo world.  By this time rodeo was alive and healthy and rodeos had cropped up everywhere.  Colonel Jim died February 23, 1965 , at the home of his son, Junior, in Ardmore , Oklahoma . . . . . the last of an era who bridged the gap from Wild West to rodeo -- and never missed a beat.

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