July 27, 1997

Pecos rodeo heritage draws top cowhands

For The Associated Press

PECOS - The name of this town frying out here at the bottom of the Panhandle means ``crooked.''

Residents note it was the river's serpentine path that inspired the name, not the town's character. But, at times, both fit. Clay Allison is buried here. The Gentleman Gunfighter never killed anyone who didn't need it, it reads on his tombstone, and he got around to a dozen or so before he was satisfied.

This also was the place where the Pecos Enterprise won a Pulitzer Prize in the early 1960s when it revealed the owner of the rival paper sold fertilizer tanks that didn't exist.

Over the years, the name of this town has been associated with Pecos Bill and Judge Roy Bean, the law west of the Pecos, even if he held court a couple of hours south of town. The name has come to represent much in Texas and Western lore, but it still means the same thing it did 115 years ago on the Fourth of July.

This is where rodeo was born.

People in Prescott, Ariz., and other places in between will argue that point. Cases are made in sources as proper as the Encyclopaedia Britannica and as preppy as Trivial Pursuit. Lawmakers intervened with resolutions, and protests mounted.

But it doesn't seem to matter to cowboys. In their biggest week of the year, when they might make as many as a dozen rodeos over the nine days known as ``Cowboy Christmas,'' they know what Pecos means.

Bryan Whitney, a saddle bronc rider from Burleson, captured the cowboy's attitude when he re-created a typical Cowboy Christmas conversation with his peers.

``Did you rodeo over the Fourth?''

``Yeah, I went to some.''

``Did you go to Pecos?''

The best generally do, at one time or another. Of course, it doesn't hurt that the West of the Pecos Rodeo pays nearly a quarter-million dollars, making it among the top 20 or so outdoor rodeos in the country. But some cowboys say they like what it represents, too.

And it's a good thing. Outside its colorful history, much of it preserved in what might be one of the country's best Western museums, Pecos doesn't have much else to recommend it in the way of entertainment. A favorite pastime of the nearly 12,000 residents is to joke about life on the northern edge of the Chihuahuan desert. A native once referred to it as ``the outskirts of hell,'' and that was before the last of the movie theaters closed in the early '90s, along with most of downtown.

Asked what people do for fun when the rodeo's not in town, Mayor Dot Stafford said, ``We watch television, like everyone else.''

But the West of the Pecos Rodeo offers more than a diversion, certainly more than just another high-dollar stop on the cowboys' tour.

``These little ol' towns are dyin','' said R.C. ``Dick'' Slack, a former state representative and lifelong resident of Pecos. ``You need something to be proud of.''

The rodeo provides it, and Slack has more reason to boast than most. His grandfather, Henry Slack, was in the first rodeo in Pecos, in 1883.

Early that year, Henry Slack was one of the cowboys jawing with hands from other ranches as to who was the best roper. They decided to settle the question July 4 in front of the courthouse, back when Pecos was closer to the river. The winners apparently received some small purse and blue ribbons from the trim of a young girl's dress.

Henry Slack didn't win a thing. His rope broke after he looped it around a steer and fell off his horse, knocking him unconscious. A cowboy named Trav Windham won.

A man admired in later life for sitting so straight in the saddle when he led the rodeo parade, Slack couldn't bend the truth. He maintained he had participated in the world's first rodeo, even though no one realized it until 1929. To that point, it wasn't even an annual event in Pecos. Residents concede the point to Prescott, which has the longest continuous rodeo, dating to the late 1880s.

Not until the late Pecos publisher Barney Hubbs got involved did Pecosites realize their standing, and soon the world would, too.

Hubbs, an amateur historian, took affidavits from a dozen or so people who either competed in or saw the first rodeo. He published the findings in the 1930s, and the Encyclopaedia Britannica contacted him about the affidavits.

He sent them. Soon after, Pecos officially became known as the birthplace of rodeo.

Or at least it was until folks from other towns read it. Because of protests, encyclopedia officials backed off in subsequent editions. Some rodeo publications continued to back Pecos' claim. But the makers of Trivial Pursuit went with Prescott, which led Pecos citizens 10 years ago to challenge the answer as well as the claim by seeking a federal trademark.

One recent morning, no one in Bill Hubbs' downtown office seemed to question Pecos' rights to first place.

``There's no argument,'' said Hubbs, Barney's 64-year-old son.

Hubbs and five old friends meet five mornings a week from 9 to 9:30. The ``coffee bunch,'' as the club has been known since its founders started it in 1926, gathers to dispense wisdom, share a few jokes and stir some old memories in their coffee.

Typical fare is this joke, found in the memoirs of a Pecos resident under the heading ``Some folks live here and like it'': A driver is feeling his way down a Pecos road during a sandstorm when he notes a cowboy hat in the ditch. He gets out and picks it up, only to find a man underneath it.

``Need any help?'' the driver asks.

``No,'' the cowboy says. ``I'm on horseback, thank you.''

The joke brought guffaws all around the coffee bunch. In a place where the wind is always re-sculpting the scenery, the locals find it best not to be too stiff.

``You've gotta have a sense of humor if you're gonna live out here,'' Hubbs said.

