Russ Madison, South Dakota's "Mr. Rodeo"
from the "Rodeo Roots" series by Rhonda Sedgwick Stearns
Russ Madison, South Dakota's "Mr. Rodeo"
Pioneer genes—enhanced by the inspiration of the ruggedly beautiful Black Hills and Badlands regions, the example of Western icons such as Buffalo Bill Cody, and a graduate course in the unforgiving school of hard knocks—produced the man known as MR.RODEO in the state of South Dakota. That man is James Russell Madison, Jr., most widely known as “Russ” Madison.
Russ didn’t set eyes on Dakota land until 1886, when he was seven years old. He got there because his father James Russell “Pap” Madison, Sr., had been lured to Dakota Territory a decade earlier in search of gold and all it promised. No itinerant prospector, Pap Madison also worked as a bricklayer, and was known as a rancher with skill at hunting mountain lions.
He built a sturdy cabin (one of the first in the Territory) and put down roots. That home was carefully prepared in anticipation of welcoming his beloved family—wife Eliza Thomas Madison, their son and three daughters – from their previous home at Bedford in Taylor County, Iowa.
That transplant materialized, via railroad as far as Buffalo Gap and stagecoach to finish the trip, in May of 1886. The cabin, built to last, housed the happy family and now occupies a place of honor in Halley Park at Rapid City; fitting memorial to hardy pioneers who settled the region.
Russ’s Dakota environment played a leading role in his development as a cowboy. The land and many of its people were still as wild and violent as the broncs Madison would grow up to become conversant with. The disastrous Wounded Knee Massacre took place the 29th of December in 1890, some five years after Russ reached Dakota, indirectly resulting in a connection that would indelibly influence the lad.
Pete Lemley, owner of the Circle Bar Ranch near Madison’s home, had met and taken a liking to Russ, figuring the boy would soon make him a good hired hand. On a January 6, 1891, horseback trek to the site of the Wounded Knee tragedy, Lemley chanced to meet Army scout Wm. F. Cody, now known as “Buffalo Bill” Cody of Wild West fame. The acquaintance led to friendship; and an eventual contract for Lemley to provide rodeo stock for a Cody Wild West Show in Watertown, South Dakota on September 4, 1899 . . . where Russ was destined to meet the showman.
During those eight intervening years, young Madison made a hand for Lemley on his Circle Bar Ranch at Creston, South Dakota. The outfit’s 3000 horses ranged from Custer to Fort Pierre, so Madison was learning a lot of country as well as discovering the heart, soul and power of horses. He quickly became adept at breaking horses for the U.S. Army, and was a generally acknowledged “top hand” by the time he was 15. Two years later he broke 100 head of broncs for the UBI Ranch located in Rapid Valley.
Russ Madison Branding
Young Russ was no doubt thrilled with the prospect of helping trail the Circle Bar rodeo stock through the Badlands and on to Watertown for Buffalo Bill’s show in ‘99. Even more exciting was the prospect of participating in that show, where he discovered the adrenaline did not disappoint!
Madison managed to qualify two previously-unridden broncs that day, including one named Blue Dog. Those feats earned him the remarkable sum of $1,000; plus recognition in the show ring where Buffalo Bill allowed him to ride his personal mount Isham . . . a privilege no other cowboy could claim.
According to family lore, Buffalo Bill was so impressed with Russ’s talents he even offered him a job with his Wild West Show. Russ returned home with a desire to produce rodeos, wherever he found a chance – even if it was Main Street in the fast-growing burg of Rapid City. That is where, in 1899, someone bet Russ he couldn’t ride one of his broncs to the whistle while keeping a silver dollar safely between his boot and the stirrup. Of course he took the challenge, and history proves that – although the horse decided to crash into Haines Clothing Company through the plate glass window and return to the street by the same route – Russ didn’t blow a stirrup or let the dollar slip, thus winning the bet.
It’s also a matter of historical record that Russ was indeed touring the US with Cody’s troupe in 1900. The glamour and showmanship experienced there no doubt fired Russ’s passion and honed his appetite to pursue the sport of rodeo, setting his family’s destiny in motion.
Speaking of family, young Madison kicked off the 20th Century by marrying Ada V. Faulk on the 12th of December in 1900. That union produced a sizable family, including five sons and three daughters. Through their cowboy father, they all came to know and love ranching and rodeo.
A few years after his marriage Russ learned of a “World’s Championship” relay race scheduled for Sioux City, Iowa. Reportedly the exciting event challenged each rider to cover 35 miles with three mounts, and promised a $2,000 purse for the fastest ride. Such opportunity beckoned strongly to his competitive spirit, so Russ left the Black Hills riding one Circle Bar horse and leading two more. It’s a long, long way from there to Sioux City. Perhaps the trek helped condition horses and rider . . . at any rate they bested the competition and Russ pocketed the rich first prize!
