Historic Prison Rodeo Arena Demolished
Another piece of Texas history is falling under the wrecking ball. The historic arena where the Texas Prison Rodeo was held for more than 50 years is being demolished to make way for…for…who knows what. Something to be decided later.
The brick and concrete stadium on the grounds of the state’s oldest prison, the
Walls Unit, has sat empty and silent since its last rodeo in 1986.
For more than five decades, every Sunday in October, this historic arena hosted a spectacle that was billed as “The Wildest Show Behind Bars.” The wrecking crew has moved in because officials worry that the crumbling structure could topple into the street that borders the prison. Work is expected to be finished next month.
In its heyday, the prison rodeo drew thousands of people to watch prison inmates trying to outdo each other in traditional rodeo events like bull and bronc riding, and unique contests like one called “Hard Money.”
In “Hard Money”, inmates on foot would try to grab a bag placed between the horns of an angry bull. Inside the bag was at least $50, although donations could bolster the dollar amount well into the hundreds.
The first prison rodeo was held in 1931, to provide entertainment for employees and inmates during the Great Depression. It was enormously popular, because in just a few years it was attracting upwards of 15,000 people, making it one of the biggest sports events in the state.
Big name singers and musicians quickly became part of the show. Over the years, the prison rodeo featured a who’s who of country singers from Johnny Cash, Ernest Tubb, Willie Nelson, Dolly Parton, George Strait, Tom T. Hall and the list goes on…back to Bob Wills and Roy Acuff in the 40s and 50s.
So what happened to the rodeo? In 1986, the state was in a budget crunch and money was tight. The rodeo arena needed repairs, but prison officials couldn’t justify spending more than half a million dollars on repairs, so they decided to shut it down rather than risk injuries to spectators.
There was another factor. The state was under pressure from human rights activists and others, who were growing uneasy and concerned by the spectacle of state prisoners performing a dangerous sport for the public and often getting injured.
Injuries were common because none of the inmates had any rodeo experience. It was also well known that many inmates would volunteer for the dangerous events hoping to get injured, so they could spend time away from their cell blocks recuperating in the prison hospital.
The Texas Prison Museum website has a wonderful illustrated history of the Texas Prison Rodeo. Read about it at: