Back When They Bucked with Florence Hughes Randolph
Early Day Madison Square Garden Cowgirl When searching for information about rodeo history, it is not unusual to be diverted in my quest to find […]
story by Ruth Nicolaus
At Melvin Fields’ first rodeo as a barrelman, the first bull out of the gate hit his wooden barrel, knocked the staves out of it, and by the time the last bull bucked, it was demolished.
“That’s what started my barrelman” career, Melvin said, but it sure didn’t stop it.
By the time the Coffeyville, Kan. cowboy began as a barrelman, he’d already spent a dozen years as a bareback rider, saddle bronc rider, bull rider and bullfighter.
He was born five miles north of Tyro, Kan., just west of Coffeyville, in 1938, the son of Merle and Edith Fields. Melvin decided he wanted to be a rodeo cowboy after he attended rodeos with his dad. The first rodeo he entered was a jackpot bareback riding in Miami, Okla., with five dollar entry fees, and “they bucked me off,” Melvin remembers. “I really didn’t know what I was doing.” He and his cousin pooled their limited money to buy a rigging, a glove and a pair of spurs together. “That’s how I got started.”
In high school, he won the All-Around title for the Kansas High School Rodeo Association in 1956, working four events: the bareback riding, calf roping, steer wrestling, and bull riding. He went on to National High School Finals that year, winning second in the all-around in Reno, Nevada.
After high school graduation in 1956, Melvin attended Coffeyville Community College but the rodeo road called him with its siren song. In the spring of ’57, he rode barebacks and bulls in Oklahoma. Somebody told him there was another rodeo further south in Texas, and “I didn’t come home for three weeks. I didn’t get any credit for the last semester, and my dad wanted to kill me,” Melvin remembered. His rodeo career was underway.
Melvin’s favorite event was the bull riding, but he’d ride barebacks and saddle broncs at times, too. He’d rodeo till he was broke, then come home, haul hay, work for local farmers, anywhere there was work to be done. He ponied race horses, did some house building in Tulsa, whatever made a dollar. He got on the labor list for the Beutler and Son Rodeo Co., and worked for them for extra cash.
Melvin got his Rodeo Cowboys Association card in 1958, the same year he worked his first rodeo as a barrelman. It was in McCook, Neb.. He showed up, and Elra and Jiggs Beutler asked him if he’d want to work the barrel. “What does it pay?” he asked. Twenty-five dollars, which was good money back then. “I’ll do it,” he said. The barrel was ruined by the end of the first performance, and Melvin drug it out to the fence.
When he showed up to ride bulls at Salina, Kan., that same year, Jiggs Beutler asked if he had a barrel. No, he didn’t. Well, you have a barrel job here, Jiggs said. A committeeman owned a drive-in hamburger stand and had a wooden pickle barrel. Melvin converted it to a rodeo barrel, and worked it. After that rodeo, Jiggs told him, if he’d get a metal barrel, he’d be hired for all of the Beutler and Son Rodeos the next year.
Melvin’s bull riding continued even as he worked the barrel. He’d be the first or the last rider to ride, which wouldn’t slow the rodeo down as much. Later on, he clowned rodeos while working four events. “I was busy,” he remembers. But rodeo life was different then. “You didn’t run up and down the road,” Melvin recalls. “You worked a rodeo and stayed there. There weren’t that many one headers.”
Being a barrelman, Melvin carried acts with him. They were compilations of other acts. “You copied a little bit of this guy, or of that guy, and you’d change it a little bit.” His acts included a mule act that was borrowed from John Lindsey, a camera act, and a hat trick act. For a summer, he worked a disappearing cannon act with Gene Clark, while Gene’s brother Bobby recovered from a broken leg.
The barrelman job helped out with family expenses. Melvin had married Judy in 1963, while he was in the U.S. Army. “Once I got married, clowning was more security. I still rode saddle broncs and bulls at all those rodeos I clowned. My clowning paid my expenses and what I won was basically extra.”
His family traveled with him along with his wife, Judy. “She drove for me and helped me. She’s been a big help to me.”
In 1967, he came as close as he would to making the National Finals Rodeo. He had run hard that fall, trying to make it. After the Cow Palace, he was broke. “My wife said, ‘I’m coming home to get a job.’ I said, if you do that, I’m going, too.” He took a job as a pipe fitter, which slowed down but didn’t stop his rodeo. His clowning slowed down, and 1969 was his last year to clown. He rode bulls until 1973, when he was 35 years old.
Over his career he rode at and worked numerous rodeos, from Cheyenne to Salt Lake, from Nampa to Ogden to Salinas. He loved going to Salt Lake City because he and his family camped beside a small creek that ran through the rodeo grounds. He rarely missed the Nampa, Idaho rodeo because his wife’s parents lived close. He hit rodeos in Deadwood, S.D., Helena, Mont., Cody, Wyo., Cortez, Colo., and worked as a barrelman at his hometown rodeo in Coffeyville for nine years.
He coached the rodeo team at Coffeyville Junior College for three years, and worked as a PRCA rodeo judge as well. He was inducted into the Kansas Cowboy Hall of Fame in 2011.
Now he and Judy, who have been married for 51 years, enjoy their grandchildren and great-grandhcildren. Their daughter, Valerie Day, whose husband is deceased, and their son Devlin and wife Marie, have given them six grandkids, with five great-grands.
He and Judy still attend the National Finals Rodeo and the Clown Reunions when they can. Their days of rodeo were good ones. For Melvin, it was the people. “We have best friends all over the country, and we still stay in contact. Rodeo is where my friends are at. They were good people, and you got to know them.
“Rodeo was my life, and I enjoyed it. We got to meet a lot of people, and we have good memories, going up and down the road.”
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