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“Cowboys are special, with their own brand of misery...”— Willie Nelson

Since the days of the dons and vaqueros, this valley has had more than its fair share of round-ups, fiestas, barn dances and that spine-fusing, I.Q.-depleting event: The Rodeo.

In 1921, we had our first modern rodeo here. Around where Newhall Elementary sits today, between 7,000 and 8,000 fans jammed into the ranch there to watch cowboys and cowgirls from all over America compete.

There was no fence, no grandstands. Six local residents who came up with the idea stood in a field with satchels of change and collected the entrance fee.

Included in the price of admission was a “free” barbecue for the first 5,000 attendees. The Rodeo of ’21 lasted all day and had everything from thoroughbred handicapping to chuck wagon racing and all the other events in between.

At the end of the event, “Cowboy” Bob Anderson, a local movie producer, and his five entrepreneur friends went to the local Bank of Italy (later, the B of A on Main Street), sat on the floor and spent all night counting mostly coins. But when it was all over, each had made a profit of about $1,000.

The next year, the five (minus Bob) expanded the rodeo, moving it to where Circle J is today and changed the date to the Fourth of July. The rodeo went bust and all five lost money, despite an attendance of over 10,000 people.

A Signal reporter noted: “The SPCA has taken most of the joy out of steer wrestling.”  The old form was invented by famed black cowboy, Bill Pickett, easily one of the toughest hombres of the old West. Bill invented this style of vaulting from his horse, grabbing the steer by the horns, twisting them 180 degrees, then biting the steer on the lips to pull it down. Talk about liking your steak rare...

In 1923, the rodeo moved to the future home of the Baker Arena (Saugus Speedway) and moved the date back to the end of April. They made money.

The Newhall Rodeo of 1923 was absolutely epic.

More than 8,000 folks who enjoyed things cowboy showed up for the third annual Newhall Rodeo. The festivities started with a parade through town, followed by a huge barbecue. A couple of local cowpokes took top money. Leonard Cesena (whose family still hails from these parts) was first in steer riding and Hank Wertz Jr. was top man in the calf roping.

Local rancher Fat Jones supplied much of the rodeo stock. Fat, you might recall, had the ranch over by Calgrove and it was on that acreage later on where he would discover a complete sabertooth tiger skeleton perfectly preserved. Many of the eyes were on the celebrities. Three of the biggest movie stars on the planet were here: Douglas Fairbanks, Mary Pickford and Tom Mix.

We arrested a rather large gang of ticket counterfeiters at the rodeo, too. Our cops caught up with them early. About 25 con men had sold $264 worth of the bogus entry passes.

Over the years, the local rodeo would become world-famous, attracting tens of thousands of people per day and turning the sleepy little Santa Clarita Valley into a parking lot.

Here’s a little time line to help you picture things:

— In 1923, shoe baron C.H. Baker came up with the idea for a big Southern California rodeo. (His brother, Roy, was involved in western sports.) C.H. built the original wooden stadium and a grand home on the property, owning it until 1931.

— That year, Baker sold his ranch to one of Hollywood’s biggest stars, Hoot Gibson, and a business partner, Salle Eilers. They owned it until 1935.

— Then, Paul Hill took over operation of the ranch. Paul was done in by the weather. In 1937, we had a flood of Old Testament proportions. The Santa Clara River changed course and wiped out Soledad Canyon Road, along with the ranch and stadium. There was no rodeoing there from 1937 to ’40.

— In 1940, young Art Perkins, son of valley historian A.B., got the idea to bring back the rodeo, albeit on a smaller level. However, with the help of a local lawyer, Arthur Miller (Nope. Not Marilyn Monroe’s hubbie.) they took over the Jauregui Ranch in Placerita and thousands attended.

—  Same year, 1940, multi-millionaire rancher “Big” Bill Bonelli buys The Baker/Gibson Ranch and repairs the damages of the Flood of ’37 and next year, the first Newhall-Saugus Rodeo returns with a vengeance.

In the 1930s and 1940s, a Who’s Who of Hollywood came out to sit in the stands: Gary Cooper, Clark Gable (who used to take roping lessons from Placerita’s Andy Jauregui), Carol Lombard, W.C. Fields, Errol Flynn — the list is almost endless.

