The Sidney Sun-Telegraph - Serving proudly since 1873 as the beautiful Nebraska Panhandle's first newspaper

By M. Timothy Nolting
For The Sun-Telegraph 

Across The Fence: C.B. Irwin: Wyoming's 'Giant Cowboy'

 

Charles Burton Irwin was a giant of a man.

In 1987, Tad Lucas, world famous champion cowgirl bronc rider said of C.B. Irwin, "Fat as he was, he could really ride. He used to run this old yellow horse half way around the track, only in the center field, yelling for me when I was riding his relay race horses. Relays were a big thing at Cheyenne, and C.B. always had a fast string for some of us to ride."

In 1979, Irwin was inducted, posthumously, into the Pro Rodeo Hall of Fame for his achievements as an outstanding stock contractor. Lucas was also inducted that year for her lifetime achievement in the world of pro rodeo. Both Irwin and Lucas began their road to fame at the "Granddaddy of 'em all" – Cheyenne Frontier Days.

Irwin was born on Aug. 15, 1875, in Chillicothe, Mo. It is said that at birth he weighed a whopping 14 pounds.

His father was a farmer, a blacksmith and farrier and young Charlie followed in his footsteps. After two years of drought came the blizzard of 1887 and, hoping for something better, the Irwin family pulled up their Missouri stakes and headed for western Kansas.

In a rough prairie Soddy near Goodland, the family found that hardscrabble farming on the high plains of Kansas was no better, or perhaps worse, than Missouri. The senior Irwin once told his son, "I would have liked to grow just one crop of wheat without leaf rust."

During the time in Kansas, C.B. took a wife, Etta May McGukin, and the couple along with his parents and three siblings loaded up their wagons and moved to Colorado Springs in 1896.

C.B. and his father resumed the farrier business and were successful enough to provide for their families, at least for a while. In 1899, a string of freight cars hauling explosives to the mines in Cripple Creek, caught fire and detonated while passing through town. The powerful blast destroyed a large portion of the town including the popular Antlers Hotel along with the nearby Irwin Blacksmith Shop.

With nothing left to salvage the family headed north across the Colorado and Wyoming border to a piece of land between Little Horse and Horse Creeks about 40 miles northeast of Cheyenne between Albin and LaGrange, Wyo. There they staked homestead claims and began the building of the famous Y6 ranch.

It would appear that C.B. and Etta May settled into the community with ease and quickly established friendships with other local and prominent ranchers. C.B. dreamed of becoming a successful land and cattle baron in the wild west Wyoming Territory and from the start began to expand the Y6 empire through acquisition of lands adjoining the Irwin homesteads.

To learn the skills of cowman and cowboy C.B. worked for several outfits in the area. Among those outfits where C.B. signed on was the C.J. Hysham and Company of Omaha, which supplied beef to the Standing Rock Reservation at Fort Yates, N.D.

The F.E. Warren Livestock Company in Cheyenne was also an employer of C.B. where he would become friends with the future governor of Wyoming and his son-in-law General 'Black Jack' Pershing.

As C.B. honed his cowboy skills, he also displayed a strong ability for leadership and consequently held the position of foreman on the Gordon Ranch at Horse Creek, the L5, and also the Coble Ranch in Bosler, Wyo. It was while working for John Coble that C.B. met and became fast friends with Tom Horn.

It is told that Tom Horn gave C.B. his Winchester rifle sometime after Tom's arrest for the alleged killing of Willie Nickell. Convicted and sentenced to hang, Tom requested that C.B. and his brother, Frank Irwin, sing a duet before the execution. The Irwin brothers sang "Life's Railway to Heaven" before the trap door was sprung.

It would appear that C.B. was a quick study when it came to roping for he first entered the steer roping competition at Cheyenne in 1900, the same year he arrived in Wyoming, and six years later earned the title of Champion Steer Roper at Frontier Days by roping and tying two big steers with an average of 38.1 seconds. Besides his skill with a rope, C.B.'s 6-foot, 4-inch frame and hefty size gave him a distinct advantage.

