On a humid Friday afternoon in rural southwestern New Jersey, Amos Howard (Stoney) Harris Jr., the 84-year-old grandfather of the Cowtown Rodeo in Piles Grove Township, N.J., sits in his backyard a few miles from the rodeo arena and stares through his one good eye at the severed head of Playboy, the bucking bull.
Playboy's head is tied to the trunk of an ash tree, eight feet off the ground. It has been there for more than 10 years, almost long enough for the flies to have lost interest but not nearly long enough for the sun to have stripped off its brown-and-white hide. It is still clearly Playboy's head, not Playboy's skull. The bull is all dead—but it is not all gone.
The head is grinning. What's left of Playboy is flashing a crazed, snaggle-toothed rodeo grin, as if it were looking up at a cowboy it has just bucked into the air and is deciding whether to gore that cowboy on the way down or wait until he hits the dirt.
The grin pleases Harris, who noticed 50 years ago that while bucking broncos run away from fallen cowboys, bucking bulls try to kill them. Harris has always appreciated moxie, which may explain why he does not have any bucking-bronco heads tied to trees on his property.
October 19, 1986
"Playboy bucked at Cowtown for five or six years," he says, telling it plainly but not without feeling. "He had the moves. He had the heart. He was the bull that rode [in a truck] across the Brooklyn Bridge at the end of that Barbra Streisand movie, For Pete's Sake. I still see him sometimes on television, riding across that bridge with ol' Barbra."
Harris's tone is respectful. There is no humor in his blue right eye. His left has been glass since 1962, when a colt jerked a rope through his hands and the flailing loose end hit his left eyeball.
"Playboy was a good bucking bull for a long, long time," Harris says, "so when he finally lost his taste for bucking and it came time to kill him, I asked the boys at the slaughterhouse to bring me his head. I tied it to this tree. I'm letting it weather. Might take another 10 years to bleach out. I don't care. I got time. You can't rush these things. I like having his head up there. Gives me something to look at."
He gets out of his chair slowly, using his cane for support. Then he carefully makes his way around the ash tree, with Playboy's head tied to it, and hobbles toward the front of his white clapboard house. He seems embarrassed by the amount of effort this requires.
Harris has two artificial hips, two artificial shoulders and an artificial knee—all of them implanted since he turned 70. "It's not the same as bone and gristle," he says in a dry monotone, cowboy-style, without excessive jaw action. "But it all works pretty good. I guess it's best described as too many miles. I've always been damn fool enough to take on more than one human should."
He passes the moose head mounted at the right of his front door. He keeps a big pile of antlers on the porch, creating the illusion that the moose head is still shedding its rack year after year, and that the rest of the moose is standing in the living room on the other side of the wall.
Harris opens the door and enters his house. On the wall of the living room there is a 1932 rodeo poster of the young Stoney Harris straddling a paint horse named Billy, who is rearing up dramatically, almost perpendicular to the ground. The rider is waving a huge cowboy hat. He looks like a man who has just managed to turn a little piece of New Jersey into a little piece of Texas, which is in fact what Stoney did in 1930, when he convinced his father, Howard Sr., that putting on a rodeo would attract more farmers to the weekly Harris livestock auctions in Woodstown.
The first rodeo was purely homegrown. But when the 101 Ranch Wild West Show closed down in Washington, D.C., in 1931, the Harrises found themselves with a bunch of real cowboys willing to work for room and board. "They had the guts," Stoney says, "and they were hungry. In those days the chuck wagon was the main attraction, not the checkbook."
The 101 Ranch cowboys were accompanied by a 200-pound squaw named Lizzie Lefthand Bull and her tribe of dancing Sioux Indians, a world-class trick roper, a longhorn steer that jumped over a car, and a guy named Bob Roebuck whose "High School Educated Horse," Sport, reared up and applauded the crowd with his front hooves. "Now, how in the hell," Harris says, still mystified half a century later, "would you teach a horse to do that?"
Standing in a room full of sculptures of fighting stallions, he pages through a musty 1938 rodeo program he has come across in the living room. He stops suddenly and stares at a photograph in the program. Stoney's good eye turns red and sorrowful.
The photograph shows a sawed-off, black-haired, unshaven cowboy flying through the air, propelled by the horns of a brindle bull, his arms spread like wings and his sneakered feet bracing for the impact. The cowboy's name was George Richie. He was an illegal alien from Wales. His rodeo name was Pancho Villa because people thought he looked vaguely Mexican.
"Pancho was the toughest human I ever saw," Harris says with deep conviction. "Pain. Fear. He didn't understand 'em. He didn't know what the devil they were.
"Why, he'd squat right down on the bumper of my Chevy touring car and then I'd get her going around 60 miles an hour and when we'd pass in front of the grandstand, he'd just let go. He'd hit the ground. Bounce up in the air. Do three or four flip-flops. Take his hat off. Wave."
Harris shakes his head in amazement. "The thing was," he says, "Pancho never hurt anything important. Of course, his back was just solid scars all over, but he was always in good humor."
