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America's first Great Endurance Race
CuChullaine O’Reilly FRGS
this modern era of countless endurance races, it is easy to forget that the first
great American endurance ride, that hard-riding granddaddy of them all, the
Great American Cowboy Race, started as a joke.
it was over the 1,000 mile free-for-all had pitted Eastern sentimentalists
against Western realists, introduced the concept of veterinarian inspections
into horse racing, got Buffalo Bill Cody shaking his bearded head over a legal
headache and given news-hungry Europeans plenty of stories about daring cowboy
racers like Rattlesnake Pete riding half-wild broncos called Poison and
was a ride to remember, even if it has been largely forgotten, and endurance
racing today and cash-strapped cowboys back then might not be the same if the
greatest practical joker in the history of the American West hadn’t decided to
pull the wool over the eyes of gullible folks back East.
was called “Paralyzer of the Truth” Maher, and if ever a man lived whose
word was suspect from the gloomy woods of Maine to the hot swamps of Okeechobee,
it was John Maher.
does not record how or why he invented the myth, some wags said lie, about the
up-coming Great Cowboy Race that he sent back east to several prominent
newspapers. The spring of 1893
found Maher at work in his capacity as clerk of Dawes County, Nebraska.
Situated as he was there in the growing town of Chadron, he was well
placed to be the correspondent on local issues and western affairs for the
had already perpetrated several astonishing hoaxes on news-hungry eastern
editors such as The Petrified Man, The Alkali Lake Monster, and others.
He never intended to harm anyone by his Pecos Bill style stories, nor did
he ever profit by them. He simply
loved to pull the leg of the folks back east who believed the American West was
populated by savage red men, half-wild cowboys, damsels in distress, and the
occasional Loch Ness style monster.
may have been dusty, but it was paradise for a man with a sense of humor.
Unlike his previous journalistic exaggerations, not even Maher could have
foreseen that this hoax was about to change history.
His story informed eastern readers that more than 300 riders were
gathering from around the American West. Daring
cowboys with names like Cockeyed Bill, Dynamite Dick and Snake Creek Tom were
saddling up. Two savage Sioux
Indians named Spotted Wolf and He Dog were about to make the streets of Chadron
more dangerous than ever. And there
was even a woman rider from Denver, Emma Hutchinson, who was going to
“transform herself into a clothespin.”
This was a sarcastic reference to a lady who rode astride, an equestrian
practice frowned upon in those days. Emma
and all the others were going to ride 1,000 miles flat out in America’s first
one seems to have noticed among other inconsistencies that the starting point
was Maher’s hometown of Chadron.
sensational news quickly spread to hundreds of American papers and then to
Europe via the United Press wire service. Soon
the little Nebraska rail town was deluged with requests for details and
interviews. At first the local
civic leaders and population shrugged it off as just another of Maher’s
infamous jokes and had a good laugh at the folks back east.
was even talk of trying to rein in the Paralyzer.
whole thing originated in the fertile brain of one of our local correspondents
to the eastern press and well it might be to curb his imagination in the
future,” a founding father recalled.
was, it was too late.
early March of 1893, “Little Bear” Iager told the other respected civic
leaders of Chadron, Nebraska that their beloved town had a serious problem.
Word had not leaked out yet that Paralyzer Maher had invented the biggest
lie this side of Texas. If the
eastern press got wind that this was all a hoax, Chadron would be laughing stock
of the United States, no, the whole world.
Everybody who was anybody in Chadron was holed up there that night in the
Nelson Opera House, including the sheriff, the bank president, the chief of the
volunteer fire department, and even the physician for the Elkhorn Valley
situation was critical.
Bear told the others he believed Chadron only had one choice.
It had to sponsor America’s First Great Cowboy Race, bluff it out, or
Chadron would go down in history as the home of America’s greatest liar.
he had an idea. His old friend
Buffalo Bill Cody had just opened his famous Wild West Show next to the
World’s Fair in Chicago. Everyone
in the room knew Little Bear Iager had got his moniker from his old friend Bill
Cody. Little Bear thought he could
persuade Cody to support the project.
Faces were grim. A vote was taken. What choice did they have?
Great Cowboy Race was officially created.
were quickly written up.
race will be open to anyone riding western horses; horses must have been western born and bred;
each rider will be permitted two horses to alternate riding and leading;
only western cowboy stock saddles weighing at least 35 pounds will be
used; rider, saddle and blanket are
to weigh not less than 150 pounds; entrance
fee for each rider will be $25 and must be paid no later than June 1;
the race will start at 8 a.m., June 13, 1893, from the Blaine
Hotel in Chadron and end at the World’s fairgrounds in Chicago;
the purse is set at $1,000.”
was sent to Buffalo Bill Cody, who wired back that not only would he add his own
prize of $500, in addition the finish line would be drawn at the “1,000 Mile
Tree,” which coincidentally happened to be located directly in front of
Bill’s Wild West Show tent. Buffalo
Bill was no dummy. He knew a good
thing when he saw it.
Colt Firearms Company donated a beautiful revolver complete with gold-plated
cylinder and carved ivory handles as additional first prize. The Montgomery Ward store in Chicago offered to give the
winner the finest saddle they made. The
hoax was becoming reality and everything looked fine until Chadron’s town
fathers got wind that animal rights activists back east were trying to shut down
their Great Cowboy Race.
there was ever anyone who didn’t fit the image of being a cowboy, it was
George T. Angell, president of the Massachusetts Society for the Prevention of
Cruelty to Animals.
T. did not approve of ruthless men from tameless places with uncouth names like
Nebraska riding defenseless horses into the ground in order to win a purse of
ill-gotten gold. Nor was Geroge T.
a man to stand idly by and let the morals of the country go to the Devil without
a struggle. He circulated an open
letter to sympathetic organizations throughout the United States and to all the
newspapers in the country.
three hundred cowboys are proposing to race more than seven hundred miles from
Chadron, Nebrasks to the Chicago World’s Fair.
these semi-barbarians were to pass through Massachusetts we could take care of
all of them without difficulty, but as it is we have written a letter to our
friend John J. Shortall, Esq., president of the Illinois Humane Society,
who will unquestionably do all in his power to prevent this proposed outrage.
time of starting the race is fixed at about June 25th, (perhaps the
hottest part of the summer), and each rider is allowed only two horses.
these circumstances we do most earnestly pray all of the about ten thousand
American editors who will receive this paper and all humane citizens, will
prevent by the power of the press and the enforcement of laws, this disgrace to
American civilization so that if the race is begun no rider shall ever be
permitted to enter Chicago having ridden two horses day and night, under whip
and spur, to win these purses.
we do most earnestly ask all humane people who may reside in any city through
which these men pass to receive them with hisses and cries of “Shame.”
behalf of the dumb beasts whom it is proposed to ride in this terrible race, I
earnestly pray the assistance of all who are able in any way to assist in saving
them from this torture and our country from this disgrace.”
T. had poked Chadron in the eye with a sharp stick. If the folks back in Nebraska had been half-hearted up until
then about supporting Paralyzer Maher’s monstrous flim-flam, George T.’s
letter calling them “semi-barbarians” molded the folks out West into one
opinion. No bunch of city-bred,
coddled Yankees were going to dictate terms to the noble sons and daughters of
The Great American Cowboy Race must go on!
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