I’ve been most fortunate in life. I don’t have any formal education above third grade and I’ve managed to keep it together, get along with everybody, and most people, I’d say 99% of them have treated me right. I guess it’s a kind of “give and take” proposition. What is more, if I promise somebody I’ll be there, I’ll be there. This contract has been renewed in a lot of entertainment that I’ve been in.
There was a lot of timber work in that part of the state and there were two or three pecker wood companies around, scattered all over the country. Well, Daddy worked in the timber area and as soon as I got big enough to leave, I left.
Thomas Edison “Brownie” Ford, Anglo-Comanche Cowboy Singer, Storyteller and National Heritage Fellow, was 90 years old when interviewed by Robert Atkinson in 1994.
I was livestock minded. I hated to get grease on my hands and I don’t like the smell of a sawmill. My father was a sawmill engineer in the big mill and of course we had to travel so my brother and I were born in East Texas and Northern Louisiana. They started out from up there and Father just got out there after the Spanish-American war and he brought back a song with him. “A Spanish Cavalier” was the name of it, I believe and I know most of it. He never did talk about it much, I had to pick it out of him word for word. His sister kept it for a long time and she decided that may be I would like to have it, and gave it to me when she passed away a good many years ago.
Dozens of guys lived same as I did, who just went from one place to another for small Rodeo. A lot of times when you got there, the little show didn’t pay off. The man who was the promoter got the money and left town before the show was over. That’s why the Rodeo Cowboys Association had to organize.
Those promoters would come to town and they would promote everybody and then advertise the show. Then just about the time that the last performance was on, he’d fade away without paying no hotel bills. He promised he’d pay the hotel bills, that he’d take care of everything for the show. A few of us cowboys who were there didn’t get the money and that was terrible.
They’d add fifty dollars to each event and fifty dollars was a good deal. That was the prize money for each event. There was a first, second, and third, twenty-five, fifteen, and ten. When he stood up in the grandstand, he looks up and then he says, “We are not going to be able to contest, we don’t have the prize money. I’ll tell you what I am going to do, I’m going to give you guys two dollars. You’ll have to ride out there by yourselves.” That was back in the Depression years, and you had to do it. It cost a lot of money.
And then, I think it was in ’73, they organized the Rodeo Cowboy Association, which was called the Turtle Association. They didn’t know what name to call it, and some old boy said, “We’ve got to run smooth and kind of slow like the Turtle.” We went back to Turtle and that was why we named it Turtle but now its called PRCA, Professional Rodeo Cowboys Association.
I am big for my age. I was grown by the time I was sixteen years old. I weigh less now than I did when I was sixteen years old, but my standard weight after I got grown was from a hundred and eighty-five to two ten pounds. Of course it depends on how the eating was. I never got hurt real bad ’til after I was grown, but other than that I had lots of fun, lots of close friends. There’s a better class of people. All of us wasn’t down and out thieves. It was a tough business and to eat, that was the main thing.
Over in Florida, they had the railroad circus and they had the concert but the old road show, they went across the country in them wagons. The old circuses did. When I was over there, there were four different times I was on that little show. It lifted out pretty early in the season, I might not stay but three or four weeks, or two or three months maybe and between times. If I knew they were in the neighborhood and in the locale that I was in, I’d always go over and visit with them ’cause I knew I could eat a cookout anytime at all.
Them old boys down there were master trick ropers. An old friend from Wisconsin or someplace up there, his name was Rodney Siverlake. He taught them how to trick rope. I could trick rope but not with people like that. Them people done almost everything that Will Rogers did. I saw him. We were in picture with him. I saw him in action several different times. One time in the moving pictures. It was in a state show in New York City.
He was amazing. Maybe some people there could do more than he could but I don’t know what it would be. I just can’t imagine what it would be that would be better than Will Rogers. When he came to town, like making a personal appearance in the largest theater there was in town, he went there for the public because the man wasn’t just a cowboy, he was a damn smart businessman.
My mother side of the people who bred out of the Indians, they’ve been keeping books only, I’d say since the early 1800s and some of the people, they knew some things, but you see people who were possibly eighth or sixteenth or thirty-second or sixty-fourth. I don’t know how they arrived at that figure because they were scattered.
They didn’t have any formal education, maybe one or two of them had learned how to read and write somewhat in the English language. That made him sub-chief at least. If he could read and write, it gave a little bit of an advantage to trade with the White man.
They tell all kinds of tales. I would run into people every once in a while, they’ll tell me about who they were, stuff like that and then they’ll mention old chiefs that were of a different tribe than they had told me they were. I don’t get mixed up in any family arguments. Blood lines and stuff like that I don’t do. They’d stand there and talk about that and I talk about something else because we don’t know. The Cherokee put out a newspaper in Oklahoma after they came there. It was a split off from the Comanche people and you see a big part of the Comanches notoriety and publicity and stuff came out of Texas and that was after Little Buffalo went down to Elkhart and built Elkhart Creek and stole Cynthia Ann Parker.
There’s a road highway marker where they camped after the raid down there. Then when she had a son, they named him Quanta and her people’s name was Parker and they used that name. Ain’t no way of us knowing what the family name was, the tribal people. All we’ve got written down about the people there, that is, that I’ve been able to find, when they built the railroad south of Red River across Texas, all along West Texas, New Mexico, Omaha, and all the western countries, they name Quanta, Texas for the Chief Quanta Parker. Parker doesn’t sound very much like an Indian name to me but he was half. His father was Little Buffalo and his mother was Cynthia Ann Parker and that’s as far back as any of us could even read about that in most history magazines or history writings of some of the great people.
They wanted to educate you away from the old ways, none of them people, some of them had maybe a fourth Indian blood in them and they denied and of course the White people didn’t want nothing to do with them. It was almost as bad as being Black.
Kids are cruel, you know, and I guess that’s one reason I didn’t get an education. I had a little difference of opinion with some of them people and of course, if you stayed you had to fight, and I didn’t like to fight. I learned to but I didn’t learn to like it.
There’d be three or four boys sitting down and eating lunch and you’d walk up there and they’d sniff in the air and say, “What’s that, do you smell something?” They let you’d know right quickly, they didn’t want you around. It got worse as you got bigger. You couldn’t participate in any of the games.
Some of them turned out to be the greatest of athletes, but you were young and coming up among White people. Some of those people were educated in Indian schools. They had Indians for classmates. Kids, they don’t understand. It is a known fact that kids are cruel. They have not lived long enough to understand that if you leave the other guy alone, he’d leave you alone. But it has taken them a long time to learn that. It is a little tough even in my years. Took them a long time to get some understanding, that’s what I am trying to say.
Back out west last June, I was in Elko, Nevada and I saw people there I hadn’t seen in years. One old boy I hadn’t seen in over fifty years and I was signing a ledger there at the desk and I think he heard me say something and forced that door back over there, he walked over and he looked at me and said, “Are you Brownie Ford?”
I said “Yes, I am guilty.” I didn’t know whether I had done something to him in the years past. When I told him that, hugging and the back slapping went on. We worked on shows in the fairgrounds but in different bands. He seemed like a very nice fellow and his band had some great records and albums out in the country western type of music. They had Bob Wills name bands out there. I hate to say it, but if it was possible to improve on Bob’s type of music, they’ll improve just a little. The great feeling it gave me to get to hear that kind of music again, especially live and in person. Well, it could be that I was anxious to hear it but if there was a chance for improvement, any at all, they improved it just a little.
The only thing I would do different, I would have put up with indignities of any kind if I had known that an education was as necessary as it really is. I had lots of fun, some of the kind of fun I had, people would be a little slow on picking up what was funny about it. You see when I first started, they took care of me in the Wild West Show, and they weren’t trying to hurt me because I was help, but when I got in the Rodeo business, if they could help to do something to lessen my chances of winning that enhanced their chances of winning.
