We recently had the opportunity to sit down with 1947 Wyoming State Fair Steer Roping Champion J.T. Wilkinson. I say “we,” as my grandparents, Nelson and Carolyn Vineyard, joined us for the interview, which included a lot of reminiscing about life in Wyoming in their younger years. I always find those conversations interesting and find I can learn a lot just sitting and listening.
J.T. was in Douglas on the final weekend of State Fair as attendees at the 100th lined up for a photograph similar to the early day panoramic photos from early day state fairs. He learned of the event, as the 1947 photograph made into a poster this year by the Wyoming Pioneer Association was making the rounds with hopes of identifying all of the cowboys and cowgirls. All but a handful had been identified by State Fair time. The Wyoming Pioneer Association was pleased to hear from J.T. and invited him to join them as they organized the panoramic photograph for the 100th celebration.
“Not a lot,” laughed J.T. when asked about what he remembers from the 1947 Wyoming State Fair. It was a few years ago, and J.T. spent several years traveling to rodeos. He was 19-years-old when he won the steer roping at the Wyoming State Fair and wears the buckle to this day.
“I won the average on the last steer of the go,” he recalls. “It was a pretty tough roping.”
“I don’t remember how much money I won, but it was a lot at the time,” he recalls.
It was rare to receive a buckle in that day with most rodeos only offering a cash prize.
While he doesn’t recall for sure, J.T. said it’s likely he arrived at the rodeo pulling a two-horse trailer with his calf horse and his steer roping horse inside. Once they started running slack at the rodeos, he said they didn’t stay overnight as often. Cowboys could come for the day, rope and then return later in the week.
In the late 1950s or early 1960s, J.T. went on to finish third in the world in the steer roping. He does recall that Clark McEntire won that same year, so it must have been 1957, 1958 or 1961.
Folks in the Lander area may recall J.T., his brother Chuck and their father Billy competing in the Fourth of July rodeo there. They ranched in the area, calling the Red Canyon Ranch home. J.T. recalls one rodeo where the three of them entered and his father won the all-around saddle. It wasn’t the elder Wilkinson’s first big rodeo win. In 1925, he was champion saddle bronc rider at Cheyenne Frontier Days. On Sept. 7 in Cheyenne, Billy Wilkinson will be inducted into the Cheyenne Frontier Days Hall of Fame. J.T. and his wife Jan have been gathering family history and compiling information for the induction and preservation amidst Wyoming’s history.
It was truly a pleasure to meet Mr. Wilkinson and hear about a bygone era in the sport of rodeo. I’ll be anxious to hear more on the history of Billy Wilkinson and hope to see the display in his honor at the museum in Frontier Park.
Jennifer Vineyard Womack is executive director of the Wyoming FFA Foundation and a freelance writer. She can be reached at Womack@Wyoming.com or at 307-351-0730.