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09 December, 2015

PAYING HOMAGE TO HISTORY

In October, the APRA named the first of its inductees in the association’s Hall of Fame, honouring the contribution of four legends of rodeo.  JEN COWLEY talks to modern-day stalwart John “Happy” Gill about why it’s important to pay homage to history, and how these four men helped make the sport what it is today.

It’s often said that you can’t know where you’re going if you haven’t paid close attention to the past.

As with many successful organisations, the history of the Australian Professional Rodeo Association (APRA) – and before it, the Australian Rough Riders’ Association (ARRA) – is peppered with triumphs and tribulations. But it’s thanks to the solid footings laid by its founding fathers that the association has weathered all the highs and lows to become the strong and independent body it is today.

Throughout its long and interesting history, the APRA has taught and learned many lessons – lessons the modern association is now using to create a solid future.

A vital part of that future is acknowledging the past, and to this end, in October the APRA named four remarkable men – Reg “RM” Williams, Jack and Stan Gill, and Lance Skuthorpe – as the first inductees into the association’s Hall of Fame.

One modern day stalwart of the APRA knows perhaps more than most how important it is to acknowledge tradition and history – a bloke who bears a surname that’s become synonymous with rodeo in this country.

John “Happy” Gill has an encyclopaedic knowledge of not only the association, but the sport of rodeo itself, and is delighted that four of the men to whom the APRA owes its success have been honoured as the first inductees.

As a member of the selection panel for the Hall of Fame – which also included famed bronc rider Darryl Kong and many-times champion Bonny Young – Happy is, well, happy to share his thoughts on why the four APRA founding fathers’ names now appear on the prestigious honour roll.

Wild west shows in Australia and America were instrumental in the formation of modern day rodeo, says Happy.

“And these four men played a key role, back in the days of those wild west shows, in forming the type of rodeo we see today.”

Reg “RM” Williams is a household name in Australia, but many would not know of the pivotal role the legendary bushman played in the founding of rodeo as we know it in this country.

But Happy, who was just knee-high to a grasshopper when he first met the man, knows exactly the contribution made by the celebrated RM to the sport.

“He loved tough rodeo men,” says Happy. “And the Gills and the Skuthorpes were as tough as you’d find anywhere on the circuit – real cowboys, or buckjump riders, as they were called in those days.

“They were the first to wear chaps when everyone else in Australia was still wearing moleskins and concertina leggings in the early 1930s. RM knocked about with these blokes.”

It was RM’s legendary business brain that helped lay the foundations for what would become Australia’s foremost rodeo association, says Happy.

“His now-famous address – 5 Percy Street, Prospect, South Australia – was where the ARRA first operated from. He also played a major role in forming the association’s first board of directors in 1959 in the dance hall at Brewarrina.

“RM’s guidance and business sense led to the setting up of what is now the board of directors.

“He gave the association guidance and was the first treasurer of the ARRA, which is now the APRA. He also, out of his own pocket, gave financial assistance,” says Happy, adding that the well-known craftsman’s practical skills also played an important role in the early days of rodeo.

When Stan Gill, Happy’s uncle, designed the quick release flank, it was the handiwork of RM Williams that brought the design to fruition.

“He knew how to style it. That quick release flank is now used widely around the world – an Australian invention from an Australian legend of the sport, Stan Gill.”

The sport of rodeo is also intimately entwined with the legend that is RM Williams, according to Happy, who recounts the tale of how millions of people across Australia and around the world came to be wearing the legendary brand of clothing.

“In the mid-1930s, Johnny Schneider – a visiting world champion from America – gave my father, Jack Gill, a pair of Levi’s,” Happy says.

Those were the pants from which RM Williams styled the first pair of what would become the most well-known and loved jeans in Australia’s history.

“RM Williams’ guidance wasn’t just a passing, flash-in-the-pan thing,” says Happy. “He stuck with the association right the way through.”

For all these reasons, the selection panel felt it appropriate to honour RM Williams as having played an instrumental part in the formation of the modern-day APRA.

Alongside the legendary bushman’s name in the Hall of Fame will now sit those of two other well-known stalwarts of the sport – Jack and Stan Gill.

Equally pivotal in the foundation of the association, the Gill brothers’ vision for the sport was also deemed worthy of acknowledgement by the selection panel.

“They were the first blokes to start wearing chaps in this country, which came about through contact with visiting American riders,” says Happy, who grew up in rodeo alongside his father and uncle.

“Dad (Jack) was the first to introduce Brahman cattle into rodeos in Australia, in 1948.  When we were running these “paddock shows”, before modern stock-contractors were even thought of, Dad was the first one to have portable chutes, and the Gills were the first stock contractors ever listed.”

