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Back When They Bucked with Argene Clanton
Written by: Ruth Nicolaus< Back to Articles
Argene Clanton laughs, and life laughs with him.
The cowboy, an Okie, former calf roper, café and truck stop owner, veteran, rodeo committee member and daddy of three girls, loves a good joke.
And at the age of 94 years young, he’s still laughing.
He was born in 1924 to Cleve and Verda Clanton in Barnsdall, Okla., weighing in at two pounds, seven ounces and sleeping in a box in the closet. When he was born, he was a “blue baby,” and one of the midwives attending his mother asked if there was any whiskey in the house. There was; she took it, warmed a teaspoon of it, and gave it to him. He lived, and says with a twinkle in his eye, “I’ve had a few drinks since then.”
As a child, the family lived on a farm near Chelsea, Okla. He loved to rope and would try to rope everything: chickens, pigs, anything that walked across his path. In high school FFA at Chelsea Public Schools, the FFA kids would be hired out to help farmers work their cattle, sheep and hogs. Argene would load his horse in the FFA trailer, and the crew would go to work. People didn’t have good corrals and chutes in those days. Animals often got out, and Argene and his buddies got to rope them. But the animals weren’t always getting out on their own. “I guarantee you, somebody’d let one out so we’d get to rope,” Argene chuckled.
Argene calf roped with his good friend Roger Morris. Roger’s dad was a horse trader, and Argene would ride a lot of the horses he brought home. One time, he bought a cow horse and Argene couldn’t wait to get on him. Roger’s dad “wanted me to ride him, to see what kind of a horse he was. I was always a fool to get on,” he said.
So Argene decided to skip school so he could ride this cow horse. The horse “was snorty when I got him in the corner,” Argene remembered. “I got up on him, and boy, he broke in two. He ducked his head, bucked, and threw me right into the saddle room.” Argene got up and this time opened the gate to the pasture. He was going to ride this horse. He got back on him, spurring and whipping, and “out the gate I went. He hit three licks and settled down.”
It just happened that the Clanton barn and pasture was next to the school, and the principal had seen Argene riding. The next day, over the speaker, came the principal’s voice, asking him to report to the office. Argene lied about skipping school, telling the principal that his dad had asked him to get cattle in that day. The principal told him he was going to get three licks. Argene said, “no, sir.” The principal locked the door and Argene told him, “you’re going to have to give them to me.” The principal “got hot, and everything turned red.” But he unlocked the door, and “I felt better,” Argene said. The principal told him to ask his dad to come and talk to him the next time he was at school. “I said I sure will,” Argene laughed. “And then I forgot to tell him.”
In 1943, the year before he would have graduated, Argene entered the Navy. Six Craig County boys all went at the same time, and Argene was sent to San Diego to machinist school. He was on a troop transport ship, the Admiral RE Coontz AP122, going through the Panama Canal seven times hauling Puerto Ricans back and forth from Europe, where they were serving in the U.S. military. After World War II ended, the ship was stationed in the New York Bay, and Argene stayed with the ship as it was decommissioned to the merchant marines. He was assigned the task of teaching them how to run the ship, and given the option to take his thirty day leave and then return for his final two months of service, or stay for three months and then be discharged. He chose to stay. “I said, if I get back to Oklahoma, I won’t want to leave.” He was on the ship longer than any other Navy personnel; he was on board when it was commissioned and when it was decommissioned.
In 1946, Argene was honorably discharged from the Navy and came back to Oklahoma, never to leave again.
He bought a farm on Route 66, halfway between Vinita and Chelsea. He had beef cattle and dairy cattle, married Martha Carter, and started a family, having three daughters: Connie Butler, Peggy McGehee and Pam Swift. A small arena was behind the dairy barn, and friends stopped by to rope. He served on the school board for the White Oak School as well.
His paternal grandpa Grant Clanton, known as “Sweet Tater” started Clanton’s Café in 1927. Cleve and Verda took it over in the 1940s, and when they decided to retire, Argene bought it from them. He moved his family to the house behind the café and his parents moved to Argene’s farm. Then he bought the service station next to the café and ran it. After eleven years of running the café, he sold it to his sister and bought a truck stop at Big Cabin, running it for seventeen years.
He and Roger Morris competed at area ropings and rodeos. They never went pro, but they loved to rope. They stayed in the area, never venturing more than 100 miles from home, to rodeos in Oklahoma, Arkansas and Kansas. He also competed in the calf mugging and wild cow milking.
Argene played a vital part in the Original Will Rogers Memorial Rodeo, held in Vinita every August. He has served as rodeo chairman and has been on the rodeo committee for years. When he was fifteen, he rode his horse eighteen miles, from his home to Vinita to watch the rodeo. He has gone to at least one performance of the rodeo every year of its 82 year existence, except for the three years he was in the Navy. He has carried the flag in the rodeo parade and posted colors at the rodeo for forty years. He attended the PRCA convention and the National Finals Rodeo many times, and one time, when there was no money to put on a rodeo, he and his good friend Bob McSpadden, brother to Clem McSpadden, took out a personal loan to finance it.
When he returned from the Navy, World War I veteran George Franklin paid his dues to join the Chelsea American Legion. Two years later, he joined the Vinita American Legion Post 40, and has been an active member for 72 years, serving as commander of the Legion several years.
Argene also was active in politics, volunteering as Craig County Republican Party chairman many years. He knew Clem McSpadden, a Democrat, from playing high school basketball against him and going to rodeos with him, and Clem knew Argene had influence in Craig County. When Clem ran for Oklahoma Senate in the 1950s, he asked Argene to go with him to be introduced to folks in the area. Argene knew the real reason Clem wanted him along: to open the gates. In the 1970s, when Clem ran for U.S. Congress, he asked for Argene’s help again. Argene told him, this time you’re opening the gates, and he did. “I drove, and he opened.”
In 2002, he, along with the other Chelsea veterans who didn’t graduate from high school due to their service, were asked to walk across the stage for high school graduation. His graduation party was at the senior citizen center!
Six years ago, he, his daughters, and other veterans were part of an Honor Flight to Washington, D.C., where he saw the sights for the first time. The Clanton Café, which his dad started and he owned, is the oldest continuously owned family restaurant on Route 66 in Oklahoma (it’s now owned by Argene’s niece and her husband), and he still loves to dance, having taught all three of his girls by them standing on his boots.
Argene’s wife Martha died in 1992 and he married Roberta Millarr two years later. Roberta has three boys and a girl; together, the couple has so many grandkids, Argene said, “we quit counting them.”
Life is good for the old timer. He and Roger live two miles from each other and get together to tell old stories. Argene frequents the American Legion, where he likes to partake of the beverage that got his lungs working as a baby, and he counts his blessings. Life has “all been good, it really has,” he said. “Raising three girls and having two good wives, I don’t know how you could beat it.”
It’s a life-well lived.