By Seana Miracle
My great grand uncle was Samuel T. Privett, or “Booger Red,” (1864-1924) the greatest bronc buster who ever lived. He broke over 40,000 horses in his lifelong career, sometimes over sixty a day, and yet was never once thrown from a horse. He is credited as the originator of the modern day rodeo, and is responsible for launching the careers of many other cowboy legends such as Foghorn Clancy, Tom Mix, Red Sublett and Bill Pickett. He worked for many of the circus greats of his time including Buffalo Bill Cody, Barnum and Bailey, Sells Floto, and the Miller Brothers 101 Ranch. In 1915, he and his teenage daughter came to San Francisco to perform in the Panama Pacific International Exposition, and together, they made history.
“They hold one name over all others as the greatest bronc rider that America has ever produced. Few knew his name was Samuel Privett, but his nickname, “Booger Red,” was famous, and for a quarter of a century he was known to thousands as the greatest master of outlaw horses in America. He was born on a ranch in Dublin, Texas…and as a youth seemed to possess all the vim, vigor and vitality that makes the red head outstanding.” – Elizabeth Doyle Range Lore
Samuel T. Privett was born in 1864, at the end of the Civil War, the son of a Confederate soldier. He grew up on a ranch in Texas, and by the time he was 12 years old, he was already a well known bronc buster called “The Red Headed Kid.” A bronc buster is different from a regular cowboy. The men who break wild horses to the saddle hold a vital position on any ranch, and are treated with more respect and given higher wages.
In 1877, on Christmas Day, 12 year old Samuel Privett, along with his best friend, stuffed a dead tree full of gunpowder in order to make homemade fireworks. The gunpowder exploded prematurely, killed his best friend, and blew Samuel back about 20 feet. Samuel survived the explosion, but his face was badly burned and shredded by wooden splinters. On the way to the hospital, a neighbor kid took one look at Samuel’s mutilated face and remarked “Gee, but Red sure is boogered up now!”
“boogered up” – adj. to be crippled, maimed or disfigured
Samuel’s 13th birthday was a few days later, but he would not see daylight for another six months. They had to cut open his eyes, nose and mouth several times as he healed. During his lengthy and painful recovery, his older siblings would tease him about being “all boogered up,” as the neighbor kid’s comment never failed to bring a smile to his face. From that point forward, five foot four, red headed Samuel T. Privett was forever and affectionately known as “Booger Red.” (Interestingly, Privett, a Welsh name, means “small but brave”)
Booger Red’s face eventually healed, but he was severely disfigured, and there really was no way to disguise it. One rodeo fan would later describe him as resembling “a pumpkin with bullet holes for eyes.” Booger didn’t let it slow him down, instead he turned it into one of his best assets, and a clever marketing strategy. In the future, when he was performing, he would advertise “Come and see him ride, the ugliest man dead or alive, Booger Red!”
THE INDOMITABLE SPIRIT OF MONTANA GYP:
to booger: v. a cowboy term describing an outlaw horse bucking wild
Booger Red was known as the “Texas Ranger of Outlaw Horses.” He would announce ahead of his arrival that he would give $500 to anyone who could bring him a horse that he couldn’t ride. People would haul in wild horses from all over the country, and likewise, Booger would travel great distances to meet a horse that couldn’t be tamed.
“With fans screaming themselves hoarse, five foot four Booger Red would stick to the back of a bronc like a tick to a longhorn…he offered a $500 prize to anyone who could bring him a bronc he couldn’t ride. He never had to pay out.” – Jerry Young
One day, a man brought in a famous young outlaw horse from Montana, and bet his entire bankroll that Booger couldn’t stay on him. The horse was considered unbreakable, it had thrown everyone who had tried to mount it, even breaking one man’s back.
The horse that refused to be broken, had met the rider who refused to be thrown. There was a lot of money riding on the outcome of this epic battle of wills, so when Booger Red entered the arena, the anticipation was tangible. Booger somehow got the young horse to stand dead still while he mounted him, and then announced to the crowd: “Folks, this horse came all the way from Montana to get a Booger on his back, and so away we go!” and slapped the horse on the behind.