The Madisons became landed gentry of Dakota in 1907 when Russ purchased a homestead along the route of the 1874 Custer Expedition. That property is five miles north of the current Madison Ranch, and the rich and abundant mountain grass was put to good use nurturing Madison horses bought and raised for use in the construction trade and for producing roughstock exhibitions.
THE ORIGINAL MADISON RANCH
Another ranch, along Box Elder Creek, was acquired about a decade later and named the Diamond S. Home to Madison family members yet today, the ranch hosted some of the first rodeos held in South Dakota; and was listed in the South Dakota Historic Registry in 2003. Today it operates as a delightful Bed and Breakfast, dispensing Western hospitality with a historic flair.
EARLY RODEO AT MADISON RANCH
The Madison Ranch has been voted “Exceptional Inn” by the Bed & Breakfast Innkeepers of South Dakota, as well as receiving their “Award of Excellence”. Delicious fare enhances comfortable quarters exuding the old fashioned ambiance of antiques native to the ranch; along with the Madison’s private collection of western artifacts, heirloom rodeo memorabilia, and beautiful creations by area artists.
The pines and aspen bordering Box Elder Creek Canyon insulate guests from the world’s racket so they can savor the chuckling of the creek along its rocky bottom as birds and squirrels accompany the soughing of wind through the treetops. Watching deer and other wildlife calms the spirit, and if guests bring their own horses to ride the trails, they can be accommodated. A four-minute video of the ranch and some of its history can be enjoyed at http://www.madisonranchbb.com/index.htm.
By 1917 the name Russ Madison was a household word among rodeo fans over a large area – fans who touted not only Madison’s bronc riding skills but also the prowess of his string of bucking horses. All spoke high praise for Russ as a rider. Longtime Dakota rancher and rodeo cowboy Buster Berry recalls, “I was just a youngster when I first saw Russ Madison. My granddad August Bollman, Pete Lemly (sic) and Casey Tibbs all thought Russ Madison was the greatest bronc rider ever . . . They said Russ had no fear. Grandad witnessed Madison’s bronc rides on the main street of Rapid City.”
PRCA Gold Card member, former rodeo clown and rodeo historian Jim Aplan declares of Russ, “. . . he was a well-known saddle bronc rider of considerable talent, winning or placing at many of the rodeos in the five-state area.”
DASHING BRONC RIDER AND RODEO PRODUCER, RUSS MADISON
Russ was also known for owning “the toughest bucking stock in the country” – many of them gathered from the wild “White Horse herd” ranging across the Badlands. Such stock enabled him to produce the first professional rodeos in the state of South Dakota, including the historic Tri-State RoundUp which later became the Black Hills RoundUp in Belle Fourche; Range Days Rodeo in Rapid City; and the famous “Days of ‘76” at Deadwood.
Jim Aplan of Piedmont, South Dakota says, “The name of Madison is synonymous with Rodeo in Western South Dakota . . . Russ, as he was called, was one of the founders of the present day PRCA rodeos at Rapid City, Belle Fourche and Deadwood, South Dakota. He also produced rodeos in Wyoming, Montana, North Dakota and Nebraska. His career spanned over 30 years; most active from the late teens thru the 1940’s. He supplied livestock and in many instances he put on the entire show.”
Russ Madison’s roughstock expertise stretched beyond equine boundaries. He is also credited with introducing the first Brahma bulls into the Black Hills.
Tommy Tibbitts, notable South Dakota rodeo cowboy recognized for getting rodeo declared “Official Sport” of the state, says, “The Madison Rodeos was a great inspiration to a lot of cowboys in getting started, including me. James Russell Madison, Jr. . . . set the ground work for making Rodeo the Official Sport of South Dakota.”
Russ Madison truly did lay a great foundation – beginning to provide stock for Belle Fourche in its third year, 1920, and continuing through 1927; and providing stock at Deadwood (which started in 1922) from 1928 through 1946. Both those rodeos are still prominent on the ProRodeo tour; and the Professional Rodeo Cowboys Association has honored Deadwood as “Best Mid-Sized Outdoor Rodeo of the Year” five times in succession.
The Range Days Rodeo in Rapid City was instituted with Madison’s help in 1921 and featured his stock from then through 1946. Russ Madison’s influence in the rodeo world was by no means limited to the state of South Dakota – his broncs indiscriminately flung cowboys to dusty arena floors across all the bordering states as well.
