Col. William T. Johnson, the powerful promoter who turned rodeos into a big business, was blindsided by a cowboy walkout minutes before a show at the Boston Garden on Oct. 30, 1936.
At the end of the 19th century, the rodeo had not strayed far from its traditional roots in Texas, the Southwest and parts of the West. Most Americans east of the Mississippi had never seen a real rodeo even though they were avid fans of Wild West shows put on by the likes of Buffalo Bill Cody.
Tex Austin was the ingenious Texan, who went about changing the distinctly western form of entertainment to suit eastern tastes. It must be admitted, however, that calling him a native of the Lone Star State may be based more on his choice of nicknames than the murky details of his early life.
According to some sources, Austin was born around 1886 in St. Louis not Victoria, Texas, as he claimed, and his real name was either John Van Nostrand or John Van Austin. And he probably did not ride with Pancho Villa as he was fond of saying.
What we do know for sure is that Tex Austin organized his first rodeo in El Paso in 1917 and followed the next year with the first indoor version ever held anywhere in Wichita, Kansas. By the mid-1920s, he had made the Madison Square Garden rodeo an annual institution and introduced the American pastime to enthusiastic crowds in London and other major cities throughout Europe.
To appeal to presumably more “sophisticated” audiences with less free time, Austin shortened the all-day spectacle so popular in Texas and the Southwest to a three- or four-hour program. He accomplished that by eliminating such events as trick and fancy roping, roman chariot racing and elaborate staged productions that would seem strangely out of place to today’s rodeo fans.
Austin made a ton of money but spent it like there was no tomorrow. While the Crash of ’29 caused more cautious businessmen to cut back on expenses, he took out bigger and bigger loans. By the middle of the Depression, he had lost everything even his will to live, which led to his suicide in 1938.
Meanwhile, a rich cattleman from San Antonio had taken Austin’s place in the rodeo world. William Thompson Johnson was born into a pioneer Texas family at Mount Vernon in 1875. Leaving home at early age to pursue his cowboy dream, he eventually settled down at Denton, married the sheriff’s daughter and became a livestock trader.
Cattle ranching was the logical next, which he took in the San Antonio area. By the time he turned 50, he owned several thousand acres where he grazed a huge herd.
The “colonel,” as he liked to be known, might have sat back and taken it easy for the rest of his days, but he got the rodeo bug. In two short years, he promoted several rodeos in Texas, stepping up to the national stage.
In 1930, Johnson landed the contract for the Madison Square Garden extravaganza that “Tex” Austin had lost. With a natural flair for crowd-pleasing showmanship, he succeeded in putting on even bigger and better rodeos that his predecessor.
The money kept on coming in, adding millions to the cattle baron’s already sizeable fortune. Yet he did not see any reason to share the wealth with the performers who risked life and limb to keep his customers coming back.
As far as Johnson was concerned, cowboys in the rodeo ring were not entitled to better compensation and benefits than his underpaid ranch hands. He made no effort to conceal his low opinion of both despite the years he had spent in the saddle.
The colonel’s gravy train might have rolled on indefinitely had it not been derailed by the wife of a champion steer wrestler. Josie Bennett figured out that the prize money paid to competitors amounted to only a fraction the combined total of fees, admissions and what Johnson charged the Boston Garden just for coming to town.
Hugh Bennett revealed the infuriating disparity to his fellow performers. With their support he circulated this petition: “For the Boston Show, we the undersigned demand that the Purses be doubled and the Entrance Fees added to each and every event.”
The petition was signed by almost every cowboy and presented to Col. Johnson, who refused to take it seriously. Even after they walked out in advance of the Oct. 30, 1936 performance, he thought the show could go on with stable hands and other unqualified substitutes.
Disappointed spectators demanded refunds, and the Boston Garden manager told Johnson to come to terms with the strikers. He swallowed his pride and grudgingly met their demands that quickly became the norm for all rodeos.
Following their stunning triumph in Boston, the victors formed the Cowboys Turtle Association, so named “because we were as slow as turtles in getting organized.” As for Col. William T. Johnson, he sold out to a pair of competitors, went home to San Antonio and never had another thing to do with rodeos.