Cowboy Heroes

Cowboy Heroes

by Jim Olson

“Cowboy to Contractor

He was partners with Gene Autry. He was once son-in-law to Tom Mix. He won the Canadian Saddle Bronc Riding Championship—twice. He spent about forty-five years making his living in a rodeo arena. He was the legendary, Harry Knight.

Born in Quebec City, Canada in 1907, the Knight family moved west when Harry was a young boy to Banff, Alberta. Harry’s father had a resort on Banff’s, Lake Louise. Although the rest of the Knight family members were not “cowboys” so much, young Harry took an interest in animals and cowboying early on. He entered his first rodeo in Sundre, Alberta Canada in 1925, thus beginning a half-century career in rodeo.

As a contestant in the rodeo arena, Harry excelled in the Saddle Bronc Riding event. He also entered Bareback, Steer Decorating, Calf Roping and Steer Riding at times. During his years as a contestant, he rode the bad bucking horse Five Minutes to Midnight for an eternity of ten seconds (the required time back then, today an official ride is eight seconds).

As mentioned above, he also won the Canadian Bronc Riding Championship, in 1926 and ‘32. A bad injury at the Chicago World’s Fair in 1933 nearly ended his riding career, however Harry recovered to compete through the early ‘40s.

As Harry’s rodeo career started to wind down, he turned to the contracting side of the game—something he will forever be remembered for. In 1937 or so, Knight became a partner in the World Champion Rodeo Company.

Back in 1936, when the cowboys went on strike at Boston Garden (the event that was the catalyst for the formation of the Cowboy Turtles Association or CTA), Colonel Johnson was the owner of the World Championship Rodeo Co. Perhaps as a result of the strike and the new cowboy’s association, Johnson became disgusted with rodeo, or maybe it was just time for him to retire. What ever the case may have been, Colonel Johnson sold his rodeo company to Everett Colborn of Dublin, Texas; Bill and Twain Clemens of Florence, Arizona and Harry Knight (who also lived in Arizona by this time).

According to author Gail Hughbanks Woerner, “The company consisted of 150 saddle horses, 150 bucking horses, 50 Brahma bulls, 100 head of bulldogging cattle, 90 calves, 50 wild cows, 110 saddles and various other equipment.” Harry wound up selling out his interest in the company a few years later.

Then, in 1954 legendary cowboy, Gene Autry, purchased the late Leo J. Cremer’s rodeo company and hired Harry Knight to manage it. In 1959, when Everett Colburn retired, the World Championship Rodeo Company was merged with the Cremer stock, making Autry and partners one of the largest stock contractors of the day. At one time, it was reported Gene Autry’s rodeo company had over six-hundred head of stock. Knight remained the manager until he retired in 1968.

Harry Knight was also the first Rodeo Cowboy Association (RCA) stock contracting representative to serve on the Board of Directors (1966-76). Earlier, in his contestant days, he had served on the board of the CTA as the Saddle Bronc Riding representative.

Author Clifford P. Westermeier remembered Knight, “as a man who enjoyed diverse friendships ranging from New York’s upper crust to the poorest ranch hands in Arizona and Texas.”

Writing about Knight as a contestant, rodeo historian Willard Porter said, “As most top-drawer bronc men do, Knight acquired a canny understanding of the chemistry that goes into the makeup of a dead-end bad horse.”

Ruth Mix (third child of the great cowboy actor, Tom Mix) and Harry Knight were married in 1935. A newspaper report from the day says they spent their honeymoon at Livermore, California where they were both scheduled to compete in a rodeo. Ruth Mix was a rodeo, circus and wild west show performer and an actress. By this time in his career, Knight listed his address as Casa Grande, Arizona (he actually lived across the street from the first All-around Champion of the World, Earl Thode).

Tom Thode, younger son of Earl Thode, and a former Yuma County, Arizona. Superior Court Judge, grew up across the street from Harry Knight. Tom related this story to the author.

“The actor Tom Mix and his son-in-law, Harry Knight were pretty close. When Tom died, most newspaper reports of the day claimed he was going from Tucson (after a night of wild partying) to Florence to see his son-in-law. The truth (as told to me by Harry himself) is that he was with Tom already—and they actually had left Tucson together that morning.

“Tom had a flask of whiskey and was hitting on it pretty heavily as they sped towards Florence. He kept passing it over to Harry, who would take a little sip now and then, and then pour a bigger batch of it down the side of the car. Pretty soon, the whiskey ran out, so Harry told Tom to pull over at a little country bar they were approaching. When Tom slid the car to a stop in front of the bar, Harry jumped out and said he would go in and get more whiskey.

“After ten minutes or so, Tom Mix got tired of waiting and went in to see what the delay was. He went into the bar and didn’t see anyone but the bartender. He asked the bartender if he had seen a cowboy come in there in the last ten minutes or so. The bartender said he had, and that the man had walked in the front door then straight out the back—and off into the desert! Tom got tired of waiting and soon left without Harry.

“The rest is history. A few miles up the road, the accident happened that killed Tom Mix. Harry Knight knew Tom was not safe to ride with, but also knew Tom would not listen to reason at that point, so he got out of the car when he could. By leaving when he did, it most likely saved his life.”

Harry went on to live a full and accomplished life after that (as outlined above). In November 1985, seventy-nine-year-old Harry Knight (who owned a ranch and lived in Fowler, Colorado by then), was inducted into the Canadian Rodeo Historical Society at Edmonton, Alberta. In December of that same year, he was also inducted into the Rodeo Hall of Fame in Oklahoma City. The great Harry Knight died April 5, 1989.