BEHIND THE CHUTES AND ELSEWHERE

 

By: Gail Hughbanks Woerner

 

            The Dublin (Texas) Rodeo Heritage Museum, which opened in June, 2003, held a tribute dinner for Harry Tompkins July 17th  at the local high school.  Tompkins has lived in the Dublin area since 1950 and has been one of the most inspirational citizens for gathering and sharing important information about the history of rodeo as it pertains to Dublin.  Everett Colborn, the well-known stock contractor and rodeo producer made Dublin the ‘jumping off place’ for the famous Rodeo Train that traveled from Dublin to Madison Square Garden, in New York City, then on to Boston Gardens, for the final rodeos of the year.  Dublin itself also had quite a prestigious rodeo for many years.  Many rodeo notables have worked for and participated with Colborn and lived in the area for a time. Although the Museum has not been open long it deserves a stop if you are in the area.  For information contact:  254-445-0200.

 

            Harry Tompkins was not raised on a ranch as most cowboys were in the days he competed (1946 until 1961).   He was born and raised in Peekskill, New York.  As a little kid he always watched an old man go by on a wagon, with a horse tied behind.  He plowed gardens for people in the area.  One day the man stopped and asked Harry, “You want to go with me?” and Harry joined him.  Harry did what the man told him to do, and even pitched some loose hay on to a stack.  One day he let Harry drive the wagon, and Harry decided to take a short cut.  The wagon tipped over and the old man got disgusted with the young boy.  That was Harry’s first introduction to horses.

 

  Later when he was around nine,  Harry noticed a herd of horses being trailed to a stable and he followed them.  It wasn’t long before young Harry was working there, cleaning stables and brushing the horses.  One project was shoveling manure on to a dump truck, which took a few weeks.  The pay was a three hour trail ride horseback.  While they were on the trail it rained.  A man that worked there bought Harry a pair of boots.  Harry owned a two dollar black cowboy hat, with white lacing which he was wearing on this ride.  The rain filled his new boots and the dye came out of the hat, and streaked down his face.  He was a sight, but he loved working with the horses.  At night when the horses were out in the pasture Harry and a friend would ride the horses, without the owners being aware.  The boys even  taught them to jump poles, and would keep raising the poles until the horses were able to jump the fences of their pasture.  They kept escaping but the owners never could understand how they learned to jump fences and escape, but Harry and his friend didn’t tell.!

 

At age 16, Harry went to work on a dude ranch in the area called Cinnabar and later moved to the Cimarron Dude Ranch.  Mike Hastings, a champion cowboy who had made quite a name for himself, was a wrangler there and Harry worked with him.  The cowboys would put on exhibitions for the guests including bronc riding and riding steers.  The horses used had been previously used in the Wild Horse Race at the big Madison Square Garden Rodeo.  Once they would stop bucking the dude ranch would make them in to  saddle horses for the guests.

 

            Red Wilmer and Jerry Ambler, both experienced competitive cowboys, once  came to the dude ranch for a party, while back east during the Madison Square Garden rodeo.  Harry saw the expensive car they were driving and was impressed with their fancy clothes.  Harry decided if he could be a rodeo  cowboy, dress like that and drive a fancy car, that just might be the way to live.   Wilmer took Harry to Moberly, Missouri, to compete in his first rodeo.  Jim Shoulders was hurt at the time and was judging the rodeo.  Harry entered the saddle bronc riding, bareback riding and the bull riding because to win the all-around saddle you had to be entered in three events.  He got throwed off the saddle bronc, placed in the bareback riding and won the bull riding, and won the saddle.  Harry showed he was an exceptional rider from the very beginning.  The Cimarron Dude Ranch he was working for decided to enter him in the Madison Square Garden Rodeo so they paid his entry fees in both bareback and bull riding and got him a room at the Belvedere Hotel, right across the street from ‘the Garden’.  The rodeo in New York City was thirty days long and had fifty-two performances.  Harry says he got bucked off everything he rode, but finally  rode a bull and made $316, which he immediately hid under the mattress in his hotel room at the Belvedere.  It wasn’t long after that when Harry began competing full time.  Two years later, 1948, he won his first World Champion Bull Riding title.  From there he won the Bull Riding Championship again in 1949, 1950, 1952 and 1960.  He also won the Bareback Riding World Championship and the All-Around title  in 1952 and again won the All-Around World Championship in 1960.

 

            Jim Shoulders, in an article in an October 1968 issue of Hoofs & Horns, entitled BULL RIDERS TODAY said, “As far as I’m concerned, there is nobody anywhere close to Harry Tompkins when it comes to natural ability to ride.”   The Peekskill cowboy as a child spent many hours ice skating.  He also practiced walking railings, and even practiced walking on a cable stretched across a pond.  He had tremendous balance and quick reflexes and chose a career where that was essential.  When asked about his ability he just says, “I was given a ‘gift’ ”.

