Will Rogers, The Cowboy Philosopher
It happened again. . . I got sidetracked. You see, I started out to investigate the fine art of trick roping and took a turn onto the life of Will Rogers. I make no apologies, because Will Rogers was a the kind of fascinating character that someone like Will Rogers would have liked to observe! He was Western through and through, but his appeal knew no geographical boundaries. Plus, those Will Rogers’ quotes just flat out make me laugh out loud! I don’t know about you, but I can use all the laughter I can get. When you find a quote by Will Rogers, it will often be captioned “ American entertainer famous for his pithy homespun humor.” That’s good work when you can get it!
“My ancestors didn’t come over on the Mayflower, but they were there to meet the boat.” ~ Will Rogers
William Penn Adair Rogers was born on November 4, 1879 at Dog Iron Ranch in Oologah, Indian Territory. (Hint: In case you want to locate that on a map, it’s in modern day Oklahoma. It’s in Rogers County to be precise!) This blue-eyed man was slightly more than one quarter Cherokee and he was proud of his heritage.
Will grew up on the family ranch. He was the youngest of eight children. Maybe that’s why Will became so good at grabbing people’s attention. He was also good at grabbing up a lasso and making it do his bidding. At the age of five, Dan Walker, a freed slave, taught Will his first rope tricks. He was a natural! From an early age, Will was riding horses and working with cattle. When you stop and think about it, Will had the unique distinction of being able to play cowboy and Indian all by himself. (I did some soul searching before making that joke. And, you know, I’m pretty sure Will Rogers would have liked it.)
During childhood, Will lost four siblings to illness. At the age of eleven, he lost his mother, as well. His mother had been the one who helped light the spark of imagination in young Will. Suddenly, he was left with a stern father and three big sisters who did their best to dote on him. Will’s father remarried when Will was thirteen-years-old.
“Good judgment comes from experience, and a lot of that comes from bad judgment.” ~Will Rogers
Somewhere along the way, young Will made it into the Guinness Book of Records for his lariat throwing. He held the record for throwing three lassos at once. One rope caught the running horse’s neck. A second roped looped around the horse’s rider. And a third rope went underneath the horse and snagged all four legs. That’s sounds like some mighty fine trick roping to me!
Will dropped out of school after the completion of the 10th grade. He was nineteen-years-old, at the time. But he never stopped gaining the good judgment that comes from experience. He went to the Texas panhandle to work as a cowboy before making an exotic detour to Argentina, with a friend. It was 1902 and Will and his friend had aspirations of becoming gauchos. That didn’t work out too well and Will and his empty pockets then headed to South Africa, where he found work on a ranch.
“Everything is funny as long as it is happening to someone else.” ~ Will Rogers
When Will Rogers returned to the U.S., he became a performer in Texas Jack’s Wild West Circus. You have to admit, Will wasn’t afraid to try new things! He did an act as a trick roper and rider with Texas Jack’s before heading to Australia. There, he did the same sort of act for the Wirth Brothers Circus. That lasted until 1904.
At that point, Will made the transition to vaudeville. He went to New York City and was employed by none other than William Hammerstein. Does that mean that before there was “Rodgers and Hammerstein,” there was Hammerstein and Will Rogers? He also starred in the Ziegfeld Follies on Broadway, during 1917.
“I’m not a real movie star. I’ve got the same wife I started out with twenty-eight years ago.” ~Will Rogers
In 1908, Will married his first and only wife, Betty. Together, they had four children. And despite his protests to the contrary, Will Rogers was a real movie star! He starred in a grand total of seventy-one movies, during the 20s and 30s. He was one of the fortunate actors to seamlessly transition from silent films to talkies.
“I am just an old country boy in a big town trying to get along. I have been eating pretty regular and the reason I have been is because I have stayed an old country boy.” ~ Will Rogers
Will Rogers also became a beloved radio commentator and newspaper columnist. His down-home brand of political observation was irresistible. He wrote an impressive 4,000 syndicated columns, as well as six books. That old country boy met U.S. Presidents and world political leaders and still managed to never meet a man he didn’t like!
“If you live your life right, death is a joke as far as fear is concerned.” ~ Will Rogers
Trick riding wasn’t Will’s only bit of thrill seeking. He loved travel and flying. In 1935, Will and his one-eyed, aviator friend, Wylie Post were on their way to Alaska when their plane crashed. Both men were killed. Will Rogers was only fifty-five years old.
“No man is great if he thinks he is.” ~ Will Rogers
It is said that more people turned out for Will Rogers’ funeral than for any funeral since President Lincoln’s. That’s really not surprising when you consider that he has been gone far longer than he lived and he is still quoted and admired. Will Rogers might not have thought of himself as great, but I surely do. That’s not a bad tribute when you consider I just wanted to write about trick roping. I’ll save that for another day.
For a special treat, watch this video of Will Rogers from 1931, sharing his much-loved, no nonsense political philosophy in “Bacon, Beans and Limousines.”
Happy Trails, y’all!