Harris opens the door and enters his house. On the wall of the living room there is a 1932 rodeo poster of the young Stoney Harris straddling a paint horse named Billy, who is rearing up dramatically, almost perpendicular to the ground. The rider is waving a huge cowboy hat. He looks like a man who has just managed to turn a little piece of New Jersey into a little piece of Texas, which is in fact what Stoney did in 1930, when he convinced his father, Howard Sr., that putting on a rodeo would attract more farmers to the weekly Harris livestock auctions in Woodstown.
The first rodeo was purely homegrown. But when the 101 Ranch Wild West Show closed down in Washington, D.C., in 1931, the Harrises found themselves with a bunch of real cowboys willing to work for room and board. "They had the guts," Stoney says, "and they were hungry. In those days the chuck wagon was the main attraction, not the checkbook."
The 101 Ranch cowboys were accompanied by a 200-pound squaw named Lizzie Lefthand Bull and her tribe of dancing Sioux Indians, a world-class trick roper, a longhorn steer that jumped over a car, and a guy named Bob Roebuck whose "High School Educated Horse," Sport, reared up and applauded the crowd with his front hooves. "Now, how in the hell," Harris says, still mystified half a century later, "would you teach a horse to do that?"
Standing in a room full of sculptures of fighting stallions, he pages through a musty 1938 rodeo program he has come across in the living room. He stops suddenly and stares at a photograph in the program. Stoney's good eye turns red and sorrowful.
The photograph shows a sawed-off, black-haired, unshaven cowboy flying through the air, propelled by the horns of a brindle bull, his arms spread like wings and his sneakered feet bracing for the impact. The cowboy's name was George Richie. He was an illegal alien from Wales. His rodeo name was Pancho Villa because people thought he looked vaguely Mexican.
"Pancho was the toughest human I ever saw," Harris says with deep conviction. "Pain. Fear. He didn't understand 'em. He didn't know what the devil they were.
"Why, he'd squat right down on the bumper of my Chevy touring car and then I'd get her going around 60 miles an hour and when we'd pass in front of the grandstand, he'd just let go. He'd hit the ground. Bounce up in the air. Do three or four flip-flops. Take his hat off. Wave."
Harris shakes his head in amazement. "The thing was," he says, "Pancho never hurt anything important. Of course, his back was just solid scars all over, but he was always in good humor."
The immigration authorities finally caught up to Pancho and sent him back to Wales. "I corresponded with him for a while," Harris says. "One day I got a postcard with bloody fingerprints on it. He wrote: 'Mr. Harris, they want to take my legs off. But when Pancho goes out, he's going with his feet sticking up.' I tried to trace him. I never could."
At just about that same time in 1936, Stoney's father died suddenly. "He was 65 years old," Stoney says. "Rugged as a bull. He got pneumonia. They didn't know what to do for it. Hell, they was giving him a spoonful of whiskey every hour. I always thought that if they'd have let him drink the whole fifth, he might've gotten well."