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Cowboy Heroes

by Jim Olson

“Burel Mulkey — Small Man, Big Heart

Burel Mulkey was born May 25, 1904 in Clyde, Idaho to Columbus and Nellie Mulkey. He became one of the sixty-one men who walked out of performing at the Boston Garden Rodeo in 1936. On that late October day, history was made. Those sixty-one men had no way of knowing that what they were doing would eventually wind up as the Professional Rodeo Cowboy Association (PRCA). And while their immediate concern was fair prize money there at the “Garden” (a matter of a few thousand dollars at the time), they could not even have imagined that what they did would play a small part in the fact that a rodeo finals now pays out over six million dollars in ten days of professional rodeo (the National Finals Rodeo)!

I never met Burel, but after doing much research on the man, I would have liked to. A small man with a big heart, quick with a laugh and a smile, and full of mischief when the occasion arose. Sounds like a fun fellow to travel with.

Raised on an Idaho ranch, Burel Mulkey was a cowboy from the word go. As with many of the days top rodeo hands, he started life by working as a cowboy. He was  even promoted to the status of foreman for the Wood Cattle Company in 1928. About that same time however, a friend convinced Burel he ought to give rodeo a try. He entered his first rodeo at Ogden, Utah, in 1929—placing in the bronc riding. Prize money won and the thrill of rodeo soon took over. He became a full-time rodeo man.

Author Willard Porter once wrote, “Mulkey was known among his peers as a rider who gave his very all to each bronc. Of course, there were good horses and bad horses (to score aboard), but Mulkey looked at them all as ‘bucking horses,’ and as such he spurred all of them in the same fashion—hard!”

Burel’s hard-riding ways and his short, but stocky stature earned him the nickname “The Shetland Stud.” He was often referred to as the “Banty Cowboy” as well. He was one of rodeos most colorful performers. He was known for a love of pranks, his trademark black satin shirt and for going “all out” on every ride.

By 1937, he’d won the title of World Champion Bronc Rider, a feat he repeated again in ’38. As a matter of fact, he was crowned the All Around Champion of the World in 1938 as well.

An old newspaper article reads:

Denver (AP) January 19, 1938: Twelve seconds a day . . . five days a week . . . that’s Burel Mulkey’s working time . . . when there’s a rodeo on. The 31-year-old Mulkey, the world’s champion bronc rider, admits he made “more than $5000 but not very close to $10,000” last year, his first champion season.

Mulkey, a blue-eyed ranch reared rider from Salmon, Idaho, is riding the bucking horses this week at Denver’s National Western Stock Show, Horse Show and Rodeo.

“We’re riding regular from now on through till after the show at Baton Rouge next November,” said Mulkey, declared last year’s champion by the Rodeo Association of America.

“Sure, a bucking horse ride is only 12 seconds – 10 seconds for indoor shows like this – and we only ride about five times through a whole show. But you sure enough do a lot of riding in 12 seconds, if you stay on.”

Dropping his wide, square jaw in a big grin, Mulkey explained, “I don’t need to do any other riding besides what I do in the shows to keep in shape.”

Does Burel have any plans for quitting riding and settling down on a ranch of his own?

“That’s what all the top boys say they’re going to do some day,” said Mulkey, opening up his big grin again.

“But there’s not many that do. These days I guess you can make more money riding than running a ranch, anyhow.”

An interesting side note about the 1938 championships involves the following year’s champion, Paul Carney. Some rodeo cowboys are superstitious. Burel Mulkey and Paul Carney are no exceptions. After winning the championships in ’38, Mulkey gave his favorite shirt he was wearing to his good friend, Carney for good luck. The very next year, Paul Carney won the title of 1939 All Around Champion of the World—he did it wearing Mulkey’s shirt .

Author Clifford Westermeier wrote of Burel in 1947, “That mighty little man from Idaho, Burel Mulkey, has the reputation of a bronc rider who never lets up in his efforts to win . . . Whether he rode a dog or the best of broncs, he spurred every one of them. He is short and heavily-built, but as a personality, he is a character . . . Like ham and eggs, Mulkey and mischief belong together. Mischief is his specialty, and he enjoys nothing more than handing out tall stories and watching the listener’s eyes grow larger and larger.”

Mulkey competed in professional rodeo for over twenty years. He later served on the Rodeo Cowboy’s Association board of directors as a bronc riding representative. He proved to be a great ambassador for the sport, both inside and out of the arena.

Burel married Marion Silicz on June 26, 1940 in Fallon, Nevada. Once Burel retired from full-time rodeo, the couple moved to California. They bought a ranch and Burel worked for many years as a brand inspector as well.

The fun-loving, hard-riding Mulkey died November 20, 1982 in Lake Isabella, California. He was posthumously inducted into the ProRodeo Hall of Fame in 2011.