the Huntsville Humdinger hit the streets that Monday, the feisty
four-column competitor of the long-established Huntsville Item carried
on page one a humdinger of a local scoop: The prison system would
be starting a rodeo that fall.
On Sept. 4, 1931, new prison director Lee Simmons had presented
the Texas Prison Board with his idea of staging a rodeo using inmates
as the performers. Following “considerable discussion,” the board
voted its unanimous approval. That was a Thursday, meaning that
week’s Item had already gone to press. The Humdinger broke the rodeo
story on September 7.
Simmons said the event, to be held each Sunday in October, would
be for “the benefit of the convicts and employees.” All employees
and their families would be admitted free. At 25 cents a head, the
rodeo also would be open to the public. Proceeds would be divided
equally among the 30 stripe-suited cowboys, Simmons told the Humdinger.
The director later admitted his biggest sales job had been in talking
local preachers into “allowing” the prison to stage a public event
on the Sabbath.
The blessing of the clergy having been secured, inmates on the Eastham
Farm began cutting oak timbers to be used in construction of an
arena east of the Walls Unit in the baseball field behind the warden’s
house. The new facility would seat 800 people.
Having done the blue sky work and gained the needed buy-in, Simmons
designated Albert Moore, who worked in the prison’s record office
and livestock superintendent R.O. McFarling to make the rodeo a
reality. Walls Unit warden W.W. Waid would be in charge of security.
The warden told the Humdinger that while Moore had selected “the
roughest and toughest” inmates in the system to compete in the rodeo,
he anticipated no trouble in keeping the cowboys corralled during
“I think it would be fine for the morale of both inmates and employees,”
Prison Board chairman W. A. Paddock said of Simmons’ idea. “If the
rodeo is successful this year, I am sure the Board will vote to
make it an annual event.” He went on to say he foresaw people from
as far away as Houston (60 miles) coming to enjoy the show.
Simmons said he hoped the rodeo would make $1,000 that year, which
means he expected 4,000 paying customers. (If the arena could accommodate
800 people, with half the space reserved for non-paying prison workers
and their families, he must have been allowing for standing-room-only
No matter the numbers that first year, only two years later attendance
had jumped to 15,000.
the Humdinger’s coverage of Simmons’s rodeo plan appears objective
enough, editor Petey Furp, who had been publishing the Humdinger
since 1895, pulled no punches in an editorial on what he thought
of the director’s brain child.
Beginning his three-paragraph piece with a reminder that the Humdinger
“through the years…has demonstrated that it supports a policy of
civic betterment for our community” Furp quickly got to the point:
“We cannot look with favor on inauguration of a rodeo by the officials
of the prison system. We are surprised that the Prison Board showed
such poor judgment in approving it and that the governor, in effect,
gave his stamp of approval by agreeing to attend the first performance
on October 4.”
So why did Furp (seriously, that was his last name) have editorial
heart burn over the rodeo idea?
Well, he wrote, “It will appeal to a rowdy element and bring into
our fair city a boisterous crowd who will take up our parking space
and tax to capacity our eating establishments.”
Furp’s concluding paragraph deserves to be memorialized as one of
the best examples of wrong guessing ever spewed forth from a Texas
“While Lee Simmons and Albert Moore are upstanding citizens of sterling
character, they are wrong in thinking that a bunch of convicts will
have nerve enough to ride long
horn steers and bucking horses. Mr. Simmons stated that he hopes
the prison rodeo will become an annual event. We confidently predict
that it will not survive longer than two Sundays and will soon be
Instead, the rodeo grew yearly in reputation, star power and attendance
to the point where it rivaled the State Fair of Texas as an October
draw. During its peak years, the four-weekend prison rodeo pulled
in some 100,000 annually. As it turned out, local restaurants and
motels stood perfectly willing to put up with parking problems in
exchange for a fall revenue surge that doubtless exceeded even their
But the prison board giveth and the prison board taketh away.
In 1986, engineers found that the much expanded brick rodeo arena
was structurally unsound. Not having the funding to make the repairs,
the panel voted to end the rodeo. The last bull shot out of a chute
that October 26 and the by then famous Texas Prison Rodeo was history.
Billed as “The Wildest Show Behind Bars,” it had long outlasted
the Huntsville Humdinger.
© Mike Cox
"Texas Tales" October
1, 2009 column