Cowboy Heroes

by Jim Olson

“Pete Knight – First King of the Cowboys”

Pennsylvania – an unlikely birthplace for a world-class bronc rider. However, that is exactly where Charles Peter “Pete” Knight was born on May 5, 1903. He was the last of six children born to William and Katherine Knight of Philadelphia.

Known as one of the top bronc riders from the early days of rodeo, historian Willard Porter once wrote that Knight’s fellow cowboys remembered “. . . there was only one kind of horse that bothered him – the kind that wouldn’t buck!” Rodeo great Herman Linder agreed, “He was the best rider I ever saw because he rode steadier on harder horses.” “The rougher the mount, the better he rode,” said the first official (1929) All-around Champion of the World, Earl Thode.

Above all however, Knight was known as a great human being. Humble and down to earth – in spite of his legendary status. A friend to all. He had adoring fans and friends across the North American Continent.

As a young boy, Pete’s family moved from Pennsylvania to Oklahoma where they were originally looked upon as “city slickers.” The barb did not follow them long as they successfully worked Pete’s granddad’s homestead – becoming stockmen. Then they relocated to Crossfield, Alberta Canada after Pete’s father saw an advertisement for cheap farmland at the Oklahoma State Fair put out by the Canadian Government. They were looking for Americans willing to give it a try.

Canada is where Pete learned to ride bucking horses. He learned real good and eventually became known as “The King of the Cowboys” – long before Roy Rogers. Popular singer from the day, Wilf Carter, wrote a song naming Pete the King. He became a legend in his own time.

Pete’s career started when he entered his hometown rodeo at the age of fifteen, winning second place – no small feat as some of the best Canadian and American bronc riders of the day were entered. This first experience set the stage for many triumphs which followed. By the time he was twenty, he decided on a career as a professional rough stock rider and followed rodeo until his death.

An interesting fact about Pete is at least three different times he tried to stay aboard the great bucking horse, Midnight. The records of these rides are hazy, but it was considered a match between the best bronc and bronc rider of the day.

In Montreal, 1926, Pete drew Midnight, and managed to remain in the saddle for about eight seconds. Possibly a qualified ride by today’s standards, but back then it required ten. Another contest highly remembered was in Cheyenne, 1932. For seven long seconds Pete rode to Midnight. Then the horse really turned it on and Pete ended up in the dirt. Friends claimed he had ridden the ten seconds required to win, but the ride was unofficial. There is no mention in the record books of Pete ever besting Midnight, but the stories have grown to legendary status throughout the years. There are even songs and poems written about the duo.

In 1936, when Midnight died, riders bought him a monument befitting the champion and placed it over his grave in Colorado. They composed this epitaph for the famous bronc:

“Underneath this sod lies a great bucking hoss.

There never lived a cowboy he couldn’t toss.

His name was Midnight, his coat black as coal.

If there’s a hoss heaven, please, God, rest his soul.”

Knight rode in Wild West Shows and Rodeos across the United States and Canada. One such show he attended was the Boston Garden rodeo in 1936 and this forever wrote his name in Rodeo history. He bravely became one of the sixty-one men who signed the famous “strike” document and walked out of performing at that night’s show. The Cowboy Turtle’s Association was eventually formed as a result. It was the predecessor of today’s Professional Rodeo Cowboys Association. Pete was involved in the fledgling association.

Pete won Saddle Bronc riding World Championships in the Rodeo Association of America (eventually absorbed by the Turtle’s Association) in 1932, ‘33, ‘35, and ‘36. He also won the Prince of Wales Cup three times which was awarded to the rider who won the Canadian and American Championship at Calgary.

He met and married Ida Lee “Babe” Avant, of Hot Springs, Arkansas in 1932, taking his new bride on the rodeo trail with him. The couple had a daughter in 1934 named Deanna who was only three at the time of Pete’s untimely demise.

He died from a fatal injury sustained beneath the hooves of a rank, bucking horse named Duster at the Hayward, California rodeo on May 23, 1937. As he stumbled from the arena, he knew he was hurt. He died in the hospital a little while later from injuries sustained when a broken rib punctured his liver. Pete’s funeral received a tribute from every provincial government in Canada and from more than three quarters of the United States.

Pete, being born an American, but spending most of his life with a Canadian address (he lived near Denver, Colorado at the time of his death), and having rodeoed and performed extensively throughout the US and Canada, had an extensive following of fans and friends. It was recorded that tens of thousands mourned his death.

Guy Weadick, founder of the Calgary Stampede, called him “the greatest bronc rider of them all,” and, in spite of Knight’s later success, he was still “the same unassuming boy that he had been when first I saw him ride at that little, one-day show.” (Pete’s first rodeo at Crossfield, Alberta in 1918.)

Pete Knight was inducted into the National Cowboy Hall of Fame in 1958 and in 1981 became the first inductee into the Canadian Rodeo Hall of Fame. In 1977, Crossfield, Alberta started “Pete Knight Day,” which has become an annual event and rodeo. n