World’s first indoor rodeo? Texas and Kansas haggle over bragging rights

When it comes to the Old West, Texas has always done its fair share of bragging.

They take credit for the Texas boot, the Texas hat. Why, some Texans even claim that the songs “Abilene” and “The Streets of Laredo” are about Texas.

We Kansans know better. Heck, it was our boot makers who gave their cowboys the boot. John Stetson was in Kansas Territory when he came up with the idea for a hat that shaded the face and the back of the neck.

And as far as those songs? Well, how about Abilene, Kansas? Ever hear of that place, Texas? And as for “The Streets of Laredo,” it was written by Kansan Frank Maynard about a cowboy who was shot and lay dying on the streets of Dodge City — Kansas.

“We claim everything,” said Mike Campbell, chief historian at the Texas State Historical Association based in Denton.

But therein lies the rub.

For decades now, Texas has claimed it was the host of the world’s first indoor rodeo — held March 11-16, 1918, in the North Side Coliseum of the Southwestern Exposition and Fat Stock Show in Fort Worth.

Kansas — more specifically Wichita — hosted an indoor rodeo Jan. 23-26, 1918. It was held in the Forum, the forerunner of Century II.

The event was billed as the Mid-Winter Championship Frontier Days Contest, and the key phrase for most of the advertisements was “Hook ’em, Cowboy!”

And so, could it be true? Can Kansas claim one more Old West first?

Eye of the beholder

During the first two decades of the 20th century, the definition of cowboys and rodeos was murky.

“Whether it was defined as a sport or an event, it was in transition,” said Don Reeves, curator of cowboy culture at the National Cowboy & Western Heritage Museum in Oklahoma City. “It meant different things in different places.

“It’s like the argument over where the first rodeo was or what time something went from being a community festival to a rodeo. On the other side of the hallway, you get the discussion of what is a cowboy? How is it defined? A cowboy, rancher and worker are different things.”

And so, can Wichita claim to have the world’s first indoor rodeo? Depends on the definition.

At the Frontier Days Contest held inside the Forum, there was a bulldogging contest, trick rope entries, bronco busting, trick riding and more.

“The entire crowd expressed admiration at the courage of the diminutive ‘Toots’ Griffith, the smallest steer-riding cowgirl, when she mounted a steer, rode him until he had lost his desire to buck her off. Then, she gracefully dismounted,” The Wichita Beacon reported on Jan. 25, 1918.

The first rodeo “under a roof certainly had saddle bronc riding, steer roping and wild steer riding,” said Richard Rattenbury, curator of history at the National Cowboy & Western Heritage Museum . “It would have been women and men competing. … It was a public event in which people paid admission as opposed to a Wild West Show. There were contestants, not paid performers.”

The cost to get into Wichita’s Frontier Days Contest was 75 cents for seats in the upper balcony; $1 for the lower balcony and $1.50 for box seats. Children were admitted for 50 cents.

Dispute over dates

Tom B. Saunders of Weatherford, Texas, said his grandfather was on the board of the Southwestern Exposition and Fat Stock Show in 1918.

“My grandfather was the first cattle dealer in the stockyards,” Saunders said. “The reason they built the stockyards was to get the packing companies to come to Fort Worth. They knew it could be a major market for cattle and hogs.”

And so, when was that first show?

“March 1918,” said Saunders, who is also a Texas historian. “It was the first known indoor rodeo.

“What was considered a rodeo back in those days was when they rode bucking horses. They rode steers instead of bulls, and they roped everything ahead of them. … If you get to the true meaning of a rodeo, it’s a contest among the cowboys and it is not a staged act.”

Rattenbury said no. The first indoor rodeo was in 1917 at Fort Worth’s Coliseum — but that it was a cowgirl and not a cowboy event. It was Lucille Mulhall’s Wild West Show.

