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Harry Tompkins

Birth place or City of origin: Peekskill
State of origin: NY
Last known City: Dublin
Last known State: TX
Start/Birth date: 1927
Death/End date:

Born in Peekskill, New York, in 1927, Harry learned to ride on a New York dude ranch. Tompkins is generally acknowledged as one of the premier Bull Riders and Bareback Bonc riders in the sport of Rodeo.

He went to work on the Cimarron Ranch where he befriended champion cowboy, Mike Hastings and was given the opportunity to ride the steers used in the ranch’s frequent rodeos. In 1946, Harry at age 19 went to Madison square garden competing in his first Bull Riding for the Cimarron. Two years later, he won his first World Champion Bull Riding title. From there he won the Bull Riding Championship again in 1949, 1950, 1952 and 1960. He also won the Bareback Riding World Championship and the All-Around title in 1952 and again won the All-Around World Championship in 1960. Jim Shoulders was quoted in a 1968 article “As far as I'm concerned, there is nobody anywhere close to Harry Tompkins when it comes to natural ability to ride.”

Harry still lives with his wife, Melba in Dublin, Texas

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He was born and raised in Peekskill, New York. At age 16, Harry went to work on a dude ranch in the area called Cinnabar and later moved to the Cimarron Dude Ranch. Mike Hastings, a champion cowboy who had made quite a name for himself, was a wrangler there and Harry worked with him. The cowboys would put on exhibitions for the guests including bronc riding and riding steers. The horses they used had been previously used in the Wild Horse Race at the big Madison Square Garden Rodeo. Once they would stop bucking, the dude ranch would use them as saddle horses for their guests.

Red Wilmer and Jerry Ambler, both experienced competitive cowboys, once came to the dude ranch for a party, while back east during the Madison Square Garden rodeo. Harry saw the expensive car they were driving and was impressed with their fancy clothes. Harry decided if he could be a rodeo cowboy, dress like that and drive a fancy car that just might be the way to live. Wilmer took Harry to Moberly, Missouri, to compete in his first rodeo. Jim Shoulders was hurt at the time and was judging the rodeo. Harry entered the saddle bronc riding, bareback riding and the bull riding because to win the All-Around Saddle you had to be entered in three events. He got thrown off the saddle bronc, placed in the bareback riding and won the bull riding, and won the saddle. Harry showed he was an exceptional rider from the very beginning. The Cimarron Dude Ranch he was working for decided to enter him in the Madison Square Garden Rodeo so they paid his entry fees in both bareback and bull riding and got him a room at the Belvedere Hotel, right across the street from 'the Garden.' The rodeo in New York City was thirty days long and had fifty-two performances. Harry says he got bucked off everything he rode, but finally rode a bull and made $316, which he immediately hid under the mattress in his hotel room at the Belvedere. It wasn't long after that when Harry began competing full-time. Two years later, in 1948, he won his first World Champion Bull Riding title. From there he won the Bull Riding Championship again in 1949, 1950, 1952 and 1960. He also won the Bareback Riding World Championship and the All-Around title in 1952 and again won the All-Around World Championship in 1960.

Jim Shoulders, in an article in an October 1968 issue of Hoofs and Horns, entitled BULL RIDERS TODAY said, “As far as I'm concerned, there is nobody anywhere close to Harry Tompkins when it comes to natural ability to ride.” The Peekskill cowboy as a child spent many hours ice-skating. He also practiced walking railings, and even practiced walking on a cable stretched across a pond. He had tremendous balance and quick reflexes and chose a career where that was essential. When asked about his ability he just says, “I was given a 'gift.”