They done me pretty bad. Around rodeo, not on the Wild West Show. Because if you cripple one of your buddies on the Wild West Show, he can’t work for a few days. You have to do his work. So you take care of your buddies. Like I said, there is a better class of people. Better educated, better class of people because rodeo ain’t today as it was when I started out.
I drove them old trucks, I’ve done a good deal of construction work and during the war, nearly all cowboys were pretty good riggers. First I was in the shipyard local. I done the rigging in most of the big shipyards and stuff. And I’ve done a good deal of all field work. I never got to be no driller or nothing. I didn’t stay long enough in one place.
Without making a pay day or two I’d be gone, and it’s dangerous. I got crippled. I didn’t change my mind about it, but so many things that you don’t control with that machinery. Somebody else is controlling it and you are off out there and you don’t know what he done and sometimes he makes a mistake and you ought to either get used to it or get out of it and I didn’t think that was my calling. You could be doing fine on the job and an old friend of the driller from somewhere else over there runs out of a job, he just bumps you.
A lot of people don’t care much about organization. That’s all the working man has got, really. You can’t keep him from getting fired if he doesn’t do his work but he can’t run you out and put his brother-in-law in your place. I liked that part of it because we understand that there’s lots of uncalled for things. We see things happen on both sides, management and the work, too, but if a man goes out there and does his work, we’s always got along pretty good. And you work on one job, you get acquainted and if you are doing things that shouldn’t be done, the word gets around and then they see you are no good son of a gun. They’d say, “Do your work and be a gentleman about it. I don’t deal with them outlaws.”
I guess one of the wildest things that happened to me was in a rodeo in Texas, I believe it was in 1948. And I knew the horses but I had never drawn the horse I’d drawned. The horse had a bad habit running. He’d run out there just a little ways and you never could tell when the race was over. You can’t win no money on him running, you got bugged.
A friend of mine, Joe Cocker, he got his neck broken off the same horse, but he got over it. This horse has a bad habit. It would just be running out there aways, and then just explodes and I took good short rein on him and he put stout a long way. I see they were going to pull his head away from him. I’d make him roll up right back that shoot goal, that’s how you win the money.
I got her all ready and he jumped out of that box and I ran back on that rein and grabbed him with them spurs, and the nose band in that horse. It looked alright, but it hadn’t been oiled or nothing and that nose band broke and I fell behind him and he backed out.
He dragged me about half or two thirds of the length of that arena under his hind feet and kicking me, he kicked all my hair out, nearly. I didn’t remember anything at all. When my head hit the ground, that’s the last thing I remembered.
And of course the pickup man couldn’t come to me because his horse would killed me if the buckin’ horse didn’t. Them cowboys, they just stopped him and got me loose. When I got loose, my mouth was full of all kinds of what’s in that arena, dirt and what have you. My mouth was dry and all full of junk and I said, “Lord, something has to be done here and I’ve got have some water.”
A lady that used to ride barrel races all the time, I asked her if she had any water. She said, “I got one bottle of Jack’s beer.”
And I said, “Lord give it here. I’ve got to have something wet in my mouth.”
When I come back I asked this guy, “Judge, you’ve seen what happened. Do I get a reride?”
He said, “Yeah, same horse after the show.”
And I went on out there. I stood there looking at him. He was in the arena and I was outside and I looked at Jack’s beer and said, “What the hell am I doing with a bottle of Jack’s beer? I don’t even drink Jack’s beer.”
I went back and asked him again, and he said, “You are some kind of nut.”
I said, “Hell, if I asked you before, I don’t remember it.”
He said, “Yeah, I will tell you again that you’ve got to reride on the same horse after the show.”
I said, “On another horse.”
He laughed. I won a second on him after that, same horse after the show.
