When writer Emerson Hough visited Montana in 1910, he must have heard tales of Corbett, The Belgrade Bull, in cowboy bars everywhere. The facts don’t matter much in such places, but that didn’t bother Hough. He knew a good story when he heard one. And so did the editors of the Saturday Evening Post. “The Belgrade Bull,” Part 2.
To read the story beginning with Part 1, click here.
Corbett’s reputation as a bucker went national in 1910 when he became the subject of a feature article in the Saturday Evening Post.
The article was written by then prominent novelist Emerson Hough, who attributed the story to a worn-out cowboy named “Curley.” Here some of Curley’s story:
“You’ve heard of the Belgrade Bull, haven’t you?” Curly asked suddenly. I nodded. What western man hasn’t heard of that historic brute, whose history is one long record of dismantled cowpunchers who thought they could ride anything with hair? …
“There was maybe one or two fakes of that same name,” added Curley reminiscently. …. “But the real old Simon-pure, North American, eighteen-carat, gold-filed Belgrade Bull was owned by a man named Kid Johnson. He didn’t have no mine nor ranch nor nothin’. That one little, ornery, undersized black-and-white bull—a cross between a Jersey and a Galloway—furnished him with all the income he needed, and all the sport besides. He just run the saloon and gamblin’ place a sort of a incidental amusement.
“His real means of livelihood was that same critter that he kept out in the corral. The duty of the saloon porter was to git up every mornin’ about four or five and chase that bull around the corral a couple hours or so. That way he was hard as nails, all the same time, playful as a kitten—though he didn’t look it—and able to jump a ten-foot fence any time he wanted to. Buck! Pitch? No, he didn’t buck. He wouldn’t do anything as low down and commonplace as that there. They ain’t no real name for what he done.
“This here Kid Johnson goes into this little town of Belgrade, up here in Montana, north of here, aleadin’ this cow critter on a string. After he got his red eye joint started up and his corral fixed, he hangs out a notice sayin’ that cowpunchers and others is plumb welcome and can git any kind of game they like. When the word got out that there was a new game, and that this here speckled bull was the king card in Kid Johnson’s layout, the cowpunchers from both sides of the place and five hundred miles up and down the range—why they broke their necks to git in first to take money away Kid Johnson. Now it wasn’t so much money they was after, though the Kid didn’t turn down any sized bets that come, as it was a matter of professional pride; because right soon the news got out on the range that this here Belgrade bull had throwed an average of two to ten cowpunchers every day of the week, not barrin’ Sundays, and some of them was the best riders that ever throwed a rope.
“Businesses all over the upper-range country just come to a stop. There wasn’t no self-respectin’ cow camp that wouldn’t head right for Belgrade as soon as they got their beef cuts done. Ranch owners, foremen, punchers, everybody—they come, I say, five or six hundred miles to go against the game just for sake of the cause. It slow’ded up the cattle business some, but it was fine for Belgrade while it lasted. Every day in Belgrade was circus day.”
Apparently Curley was prone to exaggeration and was not overly concerned with factual detail. The bull was owned by Alva and Preston Johnston (Johnston, with a “T”), and neither one of them was called “Kid.” Judging from his black-and-white markings, the bull almost certainly was Holstein. Doubtless the Johnston brothers made a lot of money betting on Corbett, but he was hardly their sole source of support; they owned a livery stable in Belgrade and ran a lucrative threshing business. They did not own a saloon.
But Curley did capture the mood of the times when Corbett dominated attention in Belgrade. While the Johnston brothers didn’t have Corbett to buck every day, they did schedule rides every time a challenger stepped up, usually on Sunday afternoons. Belgrade did take on a circus atmosphere on those afternoons, and the brothers did make a bundle of money betting.
— To see the next installment, “Sunday School Girls Meet the Threshing Crew Riders,” The true story of how Corbett the Belgrade Bull got his start, click here.
— To see all of the stories about Corbett, The Belgrade Bull, click on “Belgrade Bull” under “Categories” in the column to the right.
—Illustration from the Saturday Evening Post, September 10, 1910.