by Paul R. Spitzzeri
Rodeos have a long history in the American West, even in the City of Industry, where the Industry Hills Pro Rodeo has held an annual one since the early 1980s (though the fall event is in limbo as are all other large-scale public events during our COVID-19 pandemic.) For many participants, planners, and attendees, they are reminders of the tradition of livestock raising, such as when thousands upon thousands of cattle and horses roamed and grazed the enormous Rancho La Puente, during its ownership by William Workman and John Rowland, particularly from the 1840s through the 1860s.
There has, however, been increasing pressure from some quarters, such as the People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA) to abolish rodeos, while some events, such as calf roping, are increasingly being called into question. Yet, for many people, rodeos remain relevant to their interests and experiences and the controversies associated with these events will likely continue.
Tonight’s highlighted object from the Homestead’s collection is a souvenir program from a very popular late 1920s rodeo, held at the Baker Ranch in Saugus, now part of Santa Clarita, north of Los Angeles, on 28 April 1929. It was the fourth year of the event, which grew dramatically in scale and popularity during that period and, while the rodeo is long gone and the ranch was replaced by a speedway and is now the site of a massive swap meet, the heritage of ranching and livestock is still evoked on the site, which has been in the same family for over 80 years.
Roy Baker apparently had some 8,800 acres in the area, with 40 set aside in 1923 for the breeding and sale of horses and for the venue’s first rodeo in 1925 on Soledad Canyon Road at Bouquet Canyon Road along the Santa Clara River between today’s Interstate 5 and 14 Freeway and built his Baker Ranch Stadium for the 1927 event. News coverage of the event for those first three years showed how dramatically it expanded as the number of participants grew from 200 in 1927 to 300 the following two years and prize money also rose.
In 1926, it was noted by the Newhall Signal that “the traffic from Los Angeles made the road very hard to negotiate” and “hundreds of cars turned back at Saugus.” There was a capacity of 15,000 at the venue and they filled up so “hundreds viewed the doings from the surrounding hills without money and without price.” It was added that thousands of people were unable to see anything of the rodeo at all, but those who did were said to be thrilled by the event. In 1927, a “Days of Forty-Nine” element was introduced as was a barbecue.
By 1928, there were ads from firms involved in the arena including Hammond Lumber, which provided material for the arena, and National Paint and Varnish Company, which presumably did the same. That year, the Southern Pacific offered special trains that went “direct to the stadium” for just $1.50 round-trip from its Los Angeles depot and it promised “no waiting, no tiresome hours in blocked traffic.” The ride was faster and “free from bothers of parking and nerve racking traffic congestion.”
As for the program, the front cover declared that the event was “dedicated to that clean spirit of sportsmanship which glorifies the victor and does honor to the vanquished.” The main image shows a pastoral scene of grazing cattle and horses in a flat area with a large structure (Baker’s home probably) on top of low hills in the background. At the bottom are two photos promoting the bucking horses Tumble Weed and Chris Evans. As the program opens to three interior panels, information includes the names of infield judges; track judges and timers; the starter; chute judges; and others, followed by listings for many of the events.
These include the special event of “horses to be judged preceding the Rodeo for the ability to handle cattle,” followed by the opening grand entry, flag raising, and quadrille on horseback. From there events included a half-mile pony race; steer riding; a cowgirls’ relay race; trick and fancy roping “by the greatest exponents of the lariat in America today;” bareback riding; trick and fancy riding; a one-mile Pony Express race; calf roping; a championship bronc riding contest; and more. Music was provided by band of the Union Pacific railroad’s Los Angeles district.
Quite a few photographs show entrants from the 1927 and 1928 events, including Gordon Jones, the champion trick roper from 1927; Paris Williams, who captured the women’s bronco riding title in that year; Fred Hunt, winner of the relay race in 1927; Fay Adams, who took the 1928 crown for men’s roping; Hank Potts “one of our best” trick and fancy riders; Tillie Bowman, the 1927 women’s trick and fancy roping contest winner; and Vera McGinnis, who was the victor in the women’s relay race and overall champion cowgirl in 1928.