“She was the first real rodeo cowgirl. Her father, Zach Mulhall, was a Wild West Show entrepreneur, and he raised her up as a rodeo steer roper and sometime bucking horse rider,” Rattenbury said. “ She was more known for steer roping. She was very good at it. By the teens, she was running her own rodeos around the country.”

Rattenbury said she had competition events for both cowboys and cowgirls.

Even so, her show is not considered by some Texans as the first indoor rodeo. Fort Worth’s Cowtown Coliseum claims its first indoor rodeo is 1918; as does the Fort Worth Stockyards and the website “Portal To Texas History.”

W.R. “Bob” Watt Jr., president emeritus of the Fort Worth Stock Show and Rodeo, said the first indoor rodeo was at Fort Worth’s Northside Coliseum building.

“They had a Wild West Show in that building in connection to the stock show for two year prior to that,” he said.

Did he know Wichita had a indoor rodeo before Fort Worth’s?

“I was not aware of that. I wasn’t around in 1918 so, I really don’t know,” Watt said. “That’s news to me, and I really don’t know that it is all that significant.”

According to Fort Worth’s history, Fort Worth city leaders began planning a show in late 1917 that featured cowboys and cowgirls. One of the committee members suggested they name it after a term Mexican cowboys used for contest and call it just as it was pronounced: “ro-Day-o.”

Tom Saunders’ father, Tom B. Saunders III, who was a commission man and Stock Show vice president and historian, recalled one of the Fort Worth committee members wanted to know how that was spelled: R-O-D-E-O.

“Why that’s rode-EE-O” one of the other committee members exclaimed. And so, that’s how the Fort Worth Rodeo came to be known in 1918.

Wichita’s claim

Nearly 100 years ago, Col. John Van “Tex” Austin came to Wichita to put on a show. He was an early rodeo promoter and owned the Forked Lightning Ranch in New Mexico. He brought with him some champion cowboys and cowgirls.

There was Scout Maish, world roping champion, and “Powder Face” Tom Echard, who got his nickname because his face was powder marked.

The Eagle reported on Jan. 14, 1918, that the show promised to electrify people, spelling Echard’s last name as “Eckerd.”

“Until two years ago just an ordinary cowhand, Eckerd has set a pace that has made the best of them step lively around contests in order to get in the money where he was competing,” the paper reported. “At the great stampede in New York City where 40,000 people literally went wild when Eckerd stepped out and made a flying leap from the hurricane deck of a cow pony and threw his bovine in exactly twelve and one-fifth seconds, just missing the champions record by a bare fifth of a second.”

The Beacon reported that during the show, Echard tried ride a bucking bronco named “Dunn Gone.”

“Col. Austin’s famous unrideable bucking outlaw “Dunn Gone” added another victim to his already long string and this time one of the best buckaroos in the business, Tom Eckerd,” the Beacon reported. “Powder Face … stayed just four jumps and for the first time in many years Powder Face … pulled leather and pulled it so hard that when he went over the horse’s head, the saddle went with him.”

So there was clearly competition at the Wichita show.

“I think it is interesting our newspaper clippings predates their show,” said Rebecca Martin, assistant director of the Kansas Museum of History in Topeka. “Newspapers are considered primary sources.

“It doesn’t mean that somebody else can’t come along and prove ours otherwise. But the more we study history, the more we discover things happened first in Kansas.

“Kansans have a lot to be proud of, and now maybe we can add an important piece of rodeo history to our list. Texans may be better at self promotion, but we’ve got history on our side.”

How significant would it be for Kansas to claim the world’s first indoor rodeo?

“How significant is the world’s largest ball of twine?” asked Marci Penner, director of the Kansas Sampler Foundation and an ardent supporter of anything Kansas. “What it does is get you publicity and it is another plug for the state.

“In this case, we can’t let Texas do that when we were actually the first. If we are actually the first ones, we need to claim it. …You claim it until somebody else proves you wrong.

“And that’s exactly what Texas has done. I don’t blame them for doing it. But I just think we need to be more proud of what we do and what we have .”