The Gills were also instrumental in “breeding” the future champions of the sport.  

“In those early years, when there were no rodeo schools, the only way you could get a start as a buck-jump rider was to go with a wild west show and learn as you went,” says Happy, citing a list of well-known names from an era when rodeo first began to take its modern shape in Australia.

“That’s how these blokes learned – with the Gill brothers’ Wild West Show.”

Those wild west shows, says Happy, also gave rise to some of the best known and loved names in country music – artists like Smoky Dawson, Smilin’ Billy Blinkhorn, Buddy Williams, Tex Morton… In those days, there was hardly any media, no television.  The only way these blokes could get their music out there was through these shows, and all these artists started by singing with Gill’s Wild West Shows.”

Happy recounts that his father, Jack Gill, was also the first to introduce the playing of the national anthem at rodeos and have a grand entry at the start of a rodeo.

“That was at Warrnambool in 1964,” he says.

But wait, there’s more.

“Dad’s rodeo at Croydon in Victoria was the first to use a barrier,” Happy adds.

And then there’s Stan Gill, whose contribution to the sport was equally profound, particularly his design of the aforementioned quick release flank that RM Williams then styled.

“Before that, they’d tie a rope around and you’d have to catch the horse, tie him up and undo the rope.”

So even back then, says Happy, these blokes were working for the safety of cowboys.

A lot of firsts in rodeo in Australia have the name Gill attached to them.

But another name – Skuthorpe – has also become synonymous with the sport alongside Gill, and will now also be immortalised by inclusion as one of the first inductees for the APRA Hall of Fame.

“The Skuthorpes also ran a wild west show,” says Happy. 

“There was fierce competition between the Gills and Skuthorpes, but only in a professional way. In those days you’d have to work hard to win the people to go inside your tent – you’d have to get out the front and spruik.

“All the riders would get up on the board outside, and you’d challenge the local riders to have a go. Skuthorpes did that type of thing also.”

Lance Skuthorpe was the first in Australia to mention a cowboys’ “union”, or a uniform set of rules.

“That was in the 1930s,” says Happy. “Long before any of the modern incarnations of rodeo associations were even thought of.”

But it was Lance’s ability as a rider himself that helped cement the family name in the rodeo history books.

“When he went to America in 1938, he was the most successful, big news overseas rider from Australia. He rode at Madison Square Garden and he rode the feature horse, Thunderbolt, at the Calgary Stampede in the Australian saddle.

“While he and his sister were in America, they toured with the Tim McCoy Wild West Show and then when Lance came back to Australia, he was the instigator of having the one standard saddle for international competition.

“That came about during the war years with the Americans when they were in the service, and they’d run teams against Australia – they had to compete in the Australian saddle.”

And so it is that Lance Skuthorpe takes his place alongside RM Williams and the Gill brothers, Jack and Stan, in the APRA’s Hall of Fame.

As one of the descendants of these first four legendary rodeo identities, Happy Gill no doubt speaks for others from the Williams, Gill and Skuthorpe families in saying it’s an honour to see those names immortalised through inclusion in the APRA Hall of Fame.

“Rodeo has been my life,” says Happy. “I’m 78 now, and I’ve had lots of good times but I don’t think I’ve enjoy a night any more in my life than to be there for the induction of those four people.

“It was a moving experience, and it still moves me,” he says. “It was a long time coming and I’m so pleased to see these four names as the first inductees.

“I thought the first inductees might be some of today’s champions, but it’s appropriate that those four names are at the top of that list.”

Happy agrees that, as the Hall of Fame honour roll grows in coming years,  it’s important to pay homage to those who made the sport what it is today – who laid the groundwork that made rodeo popular and safe for generations of kids to come who have grown up in and around the sport.

“These blokes faced a lot of criticism in the early days. They had to fight for change.”

Now himself a veteran of the sport of rodeo, Happy says one thing he’s hoping for from the Hall of Fame is an acknowledgement of history from the young people who are involved in the sport today largely because of those who have gone before. 

“I’d like to see some of these young blokes of today understand that rodeo didn’t start the first time they entered a bull ride.”

APRA chairman, Steve Bradshaw, echoes Happy’s sentiments.

“I’m very proud to be the chairman at the time of the first Hall of Fame inductees being selected and announced at October’s special event. “There was a great mix of current, past and future champions at the heritage centre function at Warwick, and it was a great way to start our national finals,” Steve says.

Both Steve and Happy say the sport is great today because of the work and dedication of blokes like RM Williams, Jack and Stan Gill and Lance Skuthorpe.

“We’re so far behind America and Canada in acknowledging our past, it’s not funny,” says Happy.  “But we’ve turned the corner and long may it last.”

 

 

 

 

 

 



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