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THE COWBOY WAY H By Charles W. Sasser


anging onto the back of a wild bull for the eight seconds required to make a payday “is like driving your car 70 mph and throwing the steering wheel out the window,”18-year-old professional ro- deo cowboy Ty Cunningham says.


A 2016 graduate of Wagoner High School who competes in as many as 200 rodeos a year, Cunningham qualifi ed for the National Indian Rodeo Finals in Las Vegas in 2014 and is on his way to doing it again. He believes he may be the last of a dying breed as the romantic image of the traditional American cowboy silhouetted on his horse against the prairie sun gradually fades into myth.


“Everything is going modern,” he explains. “Fences, four-wheelers, TV,


video games. Not much need for cowboys anymore.” Ty and his dad Ronnie work their ranch southwest of Wagoner, Okla.,—in


Lake Region Electric Cooperative territory—the cowboy way: with saddles, ropes and branding irons. In between bull riding, Ty works area day ranch jobs to supplement his winnings. Some days, he says, he never sets foot in a stirrup. Traditional cowboy life was a hard existence demanding 12 to 14 hours a day in the saddle with the sun beating down in the summer and jeans frozen to the leather in winter. Ranching was generational. Sons and daughters born in the saddle remained in the saddle. Bright city lights now attract them to an easier life. The Mayer Ranch near Hooker, Okla., in the Oklahoma Panhandle in


Tri-County Electric Cooperative (TCEC) territory stretches back six gener- ations. Current patriarch Jim Mayer, 66, looks every inch the cowboy-ranch- er with his lean frame and sunburned skin. In 1883, his great grandfather, James Beasley, was a drover on a cattle drive from Texas to the Dodge City, Kan., railhead when he dropped out at the site of the current ranch on the Beaver River to trap wild mustangs for sale to Missouri homesteaders head- ing west.


Mayer and his fi fth-generation son Tyler operate the 10,000-acre spread with their wives Dallas and Naomi. Tyler and Naomi’s 6-year-old son Jax and 1-year-old daughter Tess are the sixth generation. Jax is not sure he wants to cowboy; he’s set on becoming an astronaut. The Duvalls of Checotah, Okla., in Cookson Hills Electric Cooperative territory, also a generational family, have been a ranching and rodeo


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presence in the area since statehood. Roy Duvall has gone to the National Professional Rodeo Cowboys Association (PRCA) Finals a record 24 times in bulldogging. With his older brother Bill, 74, hazing, he won the national championship three times and was a runner-up four times. Bill takes some credit for Roy’s success. “He had a leather jacket and a motorcycle,” Bill Duvall recalls. “He thought he was James Dean. I got him to start rodeoing. He burnt his jacket and sold his motorcycle.” At Checotah’s annual Old Settlers Day rodeo to celebrate Oklahoma’s rural heritage, Roy’s grandsons, 6-year-old Traegan and 4-year-old Taggart, don chaps and spurs for the mutton-busting contest. The clan gathers at the sheep bucking chutes: Roy and the boys’ grandmother Imogene; the young riders’ mother and dad, Spud and Jenny; Spud’s brother Sam; and great uncle Bill Duvall. The chute gates open. Traegan makes a ride. Taggart’s sheep was a bit too woolly for him and he bucks off. American rodeo began on the frontier where ranch hands got together to


test their riding and roping skills. Professional rodeo became popular in the mid-20th Century. There is still money to be made in rodeo, explains Doug Madewell, president of the Checotah Roundup Club, but there aren’t many big winners anymore. “The smaller rodeos in Oklahoma are dying. Some won’t even have 100 spectators.” Cody Parker, a bareback bronc rider from Stilwell, Okla., has been riding the professional circuit since 2004. It’s getting harder to make a living at it, he agrees.


Shanna Simmons, a student cowgirl at Southwestern Oklahoma State University in Weatherford, Okla., is helping put herself through college by barrel racing.


As more cost-effi cient methods replace riders, Oklahoma ranches dwindle in number while expanding in size. The Osage Indian Nation recently ac- quired 43,000 acres of prairie west of Pawhuska, Okla., in Indian Electric Cooperative territory that formerly belonged to media mogul Ted Turner. The tribe operates it and its 3,000 head of bison and cattle through a com- bination of traditional riders and modern methods. Barbed wire ended the open ranges as populations increased after the 1880s. The exact number of American cowboys today is unknown. The fi rst fi gures the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics collected were in 2003. They listed 9,730 nationwide, which also included pro-rodeo performers and farm hands


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