August 27, 2009

Alvin Nelson, 1957 World Champion Saddle Bronc Rider - Part One: The Early Years


by Molly Noble Bull

Alvin Nelson in 1957 on a horse called Sorrel Top
at Madison Square Garden in New York City, New York.

The word bronc (or as the dictionary spells it, bron-co) is described as a small, wild, or partly broken horse. Therefore, the bron-co buster is one who breaks a bron-co to the saddle. Alvin Nelson is a World Champion Bron-co Buster or as the National Finals Rodeo (NFR) describes it—the 1957 World Champion Saddle Bronc Rider.

Alvin Nelson is descended from Norwegian immigrants, and his maternal grandparents were Charter members of the Lutheran church in what later became Mobridge, South Dakota.
Alvin is a fantastic cowboy, and he and his wife, Kaye, are old family friends.

Alvin Nelson during the early days of his rodeo career.

Alvin, tell us about your early years as a North Dakota rancher as well as a world famous rodeo cowboy.

I was born at Mobridge, South Dakota in 1934, the son of Tobias and Agnes Nelson, and I have a sister and three brothers. Raised on a ranch near Mobridge, I attended all twelve grades at the Glenham School there, including my high school graduation in 1952.

I purchased my first cows in 1951. I was a junior in high school, and I began my professional rodeo career in 1953.

As a future rodeo cowboy, tell us about the first rodeo you ever attended and include some of your early memories.

At the age of twelve, I attended my first rodeo in Mobridge with my mother, my sister, Anna, and my brothers, Palmer, Tillman and Toby. I thought the rodeo was "good watching," and the cowboys I saw were my heroes.

In Java, South Dakota at the age of 16, I entered my first rodeo, cow riding, and I won $17. It wasn’t much, but it sure was lots easier than milking cows all week for maybe less money. Winning also made me want to enter more rodeos for fun and maybe even more money.

Alvin Nelson as a teenager.

In 1952 and while still in high school, Alvin won the South Dakota State High School Saddle Bronc Riding Championship in Rapid City and was also the winner of the National High School Saddle Bronc Riding Championship in Augusta, Montana. Some think Alvin’s career was overshadowed by Casey Tibbs and Deb Copenhaver. Tibbs and Copenhaver dominated the rodeo scene in the nineteen fifties, capturing the imagination of the press. And when Alvin finally began to win big, he got little notice in the press. However, he gained popularity among his peers and was given the title of “The Bronc Riders Bronc Rider.”

Alvin won many honors during his rodeo career. But what really gained him the respect of his fellow cowboys was placing high on those dirty, ducking, diving, “hard to ride” horses he drew. Alvin is considered a champion in and out of the arena, but he would have been a cowboy even if he had never entered so much as one rodeo.

Apparently, most rodeo cowboys acquire their dream of owning a ranch by inheriting it or marrying it. Back then, it was virtually unheard of for a rodeo cowboy to save enough from his winnings to buy a ranch, but because of his success as a bronc rider, Alvin was able to purchase a ranch just three years after he became a professional rodeo cowboy.

Alvin, tell us more of your memories during those early years.

In January 1957 at Odessa, Texas, I drew a bronc called “Pretty Boy,” and I will never forget that ride because I marked a 208 as my overall score.

Today, a saddle bronc ride in a rodeo lasts only 8 seconds. But when I first started riding, saddle bronc rides lasted 10 seconds. Then in the mid 1960s, it changed to 8 seconds. As I mentioned, I marked 208 in the 1957 Odessa rodeo out of a possible 210 points. At the time, it was rare to go above 200 points, and an average score would have been 180.

I joined the Professional Rodeo Cowboy Association (PRCA) in 1953, and I qualified five times for the National Finals Rodeo (NFR) and was a contestant for PRCA for 40 years. My rise to success as a rodeo cowboy was fast, winning my first big rodeo in Phoenix in 1955.

At first, I rode bulls, bareback horses, and saddle broncs. But my win in New York riding “Billy the Kid” in 1957 set an all time record for money won at bronc riding that held for 23 years. The 1957 rodeo in New York City lasted three weeks and at that time was the world’s largest rodeo according to prize money, number of spectators and number of contestants. There were eight rounds and my record was: Split 3rd & 4th on first horse, won the 2nd round, split 1st and 2nd in the last 2 rounds to win $4,234. At the time, this was the most money won in saddle bronc riding at any one rodeo, and the record stood until 1980.

