A Look Back at the Texas Prison Rodeo

Demolition crews are razing the Hunstville stadium this week, where "The Wildest Show Behind Bars" took place for 35 years. The place may be gone, but its legacy will never be forgotten. 
Fri January 13, 2012 1:15 am
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Demolition crews this week began flattening the Huntsville stadium where hundreds of convict cowboys competed in the Texas Prison Rodeo over the years.

In 1951, inmates built the brick-and-concrete stadium inside the prison's Walls Unit, the Associated Press's Michael Graczyk reported, and in 1986, inspectors deemed the stadium structurally unsound, putting an end to the "The Wildest Show Behind Bars."

"It is a piece of history but a safety hazard at the same time," Department of Criminal Justice spokesman Jason Clark told the Associated Press Wednesday. The demolition is expected to be completed next month, and a parking lot will be built in its place.

The idea for the rodeo was dreamt up in 1931 by Lee Simmons, who was then general manager of the prison system, Laura Buchanan wrote in Texas Monthly in 2003:

The prison rodeo ... provided inmates with recreation and entertained the prison staff and the crowds that came to see the prisoners. All-inmate bands like the Cotton Pickers' Glee Club, the Rhythmic Stringsters, and the Goree Girls performed at the rodeo until the event got so large—attendance peaked at around 100,000 during the fifties and sixties—that they were replaced by big-name musical acts.

This black-and-white newsreel from 1966 marking the 35th anniversary of the Texas Prison Rodeo captures the feel of the "unique and colorful" sporting event in its prime. Inmates kicked off the event with a procession through the arena, carrying signs bearing jokey slogans like "Take A Convict Home With You" and "Anyone Got a Ladder?"

The rodeo featured traditional rodeo staples such as bullriding, but also a contest called the "Hard Money Event," in which "40 inmates wearing red shirts would try to snatch a tobacco bag placed between the horns of an angry bull. Inside the bag was at least $50, although donations could bolster the dollar amount well into the hundreds," Graczyk wrote.

The rodeo remain popular and lucrative until its final days: in 1986, 50,000 spectators attended, raising $450,000, according to the Handbook of Texas Online . What was that money used for? "The revenue raised covered costs and subsidized an education and recreation fund that provided perquisites from textbooks and dentures to Christmas turkeys," according to the Handbook.

While you can't travel back in time to see the Texas Prison Rodeo, those hoping for a taste of the experience can travel east, to Louisiana State Penitentiary, to witness the strange spectacle at the Angola Prison Rodeo .

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