 

            Some of the traveling partners Harry had while ‘going down the road’ were Jim Shoulders, and Jack Buschbom.  “Buschbom wrecked two of my cars,” said the eight-time World Champion.  These top roughstock champs were also some of the first cowboys to fly from rodeo to rodeo.  In the beginning they would hop a commercial plane, carrying their spurs and ropes,  arrive at their destination, grab a cab, get to the rodeo, ride their stock, get back in a cab, arrive back at the airport and get on another airline to the next destination.  “The New York to Omaha to Chicago hop worked well.  I would have a cab waiting and one time I walked in to the rodeo at Chicago and there were only two bulls left to ride in the bull riding  -- mine and one other”, Harry recalled.  That is cutting it mighty close.  Later these same folks leased a few planes and scurried from rodeo to rodeo.  Harry said Buschbom bought a plane and he rode with him one time.  “That was enough,” laughed the eight-time world champ.

 

            When asked to name some of the best broncs and bulls of his era, Tompkins didn’t miss a beat.  Come Apart  that belonged to Leo Cremer, of Montana, was definitely the best bronc there ever was.  He was showy, lasted a long time, and no body rode him”.  As for bulls, he explained that in his era most bulls were not named, but were usually remembered by their number, “Number 73 owned by Homer Todd and Yellow Jacket a Christensen bull were great bulls”.  When asked about the best cowboys during his era he named Casey Tibbs as the best saddle bronc rider and Gene Rambo as the best All-Around hand.

 

            Harry Tompkins and Rosemary Colborn, daughter of Everett Colborn, were married in 1950.  They, of course, met at a rodeo.  They moved to Dublin, Texas, and had three children, Martha, Mark and Neal.  The only one in the rodeo business presently is Martha, who competes, raises and trains barrel riding horses. Rosemary died of cancer after twenty years of marriage to Harry. 

 

            In 1961, a freak accident on a bull at a Las Vegas rodeo caused Tompkins to sustain an injury to his elbow.  After dismounting, the bull hit him with his horn and knocked his elbow out of joint.  His arm was never the same and his riding career ended.  But that didn’t stop him from participating in rodeo.  He judged rodeos, in fact it was during this time Tompkins and others judging during this era recommended that the RCA began to require that cowboy hats be worn during competition, not baseball caps; boots were required, no sneakers allowed; and wearing the competitors number was a requirement.

 

            The original owners of the Mesquite Rodeo near Dallas included Tompkins, along with Neal Gay, Jim Shoulders, D. J. Gaudin and Ira Akers.  Tompkins sold his interest after two years.  He also designed bucking chutes that allowed rodeos to install them in much less time than previously required.  The same style of chute is still being used today.  He also designed a children’s saddle that had a ‘handle’ instead of a horn.  Although the design did not become popular Tompkins knows of a current barrel racer that is using one of his adult saddles with the handle.

 

            Tompkins designed the unique home he lives in with present wife, Melba.  It is basically underground and therefore, the temperature remains constant year round.  “We run the air-conditioning about three months out of the year,” he said, which is incredible in the Texas heat.  The electric bill never exceeds $120 a month, and this also includes the electricity used in his barns and throughout the ranch.

 

            Tompkins, who is one of the best story-tellers of by-gone rodeo days, has been an excellent ambassador for the sport of rodeo.  In his early days of rodeo he became one of the earliest models and cowboy representatives for Wrangler; he served on the Board of the Rodeo Historical Society for many years; and was instrumental in helping organize the Cowboy Reunion held during the National Finals Rodeo in Las Vegas each year.  Not only has he been inducted in to six different Halls of Fame throughout the country, but also been honored by receiving the diamond encrusted ring and declared as ‘Bull Rider for Our Time’ by the Professional Bull Riders in 1997.  He is serving presently as Associate Vice President of the new Dublin Rodeo Historical Museum. 

 

            Jim Shoulders, Tompkins’ long-time friend and holder of sixteen World Championships, attended the Tribute Dinner held for Harry Tompkins and said to the crowd, “When I was judging that rodeo in Moberly, Missouri, back in 1946, if I’d only ‘goose-egged’ that damn Yankee, maybe he’d gone back to New York and forgot about rodeoing.”  Tompkins’ response to his good friend, and former traveling buddy was, “Hey, I’m the one who  kept you from winning twenty-two  World Titles by winning eight of ‘em!”  It is quite evident these two have a camaraderie that has never waned and that this ribbing and banter has been going on for fifty-some years.  I’d say that friendship is going to last.  It is also evident that Harry Tompkins will be an Ambassador to rodeo for life, and rodeo is much better  because of Tompkins.

 

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