Some of the traveling partners Harry had while 'going down the road' were Jim Shoulders, and Jack Buschbom. “Buschbom wrecked two of my cars,” said the eight-time World Champion. These top rough-stock champs were also some of the first cowboys to fly from rodeo to rodeo. In the beginning they would hop a commercial plane, carrying their spurs and ropes, arrive at their destination, grab a cab, get to the rodeo, ride their stock, get back in a cab, arrive back at the airport and get on another airline to the next destination. “The New York to Omaha to Chicago hop worked well. I would have a cab waiting and one time I walked in to the rodeo at Chicago and there were only two bulls left to ride in the bull riding -- mine and one other,” Harry recalled. That is cutting it mighty close. Later these same folks leased a few planes and scurried from rodeo to rodeo. Harry said Buschbom bought a plane and he rode with him one time. “That was enough,” laughed the eight-time world champ.

When asked to name some of the best broncs and bulls of his era, Tompkins didn't miss a beat. “Come Apart that belonged to Leo Cremer, of Montana, was definitely the best bronc there ever was. He was showy, lasted a long time, and nobody rode him.” As for bulls, he explained that in his era most bulls were not named, but were usually remembered by their number, “Number 73 owned by Homer Todd and Yellow Jacket a Christensen bull were great bulls.” When asked about the best cowboys during his era he named Casey Tibbs as the best saddle bronc rider and Gene Rambo as the best All-Around hand.

Harry Tompkins and Rosemary Colborn, daughter of Everett Colborn, were married in 1950. They, of course, met at a rodeo. They moved to Dublin, Texas, and had three children, Martha, Mark and Neal. The only one in the rodeo business presently is Martha, who competes, and raises and trains barrel riding horses. Rosemary died of cancer after twenty years of marriage to Harry.

In 1961, a freak accident on a bull at a Las Vegas rodeo caused Tompkins to sustain an injury to his elbow. After dismounting, the bull hit him with his horn and knocked his elbow out of joint. His arm was never the same and his riding career ended. But that didn't stop him from participating in rodeo. He judged rodeos, in fact it was during this time Tompkins and others judging during this era recommended that the RCA began to require that cowboy hats be worn during competition, not baseball caps; boots were required, no sneakers allowed; and wearing the competitors number was a requirement.

The original owners of the Mesquite Rodeo near Dallas included Tompkins, along with Neal Gay, Jim Shoulders, D J Gaudin and Ira Akers. Tompkins sold his interest after two years. He also designed bucking chutes that allowed rodeos to install them in much less time than previously required. The same style of chute is still being used today. He also designed a children's saddle that had a 'handle' instead of a horn. Although the design did not become popular Tompkins knows of a current barrel racer that is using one of his adult saddles with the handle.

Tompkins designed the unique home he lives in with present wife, Melba. It is basically underground and therefore, the temperature remains constant year round. “We run the air-conditioning about three months out of the year,” he said, which is incredible in the Texas heat. The electric bill never exceeds $120 a month, and this also includes the electricity used in his barns and throughout the ranch.

In his early days of rodeo he became one of the earliest models and cowboy representatives for Wrangler; he served on the Board of the Rodeo Historical Society for many years, and; was instrumental in helping organize the Cowboy Reunion held during the National Finals Rodeo in Las Vegas each year. Not only has he been inducted in to six different Halls of Fame throughout the country, but also been honored by receiving the diamond-encrusted ring and declared as 'Bull Rider for Our Time' by the Professional Bull Riders in 1997. He is serving presently as Associate Vice President of the new Dublin Rodeo Historical Museum.

Jim Shoulders, Tompkins' long-time friend and holder of sixteen World Championships, attended the Tribute Dinner held for Harry Tompkins and said to the crowd, “When I was judging that rodeo in Moberly, Missouri, back in 1946, if I'd only 'goose-egged' that damn Yankee, maybe he'd gone back to New York and forgot about rodeoing.” Tompkins' response to his good friend, and former traveling buddy was, “Hey, I'm the one who kept you from winning twenty-two World Titles by winning eight of 'em!” It is quite evident these two have a camaraderie that has never waned and that this ribbing and banter has been going on for fifty-some years. I'd say that friendship is going to last. It is also evident that Harry Tompkins will be an Ambassador to rodeo for life, and rodeo is much better because of Tompkins.

 

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