Back in june 1883 at a general store in Pecos, Texas a bunch of cowboys got to arguing about who was the fastest roper and best bronc rider in their section of cow country. They decided to settle the question at a contest on July Fourth. At this first recorded interranch rodeo Morgan Livingston of the N.A. Ranch near Pecos won the $25 first prize in steer roping, and Trav Windham, boss of the neighboring Lazy Y ranch, was second, with $15. This was the official beginning of American rodeo, the only big-time sport in the U.S. to spring directly from an industry.
Not until 1929, however, did the cowboy country tournament finally emerge as a nationally organized sport. And the greatest saddle bronc rider of those days was Pete Knight.
Pete was born in Philadelphia but was raised on a ranch near Crossfield, Alberta. Before he finished grade school Pete was breaking wild horses. Just after World War I, when he was 15, he competed in his first local rodeo and took second money. By 1923 he was ready for the big time, and the following year split first and second money at Calgary. In 1930 Pete quit ranching to hit the rodeo trail and win some of the increasingly substantial cash prizes being offered. He had won enough saddles and belt buckles. Pete was no yippee-kiyi-type cowboy, rather he had the reputation of being quiet and even-tempered. The rougher the mount, the better he rode, said one of his competitors, Earl Thode (right).
But although Pete was the foremost rider of his day, there was one horse he never defeated to everyone's satisfaction, and his name was Midnight.
Foaled before World War I near Medicine Hat, Alberta, the 1,200-pound bronc, who had once been a saddle horse to a school marm, had a solid reputation as a terror from Oregon to New York. Even today Midnight's bronky career is remembered as one of the greatest in rodeo history.
SEVEN SECONDS OF FURY
At least three different times Pete tried to stay aboard the horse. The records of these Midnight rides of Pete Knight are rather hazy, but one contest everyone remembers was at Cheyenne in 1932. For seven of rodeo history's longest seconds Pete stuck like a burr to Midnight's furious back. Then the horse let go with his favorite weapon, a vicious shoulder whip, and Pete ended up in a dust-covered heap.
His friends claimed Pete had ridden the ten seconds required to win, but the ride was unofficial, and there is no mention in the record books of Pete ever beating Midnight. The Cheyenne ride was the nearest he came to it.
By 1935, says Fog Horn Clancy, the old-time rodeo announcer, Midnight "had started to slip; his feet began to give him trouble." When he died in 1936 the riders he had hated bought Midnight a monument befitting a champion and placed it over his grave in Platteville, Colorado. The boys composed this epitaph for their hero:
"Underneath this sod lies a great bucking hoss.
There never lived a cowboy he couldn't toss.
His name was Midnight, his coat black as coal.
If there's a hoss heaven, please, God, rest his soul."