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Riding High

On the Rodeo Circuit

By James Kaiser | HUMANITIES, January/February 2006 | Volume 27, Number 1

 In the early years of rodeo, cowboys resorted to biting steers on the nose, a prize could be a pair of dungarees, and women competed against men in all the events. Ralph R. Doubleday recorded this period during his thirty years as rodeo's preeminent photographer. Along the way he documented the sport's transformation from sideshow to big business.

More than four thousand photographs that Doubleday took between 1910 and 1955 form the Ralph R. Doubleday Rodeo Photographic Collection, stored at the National Cowboy & Western Heritage Museum in Oklahoma City. With support from NEH, the museum has been able to preserve, digitize, and catalog the photographic negatives in the Doubleday collection.

At the 1910 Cheyenne Frontier Days in Wyoming, Doubleday changed the way rodeos were photographed. When rider Gus Nylen was bucked off his horse, Doubleday managed to take a picture of him in midair, becoming the first person ever to capture such an image.

Doubleday was fearless in his pursuit of the dramatic shot. "He would be right there in the arena," says Charles Rand, director of the Donald C. & Elizabeth M. Dickinson Research Center at the museum. "He would steady himself and hopefully not get trampled and kind of put himself in a position to shoot the shot and then run like hell."

Writer and actor Will Rogers wrote that Doubleday "has taken 90 percent of the good rodeo pictures ever made. He don't get 'em till they are doing something unusual. But when they do, he is right down under them shooting up at 'em. He has had horses jump over him, wild steers run over him. But he always comes up with an exact likeness of the animal."

Doubleday made postcards from the thousands of photographs he took and sold them in Woolworth stores and souvenir shops. By one estimate, he sold more than thirty million.

Rodeo traces its roots to the 1860s when cowboys from different ranches competed informally. By the 1880s, wild west shows like Buffalo Bill's staged roping, riding, and shooting competitions as preludes to large-scale theatrical performances. Doubleday worked with one of the last wild west shows, taking pictures of the Miller Brothers 101 Ranch Wild West Show in the early 1910s.

Cheaper to stage, rodeos began to replace the wild west show. In 1920, Doubleday left his wife and child for the itinerant lifestyle of the rodeo circuit. It took him through twenty-nine states, from large venues such as Soldier Field in Chicago to small ranch towns such as Pendleton, Oregon. "He captured all these images of the personalities, the events, the producers, and the livestock from this early period of rodeo," says Rand.

Doubleday photographed legendary figures such as Gene Autry and Hall of Fame announcer Foghorn Clancy. He worked when cowgirls competed against men, and he witnessed the founding in 1936 of the Cowboys' Turtle Association, formed in response to promoter W.T. Johnson's refusal to add entry fees to the prize money.

In 1958, the same year the National Finals Rodeo, the "super bowl of rodeo," was established, Doubleday died. The National Finals now takes place over ten days in Las Vegas, where last year it attracted more than 175,000 fans and handed out $5.1 million in prize money. Despite the increasing stature and popularity of the sport, Doubleday's images and memory were threatened with obscurity until thirty years ago, when they were found in Xenia, Ohio, among the belongings of a woman who had been evicted from her home. The man who found the negatives contacted the museum, which purchased the collection.

The museum has since acquired more negatives and actively searches eBay for Doubleday postcards. The collection has provided the material for multiple exhibitions, including "Doubleday's Cowgirls, Women in the Rodeo," which is touring throughout the West until 2007.

About the Author

James Kaiser, a senior at Yale University, was an intern at NEH.