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Pres Johnston Sketch

The true story of how Corbett, The Belgrade Bull, got his start is told in a couple of letters written decades after his bucking career ended. In 1937, Preston Johnston, who owned the bull in his heyday in the 1890s, wrote an old friend who had asked how the legend started. That letter is in the collection of Pioneer Museum of Bozeman and outlines Johnston’s recollections. In 1951, Frank Collins, another old timer who was there at the beginning, published a letter in the Belgrade Journal trying to set the record straight after the newspaper published an obituary of  a man who claimed to have ridden Corbett. Johnston and Collins’ versions aren’t as colorful as the tale Emerson Hough told in his 1910 Saturday Evening Post article, but they still make for a great story.

To read the story beginning with Part 1, click here.

“The Belgrade Bull,” Part 3.”

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When Corbett was a calf, according to Pres Johnston, children would come to the Miller farm after Sunday School at the Dry Creek Missionary Baptist Church and try to ride him. Such contests between a half-grown bull and half-grown humans must have been even matches and glorious fun.

The first person to take on Corbett as a mature bull was Frank Collins, who recalled his adventure decades later. Collins and two of Annie Miller’s sons, Sam and Zach, decided to give the bull a try on Easter Sunday, 1892, when they were all in their late teens. The boys drew straws to see who would try first and Collins pulled the short straw. Collins recalled:

“I stayed on him longer than anyone I ever saw try him. But of course I was not down a straddle of him all the time. I was just riding the air up over him and clawing at every thing I could get a hold of, but finally I missed making good connections. I stood on my head out in front of him.”

Collins and the Miller boys must have talked up the bull’s prowess because experienced riders became interested in him. In the Fall when Preston Johnston and his friend, Lou Kennedy, finished setting up a threshing machine at Annie Miller’s place they were surprised to discover that their crew hadn’t arrived. Threshing was a big job back then and there should have been a crew of a dozen or more men there. Johnston asked around and found out that everybody was waiting to watch a local man, Herbert Brady, ride the bull.

By the time Herbert came riding up on his bronco, quite a crowd had assembled including the men of the threshing crew and the women who came to prepare the huge meals needed to fuel the hard-working crew.

Herbert took his saddle off of his horse and went to the corral where the bull stood. Collins put a halter on the bull and used a sack to blindfold him. After the young cowboy climbed aboard, Collins pulled off the blindfold. Then Corbett let out a snort, and Herbert sailed into the air with one of his stirrups clinging to his foot. Brady landed on the bull with the stirrup between him and the saddle. Collins reported, “Herbert walked in wide order for a few days until he got healed up in places where the stirrup pealed him.”

Brady was just an average rider. He knew that Lou Kennedy was better, so he wanted the more experienced man to take a turn on the bull. But Kennedy took riding seriously and said he wouldn’t do it unless there was something in it for him. Since nobody on the crew had money to bet, the men went to work. After the crew finished at Miller’s, they moved the threshing machine to the Howard Brady place.

The next day when Lou Kennedy and his father, Jim, went to make some repairs on the threshing machine, they discovered a man who was willing to bet $10 on the bull. Jim Kennedy had complete confidence that his son was up to the task and said he was willing to bet a hundred dollars.

When Herbert found out Kennedys had money to bet, he cooked up a scheme to get some of it. He knew Jack Flynn, another neighbor, who was excellent rider. Herbert figured if Jack couldn’t ride the bull, then Lou couldn’t either. Herbert convinced Jack to try the bull so they would know if they should place a bet. This plan resulted in the first time that the bull was “borrowed” in the middle of night and taken away for a practice ride.

Herbert and Jack and some friends went out to the Miller place one bright, moonlit night. They found the bull running loose on the range, but he was so tame that they had no trouble catching and saddling him. Jack looked at his watch and said, “Eleven o’clock, boys, just the right time to ride a bull.” Then he climbed into the saddle. Jack rode for two jumps, but on the third he went high into the air.

Pres Johnston said that before Jack hit the ground he yelled, “By God boys, he done it.

Everybody figured that if Jack couldn’t ride the bull, then Lou Kennedy would not be able to either, so they sent word to the Kennedy’s that they were ready to bet. They didn’t mention their little experiment.

On Sunday morning Lou rode up to the Brady place. Sunday School had just let out and a crowd gathered to watch the ride. Lou had to blindfold the bull to saddle him. After he mounted, he told his father to pull off the blind. The bull gave a snort and sent Lou flying. Lou caught his pants on the saddled horn and they were badly torn so Lou had to make for the tall grass to keep out of sight of the Sunday School crowd. Howard Brady went to the house to retrieve a needle and thread to repair the pants.

Lou’s ride convinced Pres Johnston that he could “have plenty of sport” betting on the bull so he talked his brother, Al, into buying the animal. The next day while Al was on the way to Mrs. Miller’s he met the Kennedys who asked where he was going. When Al said he was going to buy the bull, the Kennedys reported that the animal had thrown Lou. Al told them the bull had thrown Jack Flynn the night before. And that’s how the Kennedys learned they had been set up.

Anna Miller sold the bull to the Johnstons for $15. She was a widow with several daughters, so she probably was glad to be rid of an animal that caused young men to sneak around her place in the dead of night.

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— To see the next Installment: “Corbett Throws All Challengers—Maybe,” 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 Pioneer Museum of Bozeman.

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