It was the hardest ride of his life. Even his wife, who was usually confident in his riding abilities, questioned that day if he had not finally met his match. Booger Red managed to stay on until the bitter end, and then used the winnings to buy the young horse, “Montana Gyp,” initiating a lifelong partnership and rivalry that would endure for the next 23 years.
“This was only one of the many battles between Booger Red and Montana Gyp, as each ride was only a temporary conquering and the spirit of Montana Gyp was never conquered. For 23 years, almost daily, sometimes ten or fifteen times a day, the battle was renewed. Old Montana never threw Booger Red, but he tried. Just as hard the last time as he did the first.” – Mollie Webb Privett, Booger Red’s Wife.
BOOGER RED’S WILD WEST SHOW 1901-1915
Booger Red and Montana Gyp soon became the star attraction of every show. In 1901, Booger Red sold his wagon yard in San Angelo, Texas, packed up his wife and kids and hit the road with “Booger Red’s Wild West Show.” They started out with two bucking horses, a covered wagon and two buggies.
Booger Red was known as the “Old Man,” and his wife Mollie, a skilled horsewoman in her own right, was called “Mama” by the young cowboys that worked for them. They ran their wild west show like a cattle drive, traveling overland and camping out in remote natural settings. Mollie would make hot biscuits in a dutch oven over an open fire, and every Saturday night they would hold a Kangaroo Court and dole out silly punishments for infractions of the rules.
Before long, Booger Red’s name was known coast to coast, and his Wild West Show had grown to over 32 wagons, 22 bucking horses, and a dozen or so cowboys and cowgirls, plus their saddle horses. Everywhere they went the legend of Booger Red preceded them.
Many famous cowboys got their start working for Booger Red’s Wild West Show. Booger Red discovered the famous bulldogger Bill Pickett as a child, when Booger was watching a bunch of kids try and mount a burro, and Bill Pickett was the only one who managed to pull it off. Booger Red immediately went to Pickett’s mother, a former slave, and asked her permission to take him on the road. Another rodeo legend to get his start with Booger Red’s show was Hugh “Huckleberry Slim” Johnson, a bronc rider with a wooden leg.
Booger Red’s outlaw horses became famous in their own right. One horse, Payday, killed two men who tried to ride him in Booger’s shows. There was another horse, Texas Boy, that never pitched the same way twice. Booger would pay a dollar a minute to anyone who could stay on him, but he was the only one to ever collect. Even Booger Red’s riding saddle, nothing more than a frame of a hollowed out cottonwood tree, became nearly as famous as the old man himself.
Booger Red had become an American Icon of the authentic working cowboy, and he had a style that is still imitated today. Booger was always meticulously dressed in high boots, a button up shirt, and tweed vest with a watch chain, but it was his red hair and tall, white, ten gallon hat, that made him instantly recognizable. Capitalizing on his fame, manufacturers of early cotton duck pants targeted to cowboys offered two styles: The “Western” and the “Booger Red.” Booger Red also had his own style of spur pattern. Today there is a bar in Forth Worth, Texas, “Booger Red’s Saloon” that features a red headed cowboy in a white hat as their logo.
Booger Red had also developed his own unique brand of showmanship. While other riders would keep their eye on the mount as the horse was bucking, Booger would stick his thumbs in his suspenders, look over his shoulder and casually talk to his audience. He was always bold, always daring, and always knew how to thrill the crowd. One time, he was trying to ride down a white steer so wild that Booger had to climb up on the gate and drop in on him as he came through. Booger landed on the steer backwards, grabbed it’s tail, threw it over his shoulder and fanned himself with his hat as if he were bored. A rodeo spectator commented: “He rode the outlaws with his hands in the air, shouting at the joy of being alive.”