The bullrider took me back to the hotel, and the next morning the bell hop had to help me get out of bed. I was awful sore and I had horse tracks all over me. I looked like I had been put down on a mattress for horses to walk on. But I got up alright and managed to get over it and I got set about the worst of them.
I had been reported dead two or three different times. The one time they had me mixed up with another man’s name the man’s name was Brown and everybody called me Brownie and that got mixed up. That was a truck accident. I didn’t ever see that one but I’ve seen the one that had the both on the paper. I kept clipping of it for a long time, but as long as I was single I didn’t have no place to keep nothing because I was gone, moving around. I think that I was dissatisfied with how my life was going. I’d work a while here and work a while there.
The first time I ever got paid was I was working rodeo, and there was some hold up something wrong with the program or something and the public was getting noisy, sitting on them hard seats and old bleacher, tired of standing. The man who was putting on the show, he realized the fact that a lot of people were going to give their tickets back and take their money. Me and another little boy, he played pretty good fiddle and at that time I played the little rhythm guitar and I was good.
He said, “How about couple of you boys coming up here and bringing your instruments and let’s see if we could quiet this crowd down? We’ll be able to go to work here in just a few minutes.”
I don’t know what the hold up was. I’ve forgotten. So I said, “What’s in it for us?” I sang with a few little lads then you know, scrap together old band names and little something like that. I just liked it. If I liked a song I would learn to sing it in just a few minutes. If I don’t like it, I don’t do it. Well, they seemed to like it and we had , that was the first microphone, we had no electric guitars at that time. If they did it wasn’t in our part of the country, in southeast Texas.
Once in a while, at the party after the rodeo, If I didn’t always have an old guitar, somebody did. We partied, started singing all that kind of stuff. If I liked a song, I learned it and I never, until the last couple years, I never even took a list of songs that I was going to do. If the show lasted three hours, different song every time. My memory was that good.
The western swing man of all the time, he was Bob Wills and he was a good friend of mine. I never was on his band standing but we were good friends. Bob was a man that would indulge in spirits a little, and bless his heart, he’d give away more money than folks could imagine. Me and him drank good ale in cans together. Bob is a little older than me. He played fiddle nearly all his life because his daddy was pretty good country fiddler. Bob was a lot better show man than he was a fiddler.
Whenever it began to slow down, looking like the enthusiasm was playing down a little bit, he took that fiddle under his arm and he’d go to vest it and he would come over to your table and say, “I am Bob Wills with all the Texas playboys. And I wonder if there is anything that we can do to make your party more enjoyable,” and he’d go all over the house and run the same gab all the time.
He had the knowledge of people to know about what walk of life. He would go around and some old boy that may be spent his last two dollars to get in that place, him and his girl, and but he got to him and if he was riding in a chauffeured limousine it is the same thing. I’ve seen a good many people and now that we’ve got television all the time, I’ve seen a lot of stuff there and there’s a whole lot of them, they’ve copied some of Bob Will’s delivery I think. He was a great man, a great entertainer.
I was on a medicine show a long time back. In the country. I was always wondered by it, and I started that business because then, we had no inside rodeo arenas and there was a risk of weather. You got rained out early in the spring, you got rained out quickly in lots of places. In the Fall everybody was busy and they couldn’t go nowhere so you had to carry the entertainment to them. So, I went to work in the medicine show, I worked two or three of them. Some of them I don’t even remember what they were called.
I got to where I did escapes. It was pretty common in those days, and I also had a little slight of hand performance and it was called magic then. I worked on the stage and had along a little guitar. That we used always in the Fall after picking cotton but I never did get into the religion business, that I couldn’t quite understand. And I know there’s a lot of good people but to some of them people, I hope and pray for forgiveness if I am wrong, but some of them people I believe were more interested on how much they got out of those offerings than were about people. I see evidence that leads me to think that way, though I know I am crazy because it has improved. But that’s the way I started, in the medicine shows.
