by Jim Olson
“Tex Austin – Daddy of Rodeo”
Circa the 1920s, Rodeo began to make a transition from “Wild West Show” to being more of a “Rodeo” like we think of in today’s terms. One man who took a large part in that transition was a big-time promoter called Tex Austin.
Much of Tex Austin’s early life is a mystery. There is an abundance of conflicting stories. Many sources claim he was born in 1886 while others say the year was 1887. Some say his given name was Clarence Van Nostrand, others John Van Nostrand, yet others say John Van Austin was his birth name. Some say he was born in St. Louis, Missouri while others claim it was Victoria, Texas.
Tex claimed to have been born and reared on a cow ranch in Texas, but there are reports that he did not move West until he was about twenty (circa 1907). At that time he worked for various ranches in West Texas and Eastern New Mexico over a period of a few years.
Tex then claims he went down to Old Mexico where he worked as a cowboy for Don Luis Terrazzo (reportedly the largest rancher in the world at the time). Tex also said he rode with Pancho Villa during the Mexican Revolution in 1911. Most sources reinstate these claims.
So much of what is known about Tex Austin prior to 1917 is lore, that it is hard to separate fact from fiction. Some claim Tex invented this persona of a “bona-fide cowboy hero” for publicity reasons. Probably, there is a blend of both fact and fiction in stories told about his early life. What is known about Austin from 1917, through the end of his life, is well documented however. This is when he entered the public spotlight.
In 1917 Tex Austin produced his first rodeo at El Paso, Texas. In 1918, he produced the first indoor rodeo of record, which was held in Wichita, Kansas. In 1922, he produced the first ever rodeo held at Madison Square Garden in New York and in 1926 at Chicago Stadium in Chicago. He produced rodeos in London, England in 1924 and ’34. History tells us he produced a-bunch of rodeos from 1917 through 1934 both in the United States and abroad in many major cities. He was one of the premier rodeo promoters of the 1920s.
Tex was known far and wide as a spectacular showman. He was charming and generous—almost to a fault. He was one of the first to realize the importance of “stars” at the rodeo and often promoted that “so-and-so” would be at his shows. He was one of the first to advertise HUGE payouts to attract the better cowboys and cowgirls—and also spectators who wished to see big money won. (When he produced the first Madison Square Garden Rodeo in 1922, the prize money was a record $25,000, which he guaranteed out of his own pocket if the purse did not get there on its own!)
Austin was very forward in his thinking. He cut out many of the traditional “Wild West” type events and condensed his “Rodeos” down to a few hours rather than the all day spectacles being produced up to that point. He felt the “sophisticated” spectators of the big cities where he entertained were “too busy” for the day-long Wild West shows and would appreciate a shortened version.
Being a “Master Showman,” he often called his rodeos a “World Championship” rodeo, ie: Tex Austin’s World Championship Rodeo; Madison Square Garden World Championship Rodeo; Chicago World Championship Rodeo and so on. While it was good for promotional purposes, this has often led to confusion in the history books about who was the “World Champion” of any given year (Tex was not the only one promoting “World Championship” rodeos however, which leads to even more confusion). In 1929, rodeo organized and from then on, we have only one generally accepted “World Champion” for each event in each year.
After making a little money, Tex fulfilled a life-long dream and became an official “rancher.” In 1925, he bought the “Forked Lighting” ranch near Las Vegas, New Mexico. He operated it as a working cattle ranch and also a “Dude” ranch. An old Stage Stop and Tavern on the historic Santa Fe Trail (which operated from 1858-1880) were part of his new holdings. He converted these into his ranch headquarters and a trading post. He advertised his ranch had, “The most complete, mod-ern and comfort-able ranch house in the West. The life of the romantic West is at its doors,” and it was located, “Way out West an’ a Little Bit South.”
One story about how Tex promoted his Dude Ranch says that he would take the train east to Chicago, or some other big city, where he would then announce he needed help in moving a large herd of cattle from his ranch, down to the railroad pens at Las Vegas. Dudes would line up, offering to help, even pay their own way, and eventually he would talk them into paying him to help move the cattle.
After the cattle drive was completed, he would head back to another big city where he would advertise he needed help getting a large herd of cattle from the railroad pens at Las Vegas back to his ranch. He would then convince another set of “Dudes” into paying him to drive the cattle home. He was the ultimate promoter of his day!
Unfortunately, timing was against Tex as the onset of the Great Depression hit. He had spent money like it was a never ending stream of cool, clear water during the 1920s while promoting his Rodeos and Dude Ranch. When the Depression hit, he borrowed heavily to maintain the same standards and promotional levels his events had seen in the past.
His return to London in 1934 was actually a last desperate attempt to regain financial stability. He risked everything—and everything seemed to go against him. British Animal Rights Activists protested the event, saying that steer wrestling was cruelty to animals. This stopped the show for a time and caused lower than expected attendance. Coupled with higher expenses and lower than expected income, Tex reportedly lost about $20,000 putting on the show. This was the final straw for him financially. He lost his ranch and rodeo company.
After losing the ranch, Tex and his wife, Mary Lou McGuire, moved to Santa Fe, New Mexico and opened “Tex Austin’s Los Rancheros” restaurant near the Plaza. In October 1938, Tex committed suicide. Rumor has it Doctors told him he was going blind. Photographs of his rodeo days were found stacked on his couch at home and those close to him figured he was very depressed over his current state of affairs.
Tex Austin, the “Daddy of Rodeo,” as he was affectionately called, was posthumously inducted into the National Cowboy and Western Heritage Museum Hall of Fame in 1976.