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  Texas : Features : Columns : "Letters from Central Texas"

Never another like Bill Pickett

by Clay Coppedge
ROCKDALE - Bill Pickett invented the practice of what we know as bulldogging, or steer wrestling. Like a lot of what used to be strictly ranch activities, bulldogging has become a rodeo sport. The sport consists of jumping on a steer from a horse and wrestling the steer to the ground.

Even if someone else got the bright idea to subdue an unruly steer by jumping on it and biting its lip, that person never admitted it. History gives the distinction to Bill Pickett, the oldest of 13 children born in Williamson County to former slaves. He says he got the idea watching dogs do the same thing when they were herding cows.

Pickett demonstrated his unique skills all over America and in Mexico, South America, Canada and England. Cowboy actor Tom Mix and humorist Will Rogers were among the people who served as Pickett's assistant.

Rodeo and Old West historians differ on where this bulldogging thing first happened, and how. The most popular version, especially locally, has the defining moment taking place in Rockdale in 1903 when an unruly Longhorn steer tried Pickett's patience to the point where he did something drastic; he rode his horse alongside the ornery Longhorn then jumped off his horse onto the back of the steer and grabbed its horns. The steer resisted until Pickett bit the steer's lower lip, at which point the steer became downright docile. Pickett wrestled it to the ground with a compliant thud.

Dora Scarbrough, in her book "Land of Good Water" relates from interviews that Pickett got the bulldogging idea by watching herd dogs. A younger brother relates that Pickett practiced the act that would make him famous in his family's pasture outside Noack in Williamson County. He relates the following account: "Will got to bulldogging down there in the pasture at night. On moonlit nights he would go out there and get on a horse and bulldog. {His parents} caught him at it and brought those cattle {nearer the house} to practice bulldogging so the younger children could see it."

Pickett told a different story to fellow rodeo star Milt Hinkle. Hinkle told Scarbrough that Pickett told him he first bulldogged for real when an angry cow tried to gore his horse Chico. "I just had to keep that old cow from running his horns into my little Chico," Pickett told Hinkle. Angry that the cow tried to gore his horse, Pickett jumped on the cow and twisted its neck until it went down.

"I grabbed her by the lips and started biting her," Pickett said. The ranch boss saw Chico return riderless and went to check on Pickett. He found his best cowboy truly on the horns of a dilemma: Pickett had the cow subdued by biting its lip, but if he let go he would certainly be gored. The ranch boss helped Pickett out of his fix, and a new sport was born.

Billed as the "Dusky Demon" Pickett exhibited his bulldogging skills at rodeos, fairs and exhibitions worldwide. He first received national attention when he bulldogged a steer at the 1904 Cheyenne Frontier Days Rodeo, which had roughly the same appeal as today's Super Bowl.

For a hundred years now, Pickett has been known as theman who invented steer wrestling, though lip biting is a no-no in the modern arena.. Pickett eventually settled in Oklahoma, working the Miller Brothers' 101 Ranch in Boley and touring with their 101 Ranch Wild West Show. He became known far and wide as the man who invented bulldogging.

Not as well known is that Bill Pickett was America's first black cowboy star. He made two movies for the Norman Film Manufacturing Co. in 1921 - "The Bulldogger" and "The Crimson Skull." According to David Davis of the LA Weekly, all that exists from those films are some outtakes - none with Pickett - and a 25-second clip of him performing roping tricks.

Pickett was the first black man to be elected to the National Cowboy Hall of Fame and Western Heritage Center in Oklahoma. In 1993, the U.S. Postal Service honored him as part of its Legends of the West series of stamps, but the picture that appeared on the stamp was of Bill Pickett's brother. The original stamp was recalled and the correct picture printed on the stamp. The back printing on the revised stamp corrects his birth as 1870; the original had him born in 1871. Historians to this day aren't sure.

Pickett died on April 2 after being kicked in the head by a horse he was roping. He approached the horse with a bridle, but the horse began pawing at the brim of Pickett's hat. At 61, Pickett might have lost a step. The horse's hoof clipped Pickett's head and knocked him down. "The horse then jumped on Ol' Bill and stomped his brains into the dust," Hinkle related.

Today Pickett is honored not only with a spot in the Rodeo Cowboy Hall of Fame but also with the Bill Pickett Invitational Rodeo in Oklahoma. Pickett Elementary School in Georgetown is named for him. At the Cowboy Hall of Fame, these words are inscribed to Pickett's memory:
Like many men in the old time West
On any job he did his best
He left a blank that's hard to fill
For there will never be another Bill.
Clay Coppedge
"Letters from Central Texas" - December 1, 2004 column

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