The 1940 rodeo featured a chariot race between Hoot Gibson and Tom Mix through the streets of downtown Newhall. Mix won. (Mix, by the way, named his daughter, Thomasina. At least it wasn’t Thomasina Mix Jr.)

The next year, more than 75,000 people would attend the event on Soledad Canyon Road.

Hauntingly similar to events of today, during World War II, they held the number of fans down to just 5,000. Authorities worried terrorists or spies would bomb Newhall’s typically larger gatherings.

While they weren’t household names, over the years, we have been home to many Hall of Fame and otherwise famous cowboys, too, who competed in the events. A few of the prize winners even had other jobs.

Slim Pickens? The big, gangly western character actor of a hundred or so films? The cowboy who road the A-bomb while yelling “Yee-HAAAHH!!” in “Dr. Strangelove”? He competed in several Newhall-Saugus rodeos in the 1940s and ’50s. If memory serves me well, he took a second one year in the wild cow-milking contest. That’s where you have to corner a range girl cow and fill up a quart milk bottle for time.

Good way to lose a hat and the head in it.

In 1953, a young handsome cowpoke named Ben Johnson who sometimes lived in Placerita Canyon took top money in the calf roping event. Johnson would later co-star in many westerns, including “Shane,” and would later win a little bigger prize than the ’53 calf-roping belt buckle. Ben won an Oscar for best supporting actor in “The Last Picture Show.”

Andy Devine was a frequent visitor to the big rodeos of his day. He was the sidekick on the Wild Bill Hickcock” TV show of the 1950s who always creaked at the beginning: “Hey Wild Bill! Wait for me!”

Andy had reason to be in the area. He had owned the little Newhall International Airport.

There was some Hollywood actor type who wasn’t allowed to risk his neck in the hard-core end of rodeoing. He did take a first in the parade event before the event. I seem to recall his name was John Wayne, or something like that. The Duke was also one of the directors of the Newhall Rodeo Association in the 1940s.

The area was rich with so many characters, too. Hutch Blunts of the Triple Bull Ranch up Soledad was a rodeo performer who had a little more smarts than most. In the off season, he invited a friend — Cid Cequella — to stay with him. Cid was a world-renowned circus performer and acrobat famous for being able to land on his feet from any position. Hutch had Cid teach him how to land boots first from any angle off a bronco.

There was a bronc rider who lived up Sand Canyon in the 1940s and made the national circuit. His name was Belter Tuler and he was bowlegged. Tuler was his own PR agent, circulating fliers billing himself as “The Cowboy Who Is Curved To Fit The Horse.” Belter said he got the idea from a wristwatch ad.

Sam Garrett, owner of the Circle G Ranch in Sand Canyon in the 1950s, was a seven-time world champion calf roper.

Roxie McIntosh was one of the world’s top women bronc riders. She had to take medical leave for a while during the 1973 circuit.

Pregnant.

Alas, progress reared its ugly head and the great crowds of the Newhall-Saugus rodeos were now a distant roar.

A few times, we’ve tried to revive the tradition. We used to have rodeos from time to time at the old Frontier Days celebrations in the 1960s into the 1990s.

In 1982, I remember, they held a smallish rodeo at the short-lived Rivendale complex where Towsley Canyon Park is today on The Old Road.

Right after Merle Haggard sang “The Star Spangled Banner,” an amazingly knock-down, knuckle-bitingly, eye-wateringly gorgeous buxom and unfettered cowgirl stood. She offered a rebel yell and lifted her blouse, exposing some serious anatomy the size of the world globes from my 6th-grade class.

Now that was a good rodeo.

I think that topless lass got a bigger applause than Mix, Wayne and Bill Hart put together.

And no. Don’t go there. She wasn’t an ex-wife, either.

I’ve got another 10,000 stories about our western heritage here in the Santa Clarita. But, if I go on, I’m going to have to buy ad space.

Come back and visit next week here under the warming glow of your SCV Beacon. I’ll be waiting with another thrilling trailride into the yesteryears and history of this wonderful Santa Clarita. Until then — vayan con Dios, amigos!

 

(SCV Historian John Boston also writes The John Boston Report blog for your SCV Beacon. Don’t forget to check out his national humor, entertainment & swashbuckling commentary website — http://www.johnbostonchronicles.com/ —you’ll be smiling for a week…) — © 2017 by John Boston. All rights reserved.

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