Those broncs had the privilege of entertaining dignitaries in July of 1927, when Madison produced a rodeo at the Diamond S to honor President Calvin Coolidge, who was in the Black Hills to dedicate Mount Rushmore National Monument. Coolidge did not attend personally, but “his delegation” was on hand; and more than 500 people showed up for the Western entertainment.
Madison horses didn’t just enjoy the luxury of an occasional ten-second romp across some rodeo arena. They were tools in the Madison machine, and Russ believed a horse should be versatile. Broncs were routinely pulled from the rodeo string to join a team skidding logs from the hills into Russ’s sawmill on the ranch; or hauling materials to one of the numerous construction sites where Madison had projects underway. Among those projects were the Pennington County Courthouse in 1932 and the Canyon Lake Dam in 1933.
Perhaps the hard work and variety of getting away from the arena actually improved the quality of Madison’s bucking horses. They were some of the first to be ridden by young Dakota hand Casey Tibbs as he launched his record-setting career, and he liked them. Other World Champs and prominent cowboys favoring Madison stock included Earl Thode, Doff Aber, Jack Buschbom, Neal Allen, Happy Sankey, Jim Shoulders, Duane Howard, Benny Reynolds, Alvin Nelson, Pee Wee Morris, Benny Bender, Oscar Bachand and Bill and Bud Linderman.
Many Madison broncs engraved their names on the memories of cowboys and fans alike – rank, consistent buckers such as Angel Sing, Battlefield, Boomerang, Headlight, Maybe and Stormy Weather. Topping them all for fame was Comanche, a bronc so unrideable that Russ threw down the gauntlet in 1936 – offering a lovely two-foot-tall silver trophy to any cowboy who could qualify a ride on him. After five years with no winners, Madison reckoned the horse had earned the trophy, and retired it. It honors Comanche yet today, displayed among rodeo memorabilia at the High Plains Western Heritage Center near Spearfish, South Dakota. Comanche lived a long life, dying in 1959 at the age of 33.
Rodeo was an evolving sport, and formation of the Cowboy’s Turtle’s Association (CTA) helped establish order, consistency and professionalism. In 1945 the Turtles changed their name to Rodeo Cowboys Association and began to run America’s big rodeos. Although he was nearly ready to retire from rodeo producing and was already transferring more and more responsibility to his son Gene, Russ chose to buy his RCA membership card and become part of this new organization.
With Gene, the Madison rodeo contracting business moved to Louisiana; and some of the best buckers appeared in the first National Finals Rodeo at Dallas, Texas in 1959. Madison broncs and bulls continued challenging cowboys across the southeast until being sold to Kinney Brothers of Sulfur, Louisiana in 1962.
South Dakota’s “Mr. Rodeo” Russ Madison saddled up and rode across the Great Divide on July 7th, 1956, leaving a truly rich legacy behind. He was honored with the Professional Cowboy Award at the South Dakota Cowboy & Western Heritage Hall of Fame in Fort Pierre; which later became the South Dakota Hall of Fame at Chamberlain. Many cowboys believe he should be inducted into the National Cowboy Hall of Fame in Oklahoma.
Peggy Ables, Executive Director of the High Plains Western Heritage Center near Spearfish, South Dakota, has researched and recorded much of Russ Madison’s story. She says, “During his lifetime Russ Madison raised thousands of horses; and brought the first Brahma bulls into the Black Hills Region. The ‘Diamond S’ contracted broncs, bulls and bulldogging steers for numerous rodeos. [Russ] was a stock contractor for approximately 30 years, from 1917 to 1947, and is credited with establishing professional rodeo in western South Dakota. Old-timer’s say he was ‘every inch a cowboy’!”
In the language of the West, that says it all….
© 2010, Rhonda Sedgwick Stearns, All rights reserved
This material should not be used with the author's permission
The author is grateful to the Madison family for willingly sharing their photos; and most especially to Peggy Ables of High Plains Western Heritage Center for her tireless research which she so generously allowed me to use in preparing this paper.
The photos in this article are all courtesy of the Madison family.
This article was presented in the "Scholarly Papers" segment at the 2010 National Cowboy Symposium in Lubbock, Texas.
What's New | Poems | Search
Features | Events
The BAR-D Roundup | Cowboy Poetry Week
Subscribe | Newsletter | Contact Us
Authors retain copyright to their work; obtain an author's
permission before using a poem in any form.
CowboyPoetry.com is a project of the Center for Western and Cowboy Poetry, Inc., a Federal and California tax-exempt non-profit 501 (c) (3) organization.
Site copyright information