In premise, the Rodeo Association of America (RAA) was a great idea. Its formation in 1929 brought about a standard set of rules, allowing for world champions to be recognized in bronc riding, bareback riding, bull riding, steer roping, calf roping, bulldogging, team roping, and even wild cow milking. What the RAA lacked, however, was representation. Made up entirely of rodeo committees and producers, the RAA had its members’ best interests at heart, not necessarily the contestants’.
This came to a head in October 1936, when Hugh Bennett, a world champion steer wrestler and top timed-event cowboy, organized a walk-out strike at the Boston Garden Rodeo. Sixty-some contestants (virtually every participant in the rodeo) exited the arena and posed for a press photograph, making their dissatisfaction publicly known. They then returned inside, where they sat in the stands alongside the paying spectators, while the organizers frantically scrambled to throw together a rodeo with stable hands.
While Hugh led the strike, his wife, Josie Bennett had been the catalyst. While attending his matinee performance on October 30, she noticed that the purse total was suspiciously low. She crunched the numbers, multiplying the number of contestants by the entry fee, and discovered that the prize money (advertised on a sign above the arena) did not even amount to the sum of the entry fees, let alone the money put in by the Boston Garden. A lopsided share of the earnings appeared to be going to the
rodeo producer, Col. W.T. Johnson. Upon learning this, Hugh passed a petition through the ranks of the rodeo contestants, which read: For the Boston Show, we the undersigned demand that the Purses be doubled and the Entrance Fees added in each and every event. Any contestant failing to sign this Petition will not be permitted to contest, by order of the undersigned.
The petition, which featured 61 signatures in total, was not the only appeal made that day. Word of the strike had been sent to Chicago by telegraph, where The World’s Greatest Rodeo was taking place. The Chicago contestants, many of whom rodeoed at the Boston Garden as well, drew up a similar petition:
We, the undersigned Cowboys showing at the Chicago Stadium do hereby agree not to go to the Boston Show, unless the demands of the Cowboys now at Boston are met.
The boys at Boston now must be allowed to work and not (be) barred from that show.
Red-faced, the management of Boston Garden ordered Col. Johnson to accept the contestants’ ultimatum.
The success of the strike led the group to organize officially as the Cowboys’ Turtle Association, so named because they were slow to organize but eventually “stuck their necks out.”
At the annual RAA convention in 1937, Hugh Bennett addressed rodeo producers on behalf of the CTA, promising a good working relationship with rodeo organizers and that there would be no more strikes, so long as only CTA members and local contestants were allowed to compete and so long as all entry fees added to the publicized purse money.
In 1945, the Cowboys’ Turtle Association changed their name to the Rodeo Cowboys Association (RCA). Ten years later, the Rodeo Association of America (by then called the International Rodeo Association) folded in recognition of the RCA as the superior rodeo organization.