Only one of the coffee club's current membership has lived in Pecos less than 50 years. Most have seen it go from boomtown to bust, from 120,000 acres under cultivation to a little more than 10,000, from three theaters and a couple of drive-ins to none.

Pecos residents drive 72 miles east to Odessa if they want to see Hollywood's latest offerings.

``The last show I saw,'' said Jesse Stephens, who has lived in Pecos since 1942, ``was `Patton.'''

They have lived here so long they can remember when agricultural labor was cheap and pumping water and oil was, too. They can remember how the old Pecos would flood its banks all the way into town, before the dams and the salt cedars slowly strangled it.

The thing that best binds the community is the rodeo.

``It was the only thing we had,'' Hubbs said. ``It still is.''

It is the social event of the year. Class reunions for Pecos High School are scheduled around July 4 to coincide with the rodeo. Old families, the roots of most reaching back to the town's founding, host parties. A parade kicks off the festivities every year, along with a Golden Girls pageant. This year, they even christened Little Miss Cantaloupe in rodeo week.

For more than half its life, the rodeo was an amateur affair, run first by the American Legion and then a private, nonprofit corporation. Then the corporation turned the rodeo over to the city and county in the early 1970s. Purses grew, and competitors changed from area ranch hands to members of the Professional Rodeo Cowboys Association. Bad Company Rodeo produces it now. Rock music rips from the speakers as animals bolt from the chutes, and the announcer comes from Oregon instead of the sheriff's office.

People come from all over to see the Pecos rodeo. A rodeo fan from Virginia told chamber of commerce officials Pecos was the place to be on the Fourth.

Jose and Ruby Galang came from the Philippines, though their son, Joel, a project engineer at Pecos' food-processing plant, was part of the package. Asked whether he had been to a rodeo before, Jose Galang, 69, nodded and said, ``Billy Bob's.'' A stranger told him that was no rodeo.

``That's why I told him he had to come here,'' Joel said.

The rodeo began at 8:30 each night, a late start intended to mitigate the heat. Even at that, it wouldn't be dark for nearly another hour. Fans in the north side's wooden bleachers could look past the arena and still see a well bobbing lazily for oil, or 18-wheelers out on Interstate 20 trying to make El Paso by midnight. The bite of the afternoon sun was long gone by the time the music started. A steady breeze washed over fans every night, freeing a vinyl banner from its bottom fastenings one night so that it snapped and popped like a whip.

Fans sat close to the action, at times a little too close. A saddle bronc made a beeline for the box seats Wednesday and attempted to join its startled inhabitants. The horse got in its head and chest before the rider, who seemed to prefer the soft red dirt of the arena, wrestled the angry animal back.

The spectacle impressed Jose Galang. ``Exciting, very exciting,'' he said, ``although very dangerous sport. Easy to get broken bones.''

The Pecos rodeo certainly didn't break any new ground. Jokes on the Clintons, Michael Jackson and O.J. Simpson dominated the clown acts all week. The fans who filled the arena for Saturday's finale generally seemed indifferent to much of the show, whooping for only the best of rides and resisting the announcer's pleas for applause when the cowboys rendered anything less.

But the cowboys called it a good crowd. ``Pecos doesn't have a lot of other things to cling to,'' saddle bronc rider T.J. Kenny said of his hometown rodeo. ``It's a good thing.''

The money is, especially. Kenny's father competed in it when a belt buckle in bronc riding would bring $600. Now, it's $7,500.

The payout is one reason

Whitney included Pecos among his five rodeo stops last week, along with Mesquite, Belton, Springdale, Ark., and Prescott, Ariz.

Whitney called Pecos and Prescott ``pretty comparable.'' He thought a moment on it, then added, ``This one has more tradition.''

Most of the cowboys, all but a handful from Texas, said they probably were prejudiced in favor of Pecos. This hardly was surprising. Cowboys are a provincial lot, probably not a lot different from the ones who competed in front of Pecos' old courthouse 115 years ago.

Those cowboys have remained celebrities here just as long as famous shootists like Clay Allison, who never killed anyone in Pecos but himself. He fell out of his wagon one day and allowed it to run over him. Henry Slack, who managed to get up from his famous fall, is just as well remembered, particularly by his grandson.

Dick Slack enlarged his family's local fame. He has been a county judge and state representative and is chairman of the State Ethics Commission. His handsome home is stalked by hunting trophies from places like Mongolia, New Zealand, Australia and Africa, a tale accompanying the head of every animal.

``Bangin' on your ears,'' Slack called his stories. But he appeared to enjoy none so much as the story of the man who took him on his first hunt.

Henry Slack carved him pistols and slingshots, and Dick was so comfortable with him that he once asked why he didn't win that first rodeo.

``He said it wasn't too organized,'' Dick said. ``Trav Windham got himself an old suckling cow to rope, and he got a steer that pulled his rope so hard it broke.''

The loss didn't diminish Henry Slack any in the eyes of some.

``I remember him well,'' Dick said, smiling, ``and fondly.''

Kevin Sherrington writes for The Dallas Morning News.