Back When They Bucked with “Cody” Bill Smith
Written by: Ruth Nicolaus< Back to Articles
All Bill Smith ever wanted to do was ride bucking horses, and be like his heroes, the Linderman boys.
Smith, a three-time world champion saddle bronc rider, got to fulfill both of his childhood dreams.
The cowboy was born in 1941 in Red Lodge, Montana, and grew up north of Red Lodge in the little coal mining town of Bear Creek. There wasn’t much to do in Bear Creek. “All there was, for anybody to do,” Bill recalls, “was go to school and go to the rodeo on the Fourth of July. The Lindermans were the thing back then, and they were my heroes. All I ever wanted to do, ever since I could remember, was learn to ride bucking horses. It wasn’t about winning, it was to have a chance to ride bucking horses.”
And he did. The family had horses, and he’d ride anything he could catch. Back then, everybody had two or three head and they weren’t penned up; they ran out in the hills together. Bill and his longtime childhood friend, Chuck Swanson, would pen them and ride them all. “We’d ride the two- and three-year-olds, and we’d get bucked off and drug around.” But it didn’t matter. They were cowboys.
As young boys, they’d work on the local ranches, doing whatever they could, just to be cowboys. And they’d ride anything possible. “I spoiled lots of horses,” Bill mused. “Everything I rode, I tried to get them to buck with me.”
When he was a senior in high school, the Smith family: Glenn and Edna and their seven children, moved to Cody, Wyo. It was perfect for a bucking-horse-crazy boy. With the nightly rodeo, Bill started going, “taking his spills,” and refining his bronc riding abilities. In 1961, he bought his Rodeo Cowboys Association card (the forerunner of the PRCA), and that year, won the amateur bronc riding at the Cheyenne Frontier Days. “That was the first money I ever really had.”
From there, he was ready to hit the rodeo road full time. Starting in 1961, he rode saddle broncs across the nation, competing at every big rodeo in the U.S. and Canada and lots of little ones. He won numerous events, and some of them more than once: Houston, San Antonio, Denver, Cheyenne, Nampa, Ida.; Cody, Prescott, Greeley, Colo.; Las Vegas, Dallas, Omaha, Oklahoma City, Tulsa, Memphis, Tenn.; St. Paul, Ore. and more.
He loved to be on the road, and was gone most of the year. But home was still Cody, and his nickname reflected that. He was known as “Cody” Bill Smith. “They latched that on to me,” and he liked it.
Smith made the National Finals Rodeo for the first time in 1965, and then every year except one till 1978: thirteen out of fourteen years. Saddle bronc riding wasn’t necessarily easy for him at first. “I wasn’t an instant success. It took me a while to learn. I was never a natural at it.”
His childhood friend, Chuck Swanson, had moved to Cody with the Smiths. Chuck also rode saddle broncs, and was exceptionally good, Bill remembers. But Chuck didn’t hunger to be on the rodeo road like Bill did. “He was a natural, but he didn’t have the bug quite as much as me. He wanted to be a cowboy on a ranch. I didn’t have time for that. There weren’t enough bucking horses for me.”
Bill estimates he competed at about seventy rodeos a year, with his favorites being the ones with multiple rounds. Back in the day, most rodeos would be more than one round, and cowboys would stay several days in one location. He liked Ft. Worth, which was five rounds, San Antonio, which was six, and Houston and Omaha, which each had several rounds.
Bill’s childhood dream of competing alongside his heroes, Bill and Bud Linderman, came to fruition early in his career. He was entered in the Filer, Idaho rodeo, as was Bill Linderman, and it was four rounds. Smith broke his leg on the first horse, but got on the next three. “I didn’t go far,” he said of riding with a broken leg, “but I got on them. I wasn’t about to let my hero see that I was crippled. I’d buck off after three jumps, but I got on.”
He especially remembers some special horses. His favorite and one that stood out far above the rest was the big palomino horse Descent, owned by Beutler Bros. Bill drew him nine times, riding him five and getting bucked off four. “He was the greatest horse I’ve seen to this day. He could jump higher and kick higher than any horse I ever saw.” If a cowboy drew Descent, there was a good chance he’d win the rodeo, and that was true for Bill. He won Nampa on him twice and got bucked off there once. He won Tulsa on him and placed at the NFR on him.
Other horses stick out in Bill’s mind. Trade Winds, owned by Big Bend Rodeo Co. bucked Bill off once and he covered him once. Trails End, a horse owned by Oral Zumwalt, bucked him off twice. On Harry Knight’s Sage Hen, he was the high mark at the NFR, and she carried him to his first big win in 1964 in Dallas. She bucked him off several times, too. “I wasn’t above being bucked off,” he laughs. “I could hit the ground with the best of them.”
Smith missed the NFR in 1976 due to back surgery, and two years later, decided to call it quits. He was invited to a big match bronc riding at Ft. Worth, called the Copenhagen Skoal Match Ride. It paid a huge amount and included bull riding, tie-down roping, and barrel racing, all invitational. He won it, and decided to retire. “I thought, this is a good time to quit.” So he did. He was 38 years old, and “I was starting to slow down. I was still winning, but I didn’t want to keep going till I couldn’t ride anymore.”
After retirement, he and his wife Carole moved to North Platte, Neb. in the summers where he produced the nightly rodeo. He put on 72 performances each summer, seven nights a week, from Memorial Day to Labor Day. It was good, he said, to get him started on life outside rodeo. “That helped me bridge the gap.”
Then he and Carole bought a place in Thermopolis, Wyo. and moved there. They have a semi-annual quarter horse sale, the third Saturday of May and the second Saturday in September. The sale started in 1983, and this May, they will host their fiftieth sale, with 58 geldings, ten yearlings and a dozen started two-year-olds. They are picky about their horses. He buys the geldings, and he, Carole, and Carole’s nephew Reid O’Rourke ride them. The horses are guaranteed, and they take great pride in having good horseflesh.
Rodeo was a good way to make a living, the best, in Bill’s eyes. “They were the best days of my life, right there, rodeoing. When you can rodeo, ride broncs, and win enough to pay your way, there’s absolutely nothing better. You gotta starve to death for a while, but once you get going, you don’t have a boss, and you can tell anybody in the world to kiss your butt and it won’t bother what you win, if you can ride.”
He holds a deep inclination for horses. “Horses are my life, from the biggest Clydesdale to the littlest Shetland pony. I love them all.”
Rodeo may have changed, but he loves the horses. “The horses still buck. That’s the thing that doesn’t change. Horses still buck.”
“I’ve had a great life, a fairy tale life, actually. A little kid from the coal mines, doing nothing but what I wanted to do my whole life.”