The immigration authorities finally caught up to Pancho and sent him back to Wales. "I corresponded with him for a while," Harris says. "One day I got a postcard with bloody fingerprints on it. He wrote: 'Mr. Harris, they want to take my legs off. But when Pancho goes out, he's going with his feet sticking up.' I tried to trace him. I never could."
At just about that same time in 1936, Stoney's father died suddenly. "He was 65 years old," Stoney says. "Rugged as a bull. He got pneumonia. They didn't know what to do for it. Hell, they was giving him a spoonful of whiskey every hour. I always thought that if they'd have let him drink the whole fifth, he might've gotten well."
Two years later, hard times caught up with the rodeo. Harris shut it down. Then a Woodstown judge's wife, who lived across the street from the Harris auction barn, caught up with Stoney and shut him down, too.
She wanted to play bridge with her friends on Tuesdays, which was livestock auction day for Harris. On one particularly hot Tuesday, the woman opened the windows to cool off the card room. A gentle breeze thick with the combined odors of cow, horse, pig and sheep manure wafted through her house. She told her husband, who told the mayor, who told Harris to leave town by election day of 1940.
Stoney moved a few miles down the road. He built himself a new auction barn and a gigantic indoor flea market and named the whole thing Cowtown. By the side of the road he put up a larger-than-life red plaster cow, its rear end pointing toward Woodstown to let the folks there know what he thought of them.
He married a farm girl from Swedesboro, N.J., named Maria Salisbury. They had four children. The one son, Amos Howard Harris III, cowboyed at the University of Idaho in 1954 and became the first easterner to win the National Intercollegiate Rodeo All-Around championship. About that time he got married. He came home to Cowtown. He broke his father's heart.
Stoney built a new arena and created the Cowtown Rodeo for his son to manage. Howard ran it as unadorned competition—bull and bronc riding, calf roping, steer wrestling. Soon the dancing Sioux Indians and the clowning Pancho Villas of Stoney's salad days were gone and Howard had no interest in filling their shoes with other Wild West types. That saddened his father. What happened in 1961 really depressed him.
"One day," the elder Harris says, "my son's wife says to me, 'If you don't sell out to Howard, he's gonna leave.' Naturally I wanted him to stay. He's the only son I have. I sold Howard the farmland across the road and the Cowtown market and the Cowtown Rodeo. Biggest mistake I ever made."
Ironically, seven years later, Howard lost interest in the flea market and sold it back to Stoney. With its hundreds of rented stalls doing a land-office business in everything from used tires ("We Got the Tread If You Got the Bread") to factory-outlet Home Stretch Maternity Clothes to Tattoos by Tiny (who isn't), the market is a landlord's gold mine. Buying it back from his son felt almost as good to Stoney as putting the big red cow out front with its heinie pointed toward Woodstown.
"I told Howard he wasn't so damn smart," Harris says sarcastically. "I sold him Cowtown, but I bought back the udder. I bought back the part that gives milk."
In 1978 Howard sold the Cowtown Rodeo to his son, Grant, and expanded his 2,000-acre beef-cattle operation by getting further into sheep. "I traded in my big cowboy hat," the 54-year-old Howard drawls cheerfully over a red-suspendered belly that has grown some since his rodeo championship days. "I sold the rodeo off to my son and raised me some sheep. So now I got me a CD in the bank," he added, "but I don't smell as good."
Grant was only 26 at the time of his father's offer, and he was crazy in love with bucking horses, which he had ridden for five or six years. He knew that if he bought his father out, he would have to stop something because the broken arms and legs that go along with bronc riding would make it impossible to run Cowtown. Grant also knew that Cowtown was the chance of his lifetime.
"It was purely heart wrenching," Grant says, sitting on the tailgate of his blue Chevy pickup, next to the arena in Cowtown. He does do a little pickup riding because, as he says, "The only thing God put on this earth better'n women is bucking horses."
He laughs, climbs into his pickup and drives off to check on the rodeo bulls and horses he raises for Cowtown and for shipment out West. One of his bulls, 018 Cowtown, was named Professional Rodeo Cowboys' Association Bull of the Year in 1985. And it was also voted the best bull by the American stock contractors in 1984 and 1985. That is how far things have come since Stoney Harris's early rodeo days, when the idea of raising rodeo bulls in New Jersey for shipment to Texas and Oklahoma would have seemed ludicrous.
Stoney is proud of his grandson, but the old man is just a spectator now at the rodeo. On a recent Saturday night, he sat in his traditional seat near the bucking chutes, unnoticed by the 3,500 fans packing the arena and by the announcer who repeatedly encouraged the crowd to applaud Grant for running the show and Howard for helping out on the bucking chutes. He did not mention Stoney.
A couple of bulls later, the rodeo ended. Stoney picked up his cane and slowly climbed the steps toward the exit, watching the ground so he wouldn't trip. It took him a long time to make his way out.
"Don't be surprised," he says quietly, sitting in his backyard the following afternoon, "if I sell every damn thing I got, one of these days, and go get myself some good-size ranch out West. I want to be out where a handshake's still a contract, where things are still like they used to be. Hell, I might just do it yet."
His good eye is red with a powerful anger. He looks up at the severed head of Playboy. He studies that grin.
A staff writer for the Philadelphia Daily News, Dan Geringer also free-lances.