Miles City Traditions
In a corner of your mind, you might have a list of western events you've always wanted to attend, but so far haven't had the opportunity to go. I'm mostly drawn to events that are rich in history, where the Old West tradition comes alive, the type of events that take me back in time, when the West was still wild and wooly, such as Wyoming's Cheyenne Frontier Days or the Pendleton (Oregon) Round-Up. For a number of years, the Miles City Bucking Horse Sale in Montana has been on my "hit list."
The Early Days
The ones who've experienced the Montana Bucking Horse Sale will tell you: "There's nothing else like it. The Bucking Horse Sale is the last hurrah of a bygone era. This event has been a Montana tradition for more than 50 years and has kept its flavor of the early days. It's legendary."
What started as a product of necessity is known today for its wild action and spectacular buck-offs. Its origins can be traced to the terrible 1886 winter, which decimated large cattle herds across the West and devastated local ranchers, who were forced to focus their efforts on another growing market: horses.
In the early 1900s, the Miles City area was known as prime horse country, and thousands of head roamed eastern Montana's open prairies. Horses had benefits cows didn't have, making the horses more resilient to the region's harsh conditions and climate. Horses could paw for grass in the winter and travel many miles a day to find water during the summer. World War I created a great need for horses, and many nations came to the Cavalry Remount Station at Fort Keogh, just outside Miles City, to buy horses for battle.
By the 1920s, the horse industry flourished in eastern Montana. Ranchers let their stock roam free on the range, where they intermingled and bred. The dust of horse herds heading for water could be seen miles away in the open country. By some accounts, "There were horses on every knoll and hill in sight."
When the Great Depression and drought hit in the 1930s, there were more horses on the range than it could support. Ranches held massive roundups to sort, brand, castrate and ship the stock. At one point, Chappel Brothers Cannery ran 60,000 horses over a good third of Montana. From 1928 to 1938, this outfit provided well-paying jobs to young men who knew horses and could endure long hours of hard and fast riding, rounding up free-range horses and shipping them to the outfit's Illinois-based packing plant. The pay, $40 to $45 a month, was premium wages during those days of hardship; the work was strenuous and dangerous. Hands were in the saddle from 3 a.m. until 8 or 9 p.m., seven days a week. To this day, there's a special distinction assigned to those who say, "I rode for the CBC." During the years that followed, several former CBC hands were instrumental in raising stock and putting on most of the rodeos in eastern Montana.
The first Miles City Roundup was held in 1913, and through vigorous promotion became a famous rodeo with its share of famous cowboys and horses, such as Skyrocket, who was "tested" by pioneer stuntman, and John Wayne's mentor, Yakima Cannutt. The famous bronc was Miles City's most famous horse during the first part of the 20th century. He captured the hearts of Montanans and became to the Big Sky state what Steamboat is to Wyoming.
During the 1920s and 1930s, numerous small rodeos across Montana began as informal community gatherings for Fourth of July picnics. A cowboy would brag about being able to ride a horse by only holding on to its mane and tail. The "mane-and-tail" riding became a popular exhibition for which cowboys were usually paid a dollar or two for their efforts.
Read the complete story in the May issue of Western Horseman.