Cowboy Heroes

by Jim Olson

“Lee Robinson: A Saddle Made Him Famous”

Lee Robinson was born April 10, 1891 in Haskell County, Texas. His parents were ranchers and he went to school at a little place called Quitaque in West Texas. At the age of fourteen however, he hopped in a covered wagon that came by his folks place, leaving home to work as a cowboy on ranches all over west Texas—including the famous JA ranch. He also spent time in Arizona working on ranches. Lee was a born an adventurous cowboy.

Very athletic, and handy with a rope, he learned early he could rope and tie calves about as fast as anybody. Bulldogging and bronc riding were also rodeo events Lee tried. There is even a story of Robinson trying to ride a buffalo on a bet. He rode the beast, but had to be pulled from the arena, bleeding from his nose and ears, only to be taken to a doctor who told him he had internal injuries and should never ride rough stock again.

Lee won many shows around the Southwest in the calf roping and bulldogging events, so in 1921, friends convinced him he should go back East and try his luck at Madison Square Garden, where Tex Austin held the World Championship Rodeo. Lee shattered Clay McGonagill’s record in the calf roping there, won the average, and became known as the fastest calf roper of the day. From then on, Lee Robinson was a rodeo man.

Some of his other wins include: 1921 calf roping champion Prescott, AZ; 1922 all around and bull dogging champion, Prescott, AZ; 1924 bulldogging champion Dewey, Oklahoma; 1925-1927 calf roping champion, Elks Rodeo, Rochelle, Illinois; calf roping champion Tampa, Florida and Tucson, AZ and numerous others throughout the 1920s.

Along the way, he married Ora Lee Johnson, daughter of the famous rodeo contractor, Colonel William T. Johnson (producer of the Boston Garden show where cowboys went on strike in 1936) in a controversial marriage.

According to Mary Lou LeCompete, in her book, Cowgirls of the Rodeo, “. . . Col. Johnson had no rodeo hands in his family, and apparently did not want any. When in the mid-twenties his beloved daughter Ora Lee fell in love with Lee Robinson, then one of rodeo’s premier calf ropers, 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. Johnson sent Ora Lee from boarding school to boarding school, with Robinson in pursuit, and was prepared to send her to Europe under the watchful eye of her maiden aunt Ora when the couple eloped. Johnson was furious, and the family was not reconciled until three years later when his two-year-old granddaughter Mary won the Colonel’s heart.”

Besides being probably the fastest and best-known calf roper of the 1920s, Robinson even took part in the making of a Hoot Gibson movie at the Houston Rodeo in 1923. But if you are thinking that you have heard of Lee Robinson somewhere before—it was probably because of a saddle.

In the 1890s, Newton Porter moved to Phoenix, AZ where he established the

N. Porter Saddle & Harness Company, which became one of the best known saddle companies ever. After Porter died in the early 1900s, his sons took over. They continued to run the business for many years afterwards. In the late 1920s, the business was expanded to include a shop in Tucson.

In the mid-twenties, calf roper Lee Robinson was looking for a way to better his times in the event and contacted Porter Saddlery about designing him a saddle with a low cantle and swells. The theory was—this should allow a faster dismount than the conventional high-back, high swell saddles, made for bucking horses from that era allowed. At the 1927 Tucson Rodeo, the Porter Saddlery presented him with the official “Lee Robinson Light Weight Saddle.” It was the first of its kind (however, Lee had ridden a prototype prior to that). The saddle became very popular and was “the introduction of the modern day roping saddle.”

The N. Porter Saddle & Harness Company, in their 1929-1930 Catalog No. 17 describe the saddle: “The Lee Robinson Light Weight: Weight — Only 30 pounds, complete with latigoes, cinchas and stirrups — but strong enough for all-around use. Since its first showing, this number has lead all other saddles in sales. There must be a reason—this one exemplifies our slogan, ‘Quality, without penalty of high cost.’ Like all of our saddles, this one is made of the best oak-tanned leather and on the highest grade tree obtainable.”

The last thing Lee told Porter Saddlery was, “This is the best saddle that I have ever owned.”

Unfortunately, On February 25, 1927, after winning the calf roping at Tucson and being presented with the first signature saddle, Lee, Ora Lee and daughter Mary Robinson died in a terrible car accident near Tornillo, Texas while driving to Fort Worth en-route to the rodeo there. The only survivor was Lee’s traveling partner, Louis Jones.

The family was buried in Denton, Texas, where Ora Lee was born and they were living at the time. As a eulogy and tribute to one of the greatest calf ropers of the era, rodeo personality, Fox Hastings, led Robinson’s saddled horse in the grand entry at the Fort Worth Stock Show and Rodeo that year.

Lee Robinson was inducted into the National Cowboy & Western Heritage Museum’s Rodeo Hall of Fame in 1967 and the Lee Robinson Saddle, made by the N. Porter Saddle & Harness Company for many years, is a highly sought-after cowboy collectible to this day.