Most of the top-flight rodeo cowboys in 1936 were very concerned over the meager dollar amounts that were being paid for winning rodeo events. Sometimes it wasn’t even enough money to make it to the next rodeo. During that time, rodeo producers determined the purses that were paid to winning contestants and often the entry fees were not even added to the purse. It was a tough time for cowboys, cost for food, lodging, travel were all getting higher, but prize money remained low and cowboy complaints to those in charge of making changes seemed to go unanswered.
1936 wasn’t the first time that cowboys had talked about getting organized and demanding higher purses. Fay Ward in 1916 tried to convince rodeo cowboys to organize so they could provide for the injured and retired contestants, plus other benefits, but it never happened. Again, in 1932, a group of cowboys came together, headed by M. D. Fanning, and were determined to raise the standards of the sport as well as provide funds to take care of those injured during competition. Ninety-five members committed to this project and the hat was passed and a total of $300 was collected. Abe Lefton, a well-known announcer, was chairman of the group, and he directed that eight committees were formed to represent each branch of rodeo. Eventually, however, all the good intentions went by the wayside. Cowboys are notorious for being independent and directly opposed to becoming part of any organized group. At this time in our nation many occupations were forming unions or organizations to improve the workers bargaining positions within their professions. It was just a matter of time for cowboys. Something had to be done if rodeo was to survive.
Colonel W. T. Johnson, of San Antonio, Texas, was a banker and rancher, who decided in 1929 to produce rodeos. He got his start by producing a successful rodeo in San Antonio. He had excellent marketing and promotional talents and in no time was awarded many top rodeos across the country, including Madison Square Garden in New York, Boston Garden, and other major rodeos in cities throughout the country. He had a knack for getting people not familiar with rodeo to attend and encourage others to do so. Despite the fact that the Colonel had become the top rodeo producer by 1936, he still turned a deaf ear when it came to listening to the cowboy’s complaints about prize monies.
Behind the scenes of the Madison Square Garden rodeo, which lasted almost a month, the cowboys made their plans to strike. Meanwhile Hugh Bennett, a top-flight cowboy, had worked for Johnson and seemed to have his ear on some matters - - but not on raising the prize money.
Many of the contestants who had come to Madison Square Garden, in New York, had ridden the Rodeo Train, which was provided by the Colonel from San Antonio to New York. A cowboy was charged $50, and if he had a horse it cost $100, to ride from Texas. The cowboys had a concern that if they opposed the Colonel they may become stranded in the East and not be able to ride home on the train. Richard Merchant, took the responsibility of finding alternative ways for cowboys to return home provided the Colonel pulled the train ride, after their impending strike.
While secret plans were being made by the cowboys, Bennett and others attempted to convince Colonel Johnson to increase the purses, but to no avail. The final blow (after $30,000 in prize money at the Madison Square Garden rodeo) was when they arrived in Boston and it was announced the total prize money was ONLY $7,000. It was well known that Johnson received $80,000 to produce the Boston rodeo, plus the contesting cowboys entry fees. The Boston Garden management provided the prize money.
The day of the first performance sixty-one exhausted, and frustrated cowboys signed a petition that was presented to Colonel Johnson requesting that entry fees be added to the purse. He continued to ignore their requests and insisted those cowboys, refusing to compete, should remove their horses from the Boston Garden. As the cowboys rode out of the building, on their horses, the press photographers were waiting. It was called “a walkout’, as well as ‘a strike’. The cowboys had support from other union leaders in the area. Johnson insisted he would have a first rate rodeo that night ‘without them’. Using grooms, stable boys, wild west actors and roustabouts, and with the striking cowboys sitting in the audience booing, it was a very uncomfortable evening for the Boston Garden management, and they finally called a halt to the performance, gave the spectators their money back, and told Colonel Johnson to ‘get right with the cowboys’ or he would be removed from the premises as well.
Negotiations went on well in to the next day until Colonel Johnson finally agreed to the newly formed Cowboys Turtle Association requests that entry fees be added to the purse money. And the rodeo continued with ‘new and improved’ rules.
The Cowboys Turtle Association had growing pains as all newly formed organizations experience, but with the determination of the rodeo cowboys of that era it finally became a reality. According to Cowboys Turtle Association’s 1937 minutes, which included the association by-laws, written in March, 1937, the first board of directors included; President, Rusty McGinty; Vice President, Eddie Woods; Secretary-Treasurer, Hugh Bennett; and Speaker, Everett Bowman.
A document signed March 8, 1945, by George Mills, Gerald Roberts and Dick Griffith, which served as a notice of a meeting of the ‘Turtles’ Board of Directors to be held in Fort Worth, on March 16, 1945, to transact business, including changing the name of the Association from Cowboys Turtle Association to the Rodeo Cowboys Association. In 1975 the name was again changed to the present-day ProRodeo Cowboys Association.
At the 2002 Cowboy Reunion, held at the Excalibur Hotel, in Las Vegas, during the December, National Finals Rodeo, ten members of the Cowboys Turtle Association attended. Please keep in mind this name ONLY existed for a brief nine-years (October, 1936 to March, 1945).
Those attending Cowboys Turtle Association members are: Cecil Jones, Phil Stadtler, Bill Bachman, Jim Shoulders, Buff Douthitt, Buster Ivory, Corky Randall, Chuck Shepard, Bart Clennon and Holloway Grace. Bart Clennon, age 92, of Tucson, Arizona, was the only attending member who signed the original petition presented to Colonel Johnson. The only other living Cowboys Turtle Association member, whose name appears on the petition is Buttons Yonnick, of Texas. Hats off to these early-day cowboys who set the standards and demanded better conditions for those who compete today!