On the reverse was a listing of the standings of cowboys as judged by the Rodeo Association of America’s News Bulletin, published after an event at Azusa on the weekend of 6-7 April. It showed Leonard Ward at 200 points, double that of his nearest challenger, Adams, while three men were at 75 points and another trio at 50. A note proclaimed that “The Baker Ranch Rodeo has grown and developed during the past four years until today it is classes one of the four largest Rodeos in the United States,” an impressive accomplishment. There were photos of producers Baker and Bob Anderson.
A few days before the event, the Los Angeles Express of 25 April noted that “cowboys shouts and the thud of hoofs reminiscent of the old West will resound again” for the fourth annual rodeo. The drive to the ranch and stadium was enhanced by the fact that there was a “newly paved and widened highway over Newhall grade,” though Baker also announced that a special Southern Pacific train was to go up the day before and return right after the event’s end.
In its coverage of the rodeo in the edition of the 29th, the Los Angeles Times offered the headline “Huge Throng Visits Rodeo” and the subhead stated that “Days of Old West and Mighty Horsemen Revived at Baker Ranch Before Crowd of 20,000.” In all, the piece began, there were 700 performers including “cowboys, Indians, trappers, cowgirls and other characters of pioneer days,” suggesting that there was some attempt at evoking the history of the “Old West” during the event.
Contrasting this reflection of days of yore was the fact that cars headed to the ranch as the sun rose and continued to stream in until an hour after the event began as “the roadways and clearings were clogged with the thousands of cars which sought to get as near the arena as possible” with some people walking a mile to get to the venue. The day began with a parade featuring stagecoaches, wild and trained horses and the cowboys and Indians.
Then the rodeo began and it was noted that participants came from such major events as those at Cheyenne, Wyoming; Pendleton, Oregon; and Calgary, where the famous Stampede takes place. Cash prizes amounted to $8,000, with amounts ranging from $10 to $500, while a separate stock horse show had prize money of $1500 given out. Results of the many events were published.
When it was all over, the Times concluded, it took forty motorcycle from the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department to assist with the dispersal of some 15,000 cars from the arena and surrounding area and, considering freeways were decades off, it must’ve been quite a traffic jam for those heading south towards Los Angeles.
Six months after the event, however, the Great Depression began and financial circumstances led Baker to sell the property to cowboy film star “Hoot” Gibson, who held rodeos and arranged for filming on the site. Actor friends like John Wayne, a newly minted actor then, Harry Carey, Tom Mix and William S. Hart, whose ranch was nearby, attended events there. Gibson, too, fell into hard times by 1933.
Paul Hill, the owner of a livestock company, took over and continued with rodeos under Gibson’s name, but flooding from the extraordinarily wet winter of 1938 flooded the adjacent Santa Clara River and heavily damaged the site. The next year, William Bonelli, a lawyer, Los Angeles city council member from 1927 to 1929, state Assembly member in the early Thirties, economics professor at Occidental College, and aircraft promoter, bought the property and the new stadium bore his name.
Bonelli was a member of the State Board of Equalization and the former reformer as a council member in Los Angeles was indicted by the county grand jury on bribery charges in 1939, the year auto racing was introduced at the site, but he was acquitted the following year. He was also accused of garnering protection money and selling liquor licenses for thousands of dollars more than they were supposed to be, one of the board’s functions being to regulate these.
Rumors were rampant about Bonelli’s link to organized crime in the Angel City and in the early Fifties, there was televised testimony before a congressional commission concerning his supposed links to organized crime. He battled the Los Angeles Times over investigations of him and wrote a book attacking the paper and allegations he made of its corruption.
In 1955, Bonelli was arrested in Arizona and charged with violating California election law, but, after posting bail, he fled to Mexico, where he was arrested and held for four years, though that country decided not to extradite him and he was released. He remained in exile at Hermosillo in Sonora and died there in 1970.
In 1959, while he was south of the border, the Saugus Speedway was built on the old Baker Ranch and it operated until the mid-1990s. Today, eight of the Bonellis’ thirteen grandchildren own the site and runs the swap meet, established in the early 1960s.
This program is an early artifact concerning professional rodeos in greater Los Angeles and, while there is controversy about these events today, they are still being held locally in places like the City of Industry and San Dimas.