The quiet heroes of the West—the men and women who have shaped the West in ways we don’t always recognize—intrigue me. We have lost one of those quiet heroes. Haynes Kueckelhan has died. What? You’ve never heard of Haynes Kueckelhan? Well, I’m here to tell you, the man was a hero. He was definitely one of my heroes. By the time you finish reading, I trust he will have become one of yours as well. So, who was he and why should you care? The man with the funny last name started the longest running family owned rodeo in history—the Kueckelhan Rodeo, in the small town of Bonham, Texas.
His Heroes Had Always Been Cowboys
Like most boys, Haynes Kueckelhan grew up with heroes of his own, role models for a life he aspired to. And, like most boys growing up in Texas during the 30s and 40s, his heroes rode horses and wore cowboy hats. Men like Roy Rogers, Gene Autry, Hopalong Cassidy and the Lone Ranger filled his childhood musings, and he never quite got over that.
Kueckelhan emulated his silver-screen heroes by learning to rope and by competing in rodeos. He tried all of the rodeo events before discovering that his true gift was in steer wrestling. Growing up on a 300-acre ranch allowed him a lot of room for dreaming. And, what he dreamed of was building his own rodeo arena.
Dreams can come true when you aren’t afraid to back them up with a little sweat equity. Kueckelhan was still in college when he found himself sketching plans for a rodeo arena. Following his freshman year at East Texas State Teachers’ College, he returned home for the summer and, with the help of his parents, built himself a rodeo arena! It was the summer of 1955. That first arena consisted mainly of mesh hog wire. With no bleachers, the resourceful Kueckelhan borrowed pews from the nearby Corinth Baptist Church and loaded them in the back of a semi float trailer. Those not fortunate enough to get a place on a pew were welcome to stand along the fence.
In a 2008 interview with Country World newspaper, Kueckelhan recalled that first rodeo. He said, “Our first rodeo was very small. We only had one bucking chute and a little rough stock. That year we collected $86 to pay off the livestock fees and to offer a little money for the jackpot. We also had an advertising budget of $10, [with] which we bought some posters and flags.”
The following July, the rodeo returned. That time there were six bucking chutes and a large roping arena. I think parents today would do well to follow the example of the Kueckelhan family. Haynes’ parents helped him build the new and improved arena, just like they had helped with the arena made of hog wire.
Not His First Rodeo
Kueckelhan married his wife Malda, in 1958. It is fitting that they had met at one of Hayne’s early rodeos. Then Kueckelhan, the man who had received most of his education in a one-room schoolhouse, received his Bachelors and Masters Degrees in Agriculture from East Texas State Teachers’ College. For twenty-eight years, Kueckelhan was a high school agriculture teacher. And, in the summers, the rodeos continued. Children arrived. Grandchildren arrived. Even one great-grandchild arrived. And, still, the rodeos continued. You might say that the rodeos continued right in Kueckelhan’s own back yard, since they are always held on the Kueckelhan Ranch.
Over the years, the rodeos got bigger and better, but they always maintained that intimate feel. Thousands of people have flocked to the three-night event and enjoyed watching competitors, top-notch musical guests and other performers. To the people of Fannin County, attending the rodeo in July has come to be as much of a tradition as fireworks on the 4th. Also a tradition was the fact that Haynes invited children from two nearby orphanages and a school for girls to attend each year.
Kueckelhan was one of the founders of the Cowboys’ Regional Rodeo Association, and also served as its president. The United Professional Rodeo Association, Central States Rodeo Association and International Professional Rodeo Association also sanctioned the Kueckelhan Rodeo. The rodeo has won awards such as Best Produced Rodeo, Best Southern Region Rodeo and Best Promotional Rodeo. While he was probably too modest to tell you about it, Haynes Kueckelhan himself was inducted into the Fannin County Sports Hall of Fame.
The Rodeo Must Go On
This year, the 58th annual Kueckelhan Rodeo was held during the last weekend in July. And there, a special tribute was paid to the man who started it all. The audience sat in the current arena bleachers with seating for over 5,000, instead of on borrowed church pews as in years before, but it was still a time for reverence. A funeral service for Haynes Kueckelhan had been held earlier that week, with close to 1000 people in attendance. But the rodeo was an opportunity to remember him exactly as he would have wanted to be remembered. On opening night, a lone horse walked the arena as spectators reflected on the life of Haynes Kueckelhan, an American cowboy.
Big Boots to Fill
In case you’re wondering if the death of Haynes may be the end of the Kueckelhan Rodeo, don’t give it another thought. There are two more generations of Kueckelhans who have rodeo in their blood! Son, Marty has spent years working alongside his dad and has already taken over. And grandson Quincy is a cardholder in the Professional Rodeo Cowboys’ Association who plans to stay in the family business. They’ve got big boots to fill, but they’ll do their best to live up to the legacy Haynes started. Something tells me there are more quiet Kueckelhan heroes in the making.
Happy Trails, y’all!