We used to have one escape that we did in the Wild West shows and the little circuses and stuff. It behooved the audience to figure out how in the world they did do that. I used to tell a story along with it and said, “Now, if there is any of you ladies out there that are gifted to fainting under the stress of excitement and can’t stand things of that nature, I would advise you not to watch this because,” and I would name some pretty good size town, “we started this and it’s the same trick except that we’d taken a wild horse and we tied this rope to him and they were holding him with another horse. They were stabbing him and holding him with another horse. And when they started to let him loose, he looked up on the balcony, and some old fellow fainted out there and so we had to shut down, get him and straighten him out, call the doctor, it cost seven dollars. So we went back to do the same thing, another fellow fainted, I sent and got him a bottle of beer. The third time, the whole damn audience fainted and I didn’t have enough money to buy them all a beer.”
It’s a perfectly simple thing. Nowadays, kids five, six years old can tell you how it is done. But I couldn’t imagine how it was done. I had a gimmick mail bag. They put me in a mail bag and tie me and sometimes they’d put hand cuffs on me. Not like they have them now, you don’t want to try it with what they’ve got now. You take fantasia steel and you run right down there and pick that little tumbler up, that catches in them notches, pick it up and before you ever do any other thing, you are out of them.
Now, this ain’t no show, this is barn storming. They had a big bridge opening, and my partner had put me in that mail bag, locked the mail bag, of course it was organic every bit of it. And of course while he was doing the jaw bone and all of that introductory things, well I am working in this gimmick between the mail bag, this locked mail bag. I got a reinforced place there and you lock yourself in it, you just pull out that piece of can in there and your bag is open. And I had been shoved off the bridge roof, you know, in the water, and I had to ease on back on the bridge with the people all looking where I hit the water. I go and say, “You all lost something down there?” Of course the concert ruler who knew where I was. That’s the sort of thing went on back in the late twenties, early thirties.
I worked in a good many schools. I love kids. I want to do something for them and I go and entertain them in the schools at my expense. I stress education to them people. I show them and tell them what happens to you if you don’t have an education because with the times they are, it is absolutely the only thing you can get because if you don’t have an education the only thing you can get is a common labor job, and what’s minimum wage, four dollars or something and that’s all you can get and you can’t live on that. At the price of everything you can’t live on four dollars an hour and work eight hours a day, you can’t do it.
I got my son lives right at Austin little ways and my daughter, she works for the state and transferred up here from Monroe up to Baton Rouge where she was. She was raised in Baton Rouge. Her mother and me got married down there so I had a son and daughter and she had a daughter so now we have a whole house full of great-grand young ones.
Hell, we ain’t old. I was just ninety the ninth day of January and they held me a nice party, it was supposed to be a surprise party and I had to act surprised but there was one big mouth son of a gun. I wish it had been a genuine surprise. They had it at the American Legion, right out of Columbia there, and they had some good music, food, drinks and what have you.
Well, now this has to be known as a story, but it is applicable to lots of those old boys who were down there who were born and raised down the Savine River. I’ve come up and I’ve heard two or three people tell about how they were raised and I put this story together. I did it on medicine shows back in the early thirties when I was a young man.
It says this old boy was raised in about four different towns. Lived in a shack like all good people did, and couldn’t have church but every fifth Sunday because he couldn’t afford to pay the preacher and they would always have to feed him and he wouldn’t like to preach unless he had to preach, unless he had cold coon and collards.
And so it was our weekend to keep the preacher. I told my older brother, “Brother, this is our weekend to keep the preacher and he wouldn’t have to preach unless you have coon and collards.”
He had shoes, and of course I didn’t have no shoes, and he said, “Boy, get the dogs. You already heard what Papa said.” We already had three dogs. We had two young dogs that we were training behind the old dog. The old dog, he was a great coon dog, I believe that he could start a coon trail with grass growing in it and the other young dogs, if you turned them a loose with him and he didn’t jump pretty quick, they get after deer or rabbit or fox or something else you know, so I got to keep the two young dogs until the old dog makes his track and then turn the young dogs loose.
