Back When They Bucked with Chuck Sylvester
he 2022 Ben Johnson Memorial Award honoree fits the requirements to a T! Charles Walter Sylvester Jr., better known in rodeo as “Chuck” is the […]
Howard Barker lived out his dreams.
Ever since he was a little boy, he wanted to be a cowboy, and he wanted to fly, and he did both.
The Houma, La. man spent his time flying through the air on bareback and saddle broncs and bulls, and when his rodeo days were over, he spent the rest of his life flying through the air in sprayer aircraft.
He spent seven years full time rodeoing, and when he was done, came home to begin an aerial application business.
He was born in Yumatilla, Fl. in 1937, the oldest child of Howard, Sr. and Adelade Barker. Soon after he was born, the family moved to Groveland, Fl., where he spent most of his growing-up years.
His interest in rodeo stemmed from being around cattle, and even though no one in his family competed, he wanted to. “It interested the heck out of me,” he said. His dad didn’t approve. “My father always told me I needed to quit that foolishness and get a job.”
At the age of fifteen, he entered his first rodeo. He didn’t have the entry fees, so he went to the bank to get a loan. “I just went in and talked to the president of the bank,” Howard recalled. “He took the money out of his pocket and loaned it to me.”
He also entered high school rodeos, of which there was one a year, hosted by the FFA chapter in Inverness, Florida.
At first, Howard rode bareback broncs and bulls. There wasn’t a lot of saddle bronc riding in Florida, but when he could find it, he entered it, choosing to quit riding barebacks.
By the time he graduated from high school in 1956, he was competing in amateur rodeos across the state. He worked on large ranches in Florida, some with spreads as big as 500,000 acres. He loved the work. “I was happy in the woods, working cows, just about as happy doing that as being at a rodeo.”
When he was nineteen, he left Florida to rodeo. He didn’t make a big splash, but made enough to pay entry fees and living expenses. “You’d be broke one day, then have a pocketful of money the next, then broke again.”
In 1958, he joined the Rodeo Cowboys Association, forerunner to today’s Pro Rodeo Cowboys Association, and competed full time. Most of Howard’s rodeos were in the Northwest and Canada. By then, he had quit the broncs and was riding bulls only. In the winter, he’d come home, get a ranch job, and save up money to leave again in the spring.
He traveled with good friends Ronny Welch, Tex Martin, Winston Bruce and his brother Duane, and bull rider Leo Brown, “one of the best hands to ever come out of Canada, maybe the best,” Howard said.
Then, after being on the road for most of seven years, he decided to retire.
In 1966, he got his pilot’s license and begin a crop dusting business two years later. He lived in Belleglade, Fl., at the time, and sprayed not only crops but for mosquitoes. He sprayed over a million acres a year, with contracts with county, state and federal governments. In the summer, his business went west and he sprayed for grasshoppers in the western states.
In 1991, he moved to Houma and his business changed. He sprayed oil spills with dispersants, chemicals that break oil into tiny droplets that suspend in water so naturally occurring bacteria eat the droplets. His company, Airborne Support, was instrumental in the BP Oil spill in 2010. A picture of one of his planes spraying was on the front page of the New York Times and a South African friend even saw the picture in a newspaper in that country.
Howard never suffered any major injuries in his rodeo days. Sprains and a broken cheekbones and a couple of concussions were it. He had temporary amnesia twice, due to the concussions.
The Calgary Stampede was his favorite rodeo because of all the activities. “It was like a three ring circus,” Howard said, with bucking stock in the arena, “some movie star singing a song, and a horse race going on all at the same time.” And his favorite bull was HB, owned by Howard Harris. Howard drew him three times: once in Cowtown, N.J., and in the West, after he was sold to someone else. Very few people covered HB, but Howard did it three times, as did a friend, Joe Chase, who Howard gave advice as to what to do when riding HB.
In 1968, he married Evelyn, and they had four children, two boys and two girls: Vance, who lives in Minnesota, Laura Beth, who lives in Boston, and Brad and Nancy, who both live in Houma. He and Evelyn have seven grandkids, with a grandson, Reese Barker, who rides bulls and is a three-time state champion junior bull rider in the Louisiana Little Britches Rodeo Association.
It was tough quitting rodeo when he did it in 1966. “I had to stay away from it completely,” he remembered. But he had a business to run. “I couldn’t afford to get hurt and not be able to fly.”
Three years ago, his health forced him to retire from the aerial application business, and now son Brad runs it.
Rodeo was a passion he loved. “When I’d make a good bull ride, I don’t know of a better feeling in the world.”
But he loved flying too. “A lot of people go through life with a job they don’t like,” he said. “But I’m the luckiest man in the world. I got to do two jobs I really liked. I’m glad I rodeoed. I wasn’t a champion but I got to ride with those that were.”
Story is also available in our June 1, 2015 issue.
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