In 1912, Booger Red’s popularity had outgrown him and he merged his show with the Miller Brothers 101 Ranch. The good old days of traveling overland with a small family owned and operated wild west show were over. From then on, Booger Red, along with his wife and six kids, would travel by rail with all the large circus outfits of the time, managing the Wild West portion of their shows. In 1914, Booger is listed as Manager for the AG Barnes “Big Three Ring Circus,” along with his wife Mollie, his three oldest kids and his future son in law as key performers. In 1915, the legendary Booger Red was in San Francisco for the Panama Pacific International Exposition, as Arena Director for the Miller Brothers 101 Ranch.
Booger Red was no stranger to World’s Fairs. In 1904, he performed at the St. Louis World’s Fair, where legendary cowboys Tom Mix and Will Rogers made their first public appearances. There, Booger Red had achieved international fame when he was named the “Best All Around Cowboy,” after winning twenty-three awards in a six week contest.
Booger Red rode Montana Gyp to victory at the San Francisco Exposition, winning the World Championship Bronc Riding contest, and a beautiful prize saddle with silver fittings worth $750. Booger thought he had rode the old horse down, but right as he was dismounting, Montana Gyp bucked a little, causing Booger’s spurs to scrape against his brand new saddle, and leaving a nasty mark. Booger Red would frequently comment that he never forgave Montana Gyp for this one misdeed.
At 53 years old, Booger Red had demonstrated that he was still the reigning champion, but the Panama Pacific International Exposition would prove to be his teenage daughter Ella Privett’s time to shine.
On May 30th, 1915, 15 year old Ella Privett was the youngest, and only female, entrant in a grueling ten mile relay race with 20 changes of mounts. In the seventh lap, her horse broke through a fence at breakneck speed, leaped over a barrier and bolted the track. Ella stuck to the saddle, had her horse jump back over the wall, through the broken fence, and rejoin the race. Despite the disadvantage, she still ended up coming in second place, and upon crossing the finish line, fell off her horse in a dead faint.
“Especial interest in the work of Ella Privett, who is the daughter of the famous Booger Red, the cowboy known from the Atlantic to the Pacific. She was “raised in the saddle,” yet even the cowboys who knew her since she was a baby had their doubts about her being able to ride ten miles at breakneck speed. ” – “Raised in the Saddle” SF Chronicle – 1915
Thousands of spectators had assembled at the fairgrounds that day to witness the relay race, and they were not left wanting for lack of excitement or drama. When young Ella crossed the finish line, the crowd went nuts and leaped to their feet cheering, and when she collapsed from exhaustion, they collectively gasped with concern. All the young cowboys and cowgirls from the 101 Ranch raced to her side to congratulate her. Her father scooped her up in his arms, and she was rushed by ambulance to the nearest hospital, much to her objections.
“A strong wind swept across the course, filling the air with dust, and at times the riders were lost from view. All the riders pounding around the track in a dust storm with 20 changes of mounts, found the race a hard ordeal, but they yielded the honors for gameness to the little cowgirl, Ella Privett, who was carried away exhausted in the arms of her famous father, Booger Red.”- SF Chronicle “Raised in the Saddle” 1915
Ella Privett was back at the fairgrounds within the hour. By the time reporters got to the hospital to get a statement, Ella had already left, so they instead interviewed the attending doctor, who simply stated “the young lady refused to remain at the hospital.” The reporter was so impressed by this, that he quipped “let this be a lesson to all you hypochondriacs.” Headlines declared her the “Sensation of the Day” and “the most sensational feature of a sensational race.”
“It was a man’s job on any count – a mad dash, a hurried changing of horses, a supreme test of endurance. And Ella Privett, born on a ranch, the daughter of a cowboy, proved a trim slender figure of steel.” – “Bits of Color at the Exposition” by Waldemar Young – SF Chronicle 1915
The third place winner that day was a young roper named Hank Linton, who Ella narrowly beat out for second place. Hank had previously vowed that if he ever met the woman who could beat him, he would marry her. Ella Privett was young, talented and strikingly beautiful, and several of the cowboys had their eye on her, but were intimidated by the presence of her larger than life father. Hank Linton however, had worked under Booger Red’s direction the previous season, so presumably he had already been thoroughly vetted by the entire Privett family.
