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Cowboy Heroes

by Jim Olson

Samuel Thomas Privett

“The Legend of Booger Red”

The legend started in Texas, but soon grew across the West. The legend was Booger Red, who reportedly could ride any bronc alive! There are so many stories about Booger Red that it is sometimes hard to separate fact from fiction. One writer wrote, “It is estimated he rode between 25,000 to 40,000 broncs in his life.” Well, since he was fifty-nine when he died, that would be an average of 424 to 678 per year for every year of his life, or one to two broncs per day for every day he lived!

Across the West there are bars, eateries, shops, bucking and even breeding horses named after him. The legend of Booger Red continues to grow to this day, even though most do not know who he really was.

Samuel Thomas Privett was born in Williamson County, Texas on December 29, 1864 into a ranching family. His father, Sam Privett Sr., moved the family to Erath County, Texas when young Sam was six. There they established the SP ranch.

According to rodeo historian, Willard Porter, “At ten, while gathering wild horses for his father, young Privett was nearly captured by Indians. He escaped by securing his rope to a stout bush and lowering himself into a cave. At twelve, he was already a bronc buster of considerable reputation in his area.” He was known as “that Redheaded Kid Bronc Rider” because of his flaming red hair.

Another event involving the local Indians puts young Privett in a rock throwing battle with some of them. They say the only thing saved his skin that day was the appearance of some of his father’s cowhands who helped put the odds in Sam’s favor. His father reportedly had trouble with the Indians over that event for some time to come―and was not happy about it.

Something happened when Privett was only thirteen years of age that forever changed his life. A person of lessor spirit may have lived a life, wallowing in self-pity had this happened to them. But he made the best of a bad situation instead.

Young Sam and another kid were playing around with gunpowder. They packed a hole in a tree stump full of it, intending to make a sort of fireworks display for Christmas. However, the gunpowder ignited, badly burning Privett’s face (the blast reportedly killed Sam’s friend). On the way to the doctor, another youngster jumped up in the wagon to get a look at “Red” and commented, “Gee, Red sure is a booger now, ain’t he?”

It took several months for his badly burned face to heal. His lips, nostrils and area around his eyes were disfigured from burning. People kept commenting that Red was sure “Boogered” up. He took the comments good naturedly however, and even started calling himself, “Booger Red, the ugliest man alive.” From then on, folks just knew him as Booger Red. He did not care about the nickname, or the fact he was disfigured, he decided to let his uncanny ability riding broncs speak for him.

By the time he was fifteen, his father had died (his mother passed before) and Booger Red moved to West Texas where he had an uncle. He started riding broncs for a living on big ranches there. It was not long till his reputation spread. He was a top hand where it came to bronc riding.

At one point, he was hired by the US army to break horses. They started off paying him “by the head,” but soon learned he could ride way to many broncs in a day and his paycheck was off the charts. The Army then switched him to a regular salary.

During this time period, Booger Red won many contests and side bets for his ability to ride the bad ones. He also met and married Mollie Webb. The couple had seven children together. They purchased a ranch near San Angelo, Texas with money gained from riding broncs.

It has been said that Red had a standing offer of $100 (some rumors even say $500) to anyone who could bring a horse who could buck him off. Legend has it, he never had to pay off. One such horse brought for him to ride was a bad bronc from Montana. He rode the horse to a standstill at the San Angelo Fair. Afterwards, Red purchased the horse and named him “Montana Gyp.”

With this horse, Red started his own Wild West Show, the “Booger Red Wild West Show.” For many years during the early 1900s, Red and Mollie put on Wild West Shows where they and their children would perform. Red’s bronc riding exhibitions were always the star attraction.

Fog Horn Clancy, an early-day announcer, writer and contemporary of Reds, once wrote, “Booger Red was the originator of looking back on a bucking horse. Up to that time bronc riders either had to, or thought that they had to, keep their eyes right on their bucking mount and try to anticipate in advance the way the animal was going to jump next, but Booger just seemed to get in time with the bucking bronc and would look over his shoulder and make jokes with spectators while the horse was bucking. For more than a quarter century, Red was regarded as the greatest bronc rider in the world.”

After several years of putting on Wild West Shows, Booger Red took the opportunity to disburse his company among some of the larger productions then touring. He knew the smaller, family owned operations, were a thing of the past. He and Mollie then hired out their talents and performed for some of the better-known Wild West productions including the Miller Bros., Buffalo Bill and Tom Mix. Booger continued to ride broncs in exhibition all the way up into the 1920s. It got so that spectators were not satisfied with a show unless Red put on a bronc riding show. Having his name on the program was definitely a draw.

Along the way, the Privett family moved to Miami, Oklahoma, where he lived until his death. He is one of the few men who actually became a legend in his own time. As Red got older, his bronc riding exhibitions slowed down a bit, but not by much. He was a timeless bronc rider.

In 1924, at the Fort Worth Stock Show and Rodeo, Red was attending the rodeo as a spectator. He witnessed a bad bronc toss his rider high into the sky. The crowd then starting hollering that “Booger Red could ride that horse” and chanting, “Bring on Booger!” So Booger Red jumped over the fence and appeared in the arena, much to the delight of the crowd.

The horse was caught again and brought around for Booger to ride, which he did―to a standstill. At fifty-nine years of age, he could still outride the younger cowboys on the baddest of horses.

Folks who witnessed that ride could not tell it, but Red’s health had been failing him by then. He suffered from Bright’s Disease (Kidney Disease) and actually died from it a few weeks after his famous last ride. On his death bed, he told his family, “Always be honest for it pays in the long run. Have all the fun you can while you live for when you are dead, you are a long time dead.”

The great Booger Red died in March of 1924. Samuel Thomas “Booger Red” Privett was posthumously inducted into the National Cowboy and Western Heritage Museum Rodeo Hall of Fame in 1975.