The Texas Prison Rodeo (earlier known as the Huntsville Prison Rodeo) was an event that Texans looked forward to for many years. It began in 1931 when Marshall Lee Simmons, then serving as general manager of the Texas Prison System, conceived of it as a means for the prisoners to have recreation and as entertainment for the prison employees and their families but it quickly grew to a ticketed event that would play to a full grandstand of 14,000 to 15,000 people per performance. The event covered costs and raised money for an inmate treatment, education and recreation fund for the prisoners. Eventually the performances were held each Sunday in October and would total as many as 100,000 attendees per season. In its later years, it would not be unusual for the prison rodeo to earn $450,000 in a season for the inmate fund.
The first venue was the baseball field outside the Walls Unit and it was held there for many years. In 1950 the event went on the road to Dallas in the early summer and a new 25,000 seat arena was constructed in Huntsville on the prison grounds, built by prisoners.
It featured all the standard rodeo events: bull riding, calf roping, bareback and saddle bronc horseback riding, plus novelty events such as wild cow milking, greased pig sacking, goat roping and others. One event held only at the prison rodeo had 40 red-shirted inmates turned loose in the arena with one snorting bull. The bull had a Bull Durham tobacco sack tied between its horns and the winner was the contestant who could grab the sack and take it to the event judge. Inside the sack was a varying amount of money ($50 plus donations) which the inmate got to keep.
Participation was limited to experienced ranch hands at first, but later any inmate with a clean record could be considered for the limited number of openings, as many as 50 to 100 per season. Prisoners from the various Texas units would try out prior to the event and the best contestants were selected to compete. Contestants would wear striped uniforms sewn by female inmates and topped off by cowboy hats. Women from the Goree Unit participated for many years until that unit was closed and women prisoners were transferred to a new facility in Gainesville in 1981. Inmates would also staff the positions of the rodeo band and the bullfighters (formerly called rodeo clowns). In one rodeo, the combined sentences of the bullfighters added up to 199 years.
Each year a Top Hand award was given based on points scored. It was a sought after honor by the prisoners. The winner would have his name engraved on a plaque that hung in a hallway of the prison administration building. A 1970 newspaper article named the defending champion as Leroy Rideaux of Brazoria, the 1969 champion, who was serving a 99 year sentence and thus had “plenty of time to practice,” the article said. Runner up the previous year was O’Neal Browning of Dallas, a former six-time champion who was also serving a life sentence for the murder of his father. Browning, who had excelled at the one-time Dallas performance in 1950, won his a seventh and final title in 1973. Capable and durable, he won his seven titles over three different decades. Browning wanted to use his winnings to try and gain a parole. He was successful but was a free man for only one month until he was returned to prison due to a parole violation. Browning lived out the rest of his life in prison and is buried in the prison cemetery.
(Image credit: Steve Ueckert, Houston Chronicle. Pictured: O’Neal Browning)
Beginning in 1951, the rodeo began to book well known entertainers to perform at the intermission, with there being too many to list in entirety. Some of them have included Jimmy Dean, Tom Mix, Loretta Lynn, Guy Willis, Johnny Cash, Hank Snow, Eddie Arnold, Buck Owens and his Buckaroos, Tom T. Hall, Johnny Rodriguez, Dolly Parton, George Strait, Willie Nelson and many others. Probably one of the most anticipated performers was one Juanita Phillips, better known back then as exotic dancer Candy Barr, a former inmate of the Goree Unit. Below is a newspaper ad from 1966 featuring Barr:
The big name performers were warmly welcomed to the event, but newspaper reports say country singer Tanya Tucker backed out one year. It had been raining but the rain had stopped by intermission. However, the singer still refused to play. One week later a Halloween Ball in Houston in which Tucker was to be the featured performer in nearby Houston had to be cancelled due to lack of ticket sales. The article implied that the event’s cancellation may have been at least partly attributed to backlash from the cancelled prison rodeo performance.
In the history of the event, there were two deaths from rodeo injuries. There were numerous broken bones but prisoners would be quoted as saying that the hospital beds were softer than those in the cells. There was also one escape when two prisoners exchanged their inmate’s uniforms for civilian clothes that had been conveniently stashed for them below the grandstands. An officer saw them but thought they were trying to sneak in to the rodeo, so he gave them a lecture and let them go, although they were recaptured a short time later.
The final performance of the rodeo was to have occurred around 1969 or 1970 due to decisions of authorities in the prison system. Attendance had waned at least partly because of the ongoing energy crisis. Despite several attempts to revive the rodeo, the actual final performance took place in 1986 with the stated reasons including deterioration of the stands, increased inmate litigation and others. The grandstands were then demolished, thus ending a unique and fascinating era for the Texas prison system.
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