Hank and Ella’s courtship was a true San Francisco romance, camped out with friends and family under the auroras of the Rainbow Scintillator in the mythical “Jewel City” of 1915. At the end of the season, on November 27th, Ella Privett and Hank Linton married on horseback outside a baptist church in Port Arthur, Texas. Ella was 16 years old, and Hank was 27. They would stay married until Hank’s death in 1967.
Hank and Ella, as trick roper and trick rider respectively, would work for numerous circuses for their rest of their careers, most notably for the Tom Mix Circus in California in the 1930’s. The Lintons also worked for Sells Floto and the Cole Brothers, and were regular features in the gossip columns of Billboard Magazine throughout the 1940’s. Ella’s baby brother “Little Bill” would later become a trainer and jockey for cowboy-at-heart Bing Crosby.
The PPIE marked the end of an era and the dawning of a new age for the entertainment industry, and Booger Red and Ella Privett were there to bear witness. Booger Red, as the aging working cowboy from the Old West, and his daughter Ella, as the fresh faced show cowgirl of the new frontier. San Francisco, the furthest point west, and a relay race no less, was the ideal stage for this passing of the torch to occur. The indomitable spirit of Booger Red, Montana Gyp and Ella Privett was in perfect keeping with the “Undaunted” theme of the PPIE.
The 101 Ranch in the Exposition’s fairgrounds proved to be fertile ground for several blossoming romances in the spring of 1915. While in San Francisco for the exposition, a very married Joe Miller fell madly in love with a young cowgirl named Bessie Herberg. Joe Miller had long been known for his philandering, but the San Francisco affair was particularly scandalous. “Buckskin Bessie” was a well known star, a headlining act for the 101 Ranch, and Joe and Bessie were seen out together at all of San Francisco’s high society locations.
It wasn’t long before news of the affair got back to Joe’s wife in Oklahoma. She was infuriated, and packed up her kids to come confront her husband and his mistress in San Francisco, but by the time she got here, the 101 Ranch had already left town. Rumor had it that Joe Miller was trying to outrun the wrath of his wife, but the truth was, the show was such a financial flop for the fair’s organizers that the Miller Brothers had shut down in June, not halfway through the season. Despite their financial failure at the Exposition, the Miller Brothers 101 Ranch would have a profound influence and far reaching impact on the future direction and identity of California.
With the growing popularity of motion pictures, the live action Wild West Shows were no longer financially viable, so the Miller Brothers had shrewdly turned their energy and attention to making films. While in San Francisco, the Miller Brothers made a one reel, five minute film appropriately titled “The First Romance of the Exposition,” which was filmed on the fairgrounds. The Miller Brothers favorite filming location was Golden Gate Park, which featured a herd of bison intended as a living memorial to the Old West. 1915 was an important transitional point for the film industry, when it changed over from one reel films to feature length productions. The Miller Brothers 101 Ranch, thought by some to be the last vestiges of a dying age, were in fact leading the vanguard of a new cultural revolution: major motion picture studio production.
In 1910, the Miller Brothers had joined forces with Thomas Harper Ince, the most wealthy and powerful movie producer of the time, to create the Bison 101 Film Company. Thomas Ince, “The Father of the Western,” had completely revolutionized the film making process by pioneering the formula still utilized by major studios today. Ince was the first to employ advanced planning and budgeting, shot-lists, and studio sets. His use of shooting scripts and multiple cameras allowed directors to shoot out of sequence for the first time.
The 101 Ranch in Oklahoma had long been used for making westerns, but the weather was not conducive to year round filming, so the Miller Brothers bought a second ranch in Southern California. The new location provided year round shooting opportunities, more hours of sunlight, and a wide variety of landscapes and backdrops. In 1912, movie mogul Thomas Ince bought the Miller Brothers 101 Ranch in California, hired on the entire 101 cast, and built a wild west movie studio set known as “Inceville.”