From 1955 to 1966, I appeared in the PRCA end of year world standings in three categories—saddle bronc riding, bareback riding, and the All-Around, and I rode saddle broncs until 1973. After 1973 and until 1993, I team roped with my son and his friends.

In 1958, you married Miss North Dakota Rodeo of 1957, a beautiful young woman named Kaye. After the wedding, your picture appeared on the cover of a July 1958 magazine produced by the North Dakota Stockman Association with the caption, North Dakota’s First Rodeo Couple.

In 1958 Alvin and Kaye Nelson
on the cover of a magazine as
North Dakota’s First Rodeo Couple.

Fifty-one years later, Alvin and Kaye Nelson are still married and as much in love as ever. Thanks for paying us a visit, Alvin, and for letting us know you a little better.

Next month, we will hear more from Alvin Nelson about his family, his ranch in North Dakota, and perhaps some tips on ranching and riding from one of the best cowboys ever born.


A J Hawke said...

Molly, thank you for sharing this interview with Alvin Nelson. It is fascinating to
learn more of that time and place. I look forward to next month and the interview
on the ranching. One of the things I appreciate about cable is now we can get all of the rodeo sports, from bull riding to bronc riding. I would be interested to know if Mr. Nelson follows the sport, and if so,
who are some of the young riders that he appreciates. Also, does he think it was harder to be a professional rodeo cowboy when he started out?

Again, thanks Molly, for your articles in Bustles and Spurs. I know that I am in for a learning experience every time you post.


brendalottakamaggiebrendan said...

Enjoyed the interview, Molly. I haven't been to a rodeo in a long time, but I always enjoyed them. Mmm..maybe I should work on that.

Molly Noble Bull said...

Dear A.J. and Brenda,
Thanks for writing. I will see if I can find the answers to your questions.

Elizabeth Pina said...

What wonderful information. I love rodeos and go to Houston plus my local county fair. I can't wait to read next month's post. Thanks, Molly for bringing me over here!

Tamela Hancock Murray said...

Great interview, Molly! Love the old pictures, too. :)

Rich Bullock said...

Thanks for the great article. Alvin makes it all seem pretty easy--typical for a cowboy--but I'm sure it was much more of a challenge. Nothing easy about ranching, let alone doing it in North Dakota!!

SageOak Woman said...

Dear Molly,
I really enjoyed your interview with Alvin Nelson. I grew up with a lot of early cowboys who continued to work with livestock well into their elder years. This article reminds me of them and the great times and stories that they shared with me over the years. I've bred, raised and trained many horses over the years and have watched too many rodeos to count and have always wondered, what do the cowboys focus on in order to maintain their balance on a bucking, spinning, fishtailing piece of critter that desperately wants to get rid of that "thing" that is clinging to their back?

Stephen and Janet Bly said...

Molly: Fascinating interview. What a great post for this blog ... especially your knowing Alvin and his wife personally.
On the trail,
Steve & Janet

Molly Noble Bull said...

Thanks Elizabeth, Stephen, Janet and everybody else who read my interview with Alvin Nelson. I hope all of you will stay tuned to read all the other great articles coming up on this blog and come back on September 27th for my second interview with Alvin Nelson.

Molly Noble Bull said...

Dear Tamela, Rich, Sage and everybody else,
Thanks for writing.
About two weeks ago, my husband and I traveled to Alpine, Texas to a cutting. One of our sons and three of our grandchildren were scheduled to enter. As we sat in the stands, watching the event, a young woman with about three children corrected her youngest for playing too close to the arena. I can't recall the child's name; so let's call him Johnny. The mother had already told me that Johnny was not quite three-years-old.
When she said, "Johnny," he stopped, turned to her and said, "Yes, Ma'am."
"You're playing too near the horses."
To me, that "Yes, Ma'am," said it all.
Why do I like cuttings, ropings, and rodeo folks? Because that's where I'm likely to meet people like Johnny and his mom.