Bill Pickett is a legend among cowboys
Bill Pickett is the only cowboy who is credited with creating a rodeo event.
The origin of most roping and riding events in rodeo comes from ranch work. Steer wrestling, or bulldogging, began with the longtime cowhand for the 101 Ranch near Ponca City.
“He is the George Washington of that event,” said Don Reeves, retired curator of the National Cowboy and Western Heritage Museum in Oklahoma City.
Eighty-six years after his death, Pickett will be inducted in the Oklahoma Sports Hall of Fame. Pickett, the legendary Oklahoma cowboy and Wild West show performer, died in 1932 at age 61 after being kicked in the head by a horse.
The first African-American cowboy inducted in the National Cowboy and Western Heritage Museum, Pickett is a legendary figure in the American West and in the rodeo world.
“He is venerated, not just legendary,” Reeves said.
Several accounts provide varying details of how Pickett created bulldogging, but the consensus is that Pickett, the Texas-born son of a former slave, had witnessed bulldogs being used to herd cattle.
The bulldogs would round up a stray steer by jumping up, biting the steer's lip and lead it back to the herd. Pickett decided one day he could use the same technique on wandering steers.
“He ran over and grabbed this steer by the head, bit the lip and wrestled it to the ground,” Reeves said. “He did it a few more times on other occasions and it caused such a stir he took it on the road as kind of an exhibition."
Pickett and his brother began the Pickett Brothers Bronco Busters and Rough Riders Show that toured fairs and rodeos with his famous bulldogging act.
“The Miller brothers (owners of the 101 Ranch) found out about it, saw his act and hired him to be one of the performers in their Wild West show,” Reeves said.
In 1907, Pickett was hired as a cowhand on the 101 Ranch and became the star attraction of the Miller Brothers' 101 Ranch Wild West Show.
Pickett entertained millions with his riding, roping and "bulldogging" skills. He traveled all over North America and Argentina and England, even performing for the British Royal Family.
Longtime rodeo stock contractor Bennie Beutler of Elk City remembers his great uncle Lynn Beutler, one of the original founders of the Beutler Brothers Rodeo Company, telling stories about Bill Pickett.
"Lynn had been up at the Miller Brothers Ranch and seen Bill Pickett bulldog a steer off the running boards of a car," Beutler said. "Lynn told me these stories. He said it was quite a show and he had never seen nothing like it."
His act eventually evolved into the rodeo event called bulldogging but more commonly known today as steer wrestling.
“Other rodeo performers started doing the same stunt and eventually it became a recognized rodeo event,” Reeves said.
Today, no lip biting is allowed in steer wrestling, but Pickett is widely credited with creating the event where a cowboy jumps off his horse, grabs the steer's horns and wrestles it to the ground.
Beutler said many of the younger rodeo cowboys today are not aware of Pickett and his influence on the sport of rodeo, but all of the old-timers know of his exploits.
Rodeo announcers such as the late Clem McSpadden often would share Pickett's story with audiences when calling the steer wrestling competition, he said.
In 1989, Pickett was inducted into the ProRodeo Hall of Fame in Colorado Springs, Colorado.
The U.S. Postal Service also honored Pickett, featuring him on a stamp as part of its Legends of the West series.
Reeves said no other rodeo event can be credited to one person. That alone makes Pickett, who was a working cowboy on the 101 Ranch for more than 25 years, a larger than life Western legend and worthy of the Oklahoma Sports Hall of Fame.
OKLAHOMA SPORTS HALL OF FAME
Here is a look at the seven-part series on this year’s Oklahoma Sports Hall of Fame inductees:
Tuesday: Mat Hoffman
Wednesday: Allan Trimble
Thursday: Bill Pickett
Friday: Ken Mendenhall
Saturday: Joe Castiglione
Sunday: Robin Ventura
Monday: Larry Coker
When: 7 p.m., Monday
Where: Riverwind Showplace Theatre, Norman
Tickets: A very limited number remain at $150. To purchase, call the Oklahoma Sports Hall of Fame at (405)427-1400.