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Bronco Buster : At 13, Floyd Stillings ran away from home to ride the redeo. Seventy years later, he still follows the horses : use this version please

February 21, 1988|BERKLEY HUDSON | Times Staff Writer

Floyd Stillings reached into his desk drawer to retrieve a small cloth sack resembling a Bull Durham tobacco pouch.

The old man's hands, as tanned as the leather of a fine saddle, carefully lifted out a medallion. In the morning sunlight that filtered into Stillings' apartment in Arcadia, the medal shone like gold.

On the front, with a cowboy atop a bronco, the lettering said "National Rodeo Hall of Fame." He turned to the back to read this inscription: "Floyd Stillings Honored and Inducted Dec. 19, 1987."

He brought the award home from a banquet in Oklahoma City, home of the National Cowboy Hall of Fame and Western Heritage Center, which since 1965 has honored 112.

"I haven't gotten too hopped up on (the award) yet," Stillings, a champion bronco rider in the 1920s and 1930s, said last week.

"Hell, I should have been in there years ago. Most people who rodeo spend six, maybe 10 years at it. I spent 21 years. That was a long time. I stopped in March of '42. And that was more than a few years ago."

For the last three decades, Stillings has lived in Southern California. Most of that time, he worked as a trainer, breeder and owner of horses at the Santa Anita race track. He still goes there when the horses are running, using the passes he earned as a trainer.

At 83, Stillings lives alone in a tiny apartment on the second floor of his landlord's large home. Sybil, his wife of 35 years, died 13 years ago. He has one main room with bed, desk, couch and lounge chair. In his small kitchen, he uses a hot plate. When he walks up the stairs to his apartment, his aching back forces him to bend over and balance on all fours.

"I'm paying for all those rodeos," he said, in which he broke dozens of his bones.

Stillings is a sturdy man with a healthy head of white hair and a curl that falls onto a forehead lined like cracked sod. His eyes are as blue as the sky over Montana, where he journeyed at age 13 after running away from his family in the horse and grain country of Pullman, Wash.

From a storage closet, he brought out a stack of scrapbooks that tell part of the