“C.B. Irwin – Larger Than Life”

by Jim Olson

Have you ever noticed the bucking horse on a Wyoming license plate? Most historians agree this bronc is the legendary horse, Steamboat. While Steamboat is forever immortalized on the license plate, his owner was also an extremely popular character of the early 1900s.

Charles Burton (C.B.) Irwin was born on August 14, 1875 to Joseph Marvin Irwin and Mary Margaret Irwin. Joseph was a blacksmith in Chillocothe, Missouri. C.B. learned the blacksmithing trade at an early age. As a young man, he married Etta McGuckin and the newlyweds moved to Colorado where they started a blacksmith business. They later (around 1900) moved to Wyoming—and this is where C.B. became well-known.

Irwin had many careers as a young man—but the thing he carried with him, no matter what he was doing, is that he was driven to succeed. He was also said to have been one of the West’s most colorful characters. In Wyoming, he worked as a cowboy, blacksmith, railroad agent and promoter. He was “flush” and broke at various times but Irwin eventually saved his “chips” and invested wisely in land. Through trades, hard work and cunning skills, it was not long before the Irwins had their own ranch. The Y6 ranch, near Cheyenne, eventually consisted of approximately 23,000 acres.

C.B was considered a good cowboy and in 1906, he won the steer roping contest at Cheyenne. However, he was even better at cowboy managerial skills.

In the years leading up to 1912, C.B. was a prominent figure of the Cheyenne Frontier Days. It is said that once he even produced a special one-day rodeo for President Theodore Roosevelt, who had missed the regular show. C.B. helped organize parades and provided rodeo stock. He is also credited with bringing the Sioux and Cavalry presence to the early Frontier Days events. However, about 1912, C.B. and his brother Frank went their own way and formed the Irwin Brothers Wild West Show—traveling the North American Continent, Buffalo Bill Cody style.

It has been speculated that in the “teens,” it took about twenty railroad cars to move Irwin’s livestock and equipment to shows throughout the country. They advertised the “Bad Bronc Steamboat” as one of the show’s stars. Another famous bucking horse belonging to the Irwins was named for C.B.’s friend, Teddy Roosevelt. These horses were rarely ridden and people came from far and wide to see cowboys give it a shot on one of the famous buckers.

Although C.B. was a character and promoter, he was also a straight shooter. Rodeo historian, Willard Porter said, “C.B. was a man of much personal and moral courage. His own attitude towards gentlemanliness and sobriety is reflected in a prize list from one of his shows (Cedar Rapids, Iowa, Frontier Days and Roundup), which stated under general rules: Drunkards not wanted in this contest and the committee reserves the right to reject the entry of any contestant whose conduct at other shows makes them undesirable.”

Unfortunately, C.B.’s only son, Floyd, was killed in a freak roping accident in 1917 before a show. This sudden demise took the wind out of Irwin’s sails. He lost his appetite for producing the Wild West and the Irwin Brothers Show was disbanded.         

C.B. is also remembered (along with brother Frank) as the ones who sang “Life is like a Mountain Railroad” at their friend, Tom Horn’s, hanging in 1903. Tom was the first man executed on the “newfangled,” automated, Julian Gallows. In 1911, Irwin produced a movie inspired by the life of Horn. It was titled “Round-Up on the Y-6 Ranch.”

Warren Richardson, who wrote, “I have known Charlie Irwin intimately ever since he came to Cheyenne some 30 years ago,” also said, “If the right man ever writes the life of Charley Irwin, every page will tell of an adventure.”

C.B. had a thyroid problem which led to excessive weight gain. One of the things he is remembered for was being “larger than life,” in more than one way! He was six-foot-four and varied reports have him weighing anywhere from 350 to 500 pounds (towards the end of his life). Mrs. Tom Mix, who knew him personally described him as being “Massive.” Rodeo photographer J. E. Stinson referred to Irwin as the “Giant Cowboy.”

After the Wild West Show ended, C.B. got into racing horses in a big way. He ran thoroughbreds from Chicago to California and all across the West. Tom Smith, who trained the legendary horse, Seabiscuit, even got his start working for Irwin. C.B. is also credited with helping create interest in a number of new racing venues. His reputation as a horseman and promoter carried over into horse racing. During one year, C.B. held a record for winning one-hundred-forty-seven races—the best winning record for a thoroughbred trainer at the time.

Irwin was well-acquainted with many prominent figures of his time. His friends list reportedly included President Theodore Roosevelt, Buffalo Bill Cody, General John (“Black Jack”) Pershing, Charlie Russell, Will Rogers, Tom Horn and various other cowboys, Indians and outlaws.

Irwin was always known as a great organizer, promoter and popular public figure, so it was no surprise that in 1934, he decided to run for Governor of Wyoming. His campaign slogan, suggested by Will Rogers, was ”Popular Government at Popular Prices.”

Most people called him, “C.B.” but Will Rogers, called him “Charley.” While campaigning in 1934, Irwin was killed in an automobile accident. Will Rogers wrote in his weekly column, “Old Cheyenne won’t seem the same…Charley was up to see me just before he was killed in the auto accident. Buddy Sterling who had charge of my horses was one of Charley’s main boys when he ran all the shows and contests. He was like Floyd, he was a top hand at anything. He gave me a race mare, a young one, that he wanted to have Buddy break for polo. Charley had a great career. He was a real cowpuncher in his day, and the greatest spirit and best company that ever lived. That other world up there is going to hear a whoop at the gate and a yell saying, ‘Saint Peter, open up that main gate, for there is a real cowboy coming into the old home ranch. I am riding old Steamboat bareback and using Teddy Roosevelt for a pack horse. From now on this outfit is going to be wild, for I never worked with a tame one.’”

It was said that at least thirteen-hundred mourners attended the funeral. They say no one person connected with rodeo, before or since, has received so much media and publicity when passing. Irwin was loved by many.

The legendary western character, C.B. Irwin, was posthumously inducted into the National Cowboy and Western Heritage Museum Rodeo Hall of Fame in 1979.