Well in brush country, bad brush country, all kinds of old thorny bushes growing there like it is in certain parts of the country. We going down there pretty good and Brother, he had them shoes on you know, and he had a head light too, that helped. He said, “Brown, don’t let them dogs get away, you know what they’ll do.”
I had the rope in one hand and each dog on one end, and I had them round the back of my neck and them dogs wouldn’t go together. They’d seesaw, sawing that rope round the back of my neck, I threatened to let them loose several times but I knew better. Well after a while, that old dog, that old coon dog, he opened, “Haawooo! Haawooo!” He didn’t bark, he didn’t lie that old thing. When he hit trail, he’d let you know.
Well, it was up a little old drain from the trail, I guess it must have been about a mile from the river, and that coon had been coming by our spring and he would fish on the gold fish and little fishes and stuff. That dog will keep that trail out. I said, “Brother, is it time to turn the young dogs loose?”
And he said, “No Boy, I’ll tell when.” Brother had them shoes on and he could go pretty good in them thorns and brows and things.
Well, way after a while, one of them dogs nearly pulled the other one to me across my neck with that rope. He said, “Okay Brownie, turn the dogs loose, turn the puppies loose.” I turned them puppies loose and he had them head light on and he was getting pretty ahead of me and I was scrambling on the brush. It’s a job trying to keep up with him. He was two or three years older than me.
After a while I heard that old, “Haawo.” I finally got out there where the dog was, he said, “Boy, it came up that tree.” ‘Cause that old dog don’t lie you know, when he barks three barks, there’s a coon up that tree.
I said, “Yeah Brother, I can’t climb that tree.”
He said, “Yeah Boy, you can climb any tree. You just don’t know it yet.”
Brother never did whipping that dog. If he did, I never knew about it. He pulled his pocket knife out, went out there and he cut something. He cut him a nice long switch.
Well, I knew that he wasn’t going to whip that dog, so I could climb the tree then, and I climbed and I climbed and just before I gave up to failure, I got to that bottom limb and got my arm over it, caught my breath a little bit and I eased on over that to another limb and I said, “Brother, I’ll get the coon to come on down.” Then I went up a little bit. I said, “Brother?”
He said, “What do you want, Brownie?”
I said, “This coon is creeping up.”
He said, “Creep on up with it.” Well, the coon climbed and I climbed and I climbed and the coon climbed until we could not climb no more because we getting to the top of that little tree.
And I said, “Brother!”
“What do you want, Brownie?”
I said, “This coon is climbing down the limb.”
“Grab them thing.”
And I said, “But Brother, that’s a big coon and he’s got that limb bowing down there pretty good and both of us might broke that limb off.”
He said, “That coon ain’t going to be up there holding that limb off.”
I eased on down there and just before I got my hand on that coon that damn limb did break. Down through the rest of them limb, me and that coon we hit the ground and of course that old dog, he got that coon and shook him about a little bit and I could hear the bones cracking.
I said, “Brother, what are we going to do now?”
He said, “You are going to take that coon back home.”
I said, “That coon is nearly as big as me.”
He said, “That don’t make no difference.”
We got back home but I didn’t want no coon in order to have dinner the next day. And that was the end of the coon hunt and that dog. He was a cold nosed dog. Most people gauge the dog’s nose by how cold a trail he could pick up.
Heading back to town behind a certain wagon, the dog got out, and he seen another dog, and he made for that dog. The fellow who owned that dog said, “Get that dog off my dog.”
My brother said, “When he gets through he’d get off of him.”
I want you to know that from then on I began to look for me a place to go because I was afraid. I don’t think there was any way in the world I could have gotten out of going up on that tree, because I had to do anything he said, because he was my older brother.
But the preacherman, he seemed to enjoy them cold coon and collards, and I guess he came back, but I left. I wasn’t going coon hunting with my brother no more. I left home.