The 101 Ranch provided Ince with hundreds of authentic cowboys and Indians who could produce hours of non-stop wild west action, as well as all the livestock, apparel, guns and other accessories needed to make a western film. Inceville was thus the first all inclusive movie studio of it’s kind, where all the necessary personnel, equipment and scenery was on site. By introducing assembly line techniques to movie making, Thomas Ince was able to scale his output to industrial proportions, producing over 140 films in a year. The Miller Brothers timely alliance with Thomas Harper Ince would forever cement California as the geographical center of the American film industry, and usher in the Golden Age of major motion picture studio productions.
BOOGER RED’S INFLUENCE ON POPULAR CULTURE:
“It is admitted by all that the movies have produced some fine horsemen, but the master of them all was never filmed.” – Elizabeth Doyle – Range Lore
Perhaps Booger Red understood that film would be the end of life as he knew it, or perhaps it was simply because of his disfigurement, but for whatever reason, Booger Red absolutely hated cameras. There is no film footage today capturing Red’s riding, but it was not for lack of trying. Cameramen followed him everywhere he went trying to capture him on film. His wife recounts: “Many were the times he would start into an arena and see a machine (movie camera) set up in some obscure place, but they never tricked him.” Because of this, he never achieved the same level of fame as his predecessors Will Rogers and Tom Mix. In fact, he was nearly lost to history altogether.
In 1939, as part of the New Deal project, historians set about to documenting the oral history of the cowboys of the American West. One name stood out, and was referenced more than any other as the leading influence on cowboy culture: Booger Red.
Booger Red was the perfect symbol of the rugged individualism of the western frontier. He was the archetypal “good” and noble cowboy hero in the white hat who would later be formulated into Hollywood legend. He was a hardworking man, a family man, a kind hearted and jovial man, who didn’t drink and valued honesty above all else. He was the kind of cowboy that children could look up to as a good example of a honest, loyal, dependable man. As Turner’s “Frontier Thesis” proposed, the frontier experience had given rise to a brave and virile personality type, a strong moral force who was unwilling to compromise his individualistic ideals, a new breed of American.
Booger Red also inspired modern day western literature. He was the inspiration for Cormac McCarthy’s main cowboy hero, John Grady, in the “Border Trilogy”. Like Booger, John Grady also grew up on a ranch in San Angelo, Texas, and had to strike out on his own working as a bronc buster when he was orphaned at a young age. To further illustrate this, in “All The Pretty Horses,” John Grady’s riding skills are compared to Booger Red, which is a great honor that implies that John Grady is not just a great rider, but a special one.
“They camped that night on the floor of a wash just off the road and built a fire and sat in the sand and stared into the embers.
Blevins, are you a cowboy? Said Rawlins…
I don’t claim to be no top hand, I can ride.
Yeah? Said Rawlins
That man yonder can ride, said Blevins. He nodded across the fire to John Grady.
What makes you say that?
He just can, that’s all.
Suppose I told you he just took it up. Suppose I told you he ain’t never been on a horse that a girl couldn’t ride.
I’d say you were pulling my leg.
Suppose I told you he was the best I ever saw. You doubt that?
Blevins spit in the fire. No I don’t doubt it. Depends on who you seen ride.
I seen Booger Red ride. said Rawlins
Yeah?” Said Blevins
Think he can outride him?
I know for a fact he can.
Maybe he can and maybe he can’t.
You don’t know shit from apple butter. Booger Red’s been dead forever.”
– Cormac McCarthy – All The Pretty Horses
ABOUT THE AUTHOR:
Seana Miracle is living proof that the indomitable spirit of Booger Red and Ella Privett is alive and well in San Francisco today. Seana is a feisty red-headed “wild child,” and former race car driver and promoter, who overcame a crippling disability that onset in her youth by following the example set by Booger Red. Because of the family tradition of “Wild Westing” Seana is Scotch-Dakota, part cowboy and part Oglala Sioux. In honor of her heritage, she maintains a multi-generational and cross cultural tradition of fortunetelling which she learned from her grandmother, a cousin of Ella Privett.