As C.B. continued to build the Y6 he was active in the production and promotion of rodeo, especially the rodeo at Cheyenne Frontier Days. Besides the market cattle raised at the Y6, C.B. focused primarily on rodeo stock, namely steers for the roping contests and horses for the popular relay races and bucking stock. More than a few nearby 'serious' cattlemen regarded the Y6 as nothing more than a gathering place for a curious assortment of business associates, friends and "showhands."

Over the years, those curious associates would include men such as, General John Pershing, John Red Cloud, Buffalo Bill Cody, Tom Mix, Charlie Russell and Will Rogers along with a host of famous rodeo cowgirls and cowboys.

During C.B.'s years of association with the Cheyenne Frontier Days Rodeo, C.B.'s friend John Coble had an "outlaw" horse on his ranch that could not be ridden. C.B. arranged for the horse to join the rodeo circuit and from 1901-'14 the horse named Steamboat became one of the most famous bucking horses of all time.

When Steamboat was retired from the rodeo circuit C.B. bought the horse and put him to pasture, most likely on the Y6. A run-in with barbed wire resulted in blood poisoning and the famous horse had to be put down. Some claim that C.B. put the injured horse down with the rifle given to him by Tom Horn. And although some dispute the claim, it is said that Steamboat is buried at Frontier Park in front of bucking chute No. 9.

In 1979, Steamboat was also posthumously inducted into the Pro Rodeo Hall of Fame.

Along about 1911 C.B. and his brother Frank broke ties with the Frontier Days Committee and ventured off on their own Wild West production. At the time, Ringling Brothers was merging with the Barnum and Bailey Circus and C.B. was able to take advantage of the Ringling Brothers liquidation. Virtually buying out the Ringling holdings, C.B. acquired wagons, tents, grandstands and various equipment and supplies.

In 1912, Frank and C.B. opened their first season of "The Irwin Brothers Real Wild West Show."

C.B.s' daughters, Pauline, Frances and Joella were all performers in the show along with their brother Floyd. In 1914 they had hit the top of their game with sold out performances in Sidney, Alliance, Broken Bow, York, Fairbury, Red Cloud, Hastings and Holdredge, Neb. Colorado welcomed the show with enthusiastic crowds in Fort Morgan, Sterling, and Fort Collins, while Nevada paid tribute to Irwin's Wild West in the Nevada towns of Elko, Winnemucca, Lovelock and Reno.

Sadly, in 1917 C.B.'s only son Floyd was killed when the bronc he was riding threw his head backwards and shattered Floyd's skull. The tragedy took the heart out of C.B.'s enthusiasm for show business and the Irwin Brothers Wild West came to an end and C.B. turned his attention to racing Quarter Horses and Thoroughbreds.

By 1923, C.B. was one of the nation's leading horse trainers with nearly 150 wins for his horses.

In March 1934, C.B. was on the road between the Y6 ranch and Cheyenne in an automobile driven by his son-in-law, Claude Sawyer. The car blew a front tire and C.B. was killed in the ensuing rollover.

At the time of his death, Wyoming's "Giant Cowboy" weighed more than 400 pounds, requiring a casket eight feet long, three and a half feet wide and 32 inches deep. Eight pallbearers were required to carry the body.

C.B.'s remains were prepared by Hobbs, Huckfeldt and Finkbiner in their mortuary located in downtown Cheyenne's Grier building. The funeral was held at the nearby junior high school building in order to accommodate the 1,300 guests in attendance. Charley left behind his devoted wife Etta, his three daughters and 17 "adopted" children whom he and Etta had taken in from the infamous "Orphan Train."

After his death, Will Rogers dedicated his weekly newspaper column to his friend C.B. ending his column with these words:

"Charley had a great career. He was a real cowpuncher in his day, and the greatest spirit and best company that ever lived. That other world up there is going to hear a whoop at the gate and a yell saying, 'Saint Peter, open up that main gate, for there is a real cowboy coming into the old home ranch. I am riding old 'Steamboat' bareback and using 'Teddy Roosevelt' for a pack horse. From now on this outfit is going to be wild, for I never worked with a tame one."

M. Timothy Nolting is an award-winning Nebraska columnist and freelance writer. To contact Tim, email: acrossthefence2day@gmail.com.

 

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