Col. W.T. Johnson Villain or Victim?

by Jim Olson

He is mostly remembered as being the recipient of rodeo cowboy’s disdain once they finally stood up for themselves against unfair practices from the early-day rodeo promoters and producers back in 1936. Col. W. T. Johnson was on the opposite side from the cowboys, according to history, at the famous walk-out during the Boston Garden show in the fall of that year. This event was the catalyst that formed the Cowboy Turtles Association (CTA), which eventually morphed into the Professional Rodeo Cowboys Association (PRCA) that we have today.

Most of the time, if Col. Johnson’s name is mentioned, it is in a negative light—associated with that fateful event. After all, he represented what the cowboys were against—deserved or not. But just who was Col. Johnson? And should he go down in the history books as an overbearing, unfair rodeo producer?

William Thomas Johnson was born on December 24, 1875 to William Thomas and Laura (Bolin) Johnson at Mount Vernon, Texas. The Johnson family were of pioneer stock. His grandfather was one of the state of Texas’s first legislators. However, young Johnson left home at an early age to become a cowboy.

After cowboying for a few years in the Northern Plains, he returned to Texas where he settled down, opened a livestock trading business and in 1903, married Lucy Young, daughter of the Denton county sheriff. The couple had two children.

Johnson went from being a cowboy to a cattleman. Not only that, but along the way he helped start a bank at Denton, Texas, becoming its president. He eventually moved near San Antonio, Texas where he amassed thousands of acres of ranch land.

Johnson became a wealthy and prominent businessman and cattleman.

Thus was his life for the first fifty years or so. Then, perhaps as a way to perform civic duties, Johnson produced a rodeo at San Antonio, Texas. He was already established in his community and was well off. So the reasons he decided to get involved in rodeo at such an advanced stage in his career remains mostly speculation. But whatever his reason was, it was reported that the first rodeo he managed was a flop.

Johnson, having rarely failed at anything, must have felt the urge to prove he could succeed at this new venture. Using his vast connections, he reversed his luck and got into producing rodeos in a big way. Within a couple of years, he was conducting several major rodeos in Texas and soon expanded nationwide. By 1930, he even gained the contract to produce the prestigious Madison Square Garden Rodeo (which was considered the biggest rodeo of all and was something like our National Finals Rodeo today. Its winners were recognized as the unofficial world champions).

At this time, Johnson was one of the men who was revolutionizing the sport of rodeo. Prior to this, rodeos closely resembled Wild West shows. They were day-long events, held in large, open arenas where there were features such as wild horse and roman races, trick and fancy roping, wild cow milking and many staged productions.

However, when Johnson starting doing shows for Eastern audiences in smaller, indoor venues in large metropolitan areas, there was no room for many of the Wild West type events. A busy, urban audience would only sit still for a couple hour performance. The Col. quickly recognized this and started putting on shows accordingly. He gained fame as one of the premier rodeo producers in the country, having a flair for showmanship. By the early 1930s, Johnson’s rodeos had set many attendance records.

Another thing his rodeos were known for at the time was he still had women’s bronc riding as an event. Since Bonnie McCarroll, a lady bronc rider, had gotten killed in 1929, most rodeos had outlawed the event. But not Johnson. He knew it was a crowd favorite and kept it as part of the show. He provided excellent prizes and publicity to entice the cowgirls. He also paid medical and transportation expenses for several women injured at the contests.

Thanks to his flair, Johnson’s contests grossed millions of dollars through the late ‘20s and early ‘30s. The press called him “the Big Texan,” the most famous and powerful rodeo producer at the time.

So how did this successful man, with a flair for big productions, wind up as a scorn in the rodeo world? It was probably mostly due to the mindset of the day. It has been said that in the 1920s and ‘30s, if a cowboy got $50 to $60 a month in wages, he was doing good. When the rodeo came to town, the same cowboys at the rodeo were the same cowboys who had been working on ranches for next to nothing. It is believed the same mind-set about how much cowboys should make spilled over from the cattleman to the rodeo manager. After all, why should they get more rodeoing than they did ranching?

Cowboys at that time were not the romantic hero figure they are now. Although, thanks mostly to Hollywood, the cowboy image was improving by leaps and bounds, most cowboys were just thought of has lowly hired men. When calf roper, Lee Robinson, married Col. Johnson’s daughter, Ora Lee, he was furious. He tried in vain to keep the young lovers apart. According to Mary Lou LeCompete, in her book, Cowgirls of the Rodeo, “Col. Johnson was violently opposed. He felt that she was too young to marry. He was also convinced that being a rodeo cowboy, Robinson would never amount to much, and was unworthy of his daughter.”

So when Johnson, and most other rodeo producers, paid the rodeo cowboys low prize money compared to what the producer himself made, they were mostly doing just what the cattlemen had been doing and was considered the norm at the time. They probably thought nothing of it being wrong or unfair.

So perhaps the cowboys were not after Col. Johnson, in particular, when they finally got fed up at Boston in 1936. Maybe they were just after reform. The Colonel just happened to be in the wrong spot, at the right period in rodeo history. He represented all they had come to dislike about the business end of rodeo. After all, the Col. had a stellar record of producing successful rodeos prior to that.

The Col. was bullheaded however. He fought hard to not give in to the cowboys’ demands at Boston. At one point, he proclaimed, “I’ll drive my stock into the bay before I give into their demands.” He even tried to put on a performance without the cowboys by using stable hands and grooms who were not a part of the strike. It did not work.

Eventually, Johnson did give into the cowboy’s demands. The rejoicing cowboys joined together and formed the CTA to have a greater voice in rodeo as mentioned above. The cowboys enjoyed many years afterwards where they wielded much control over the sport of rodeo.

The Col.? Well he was so disgusted over the whole event that he sold out in early 1937 to the Clemens brothers of Florence, AZ and Everett Colborn for a reported $150,000. Villain? Victim of history? Whatever the case may be, Johnson retired from rodeo and the public spotlight and  went back home to Texas.

Johnson died at San Antonio, Texas on September 25, 1943, and was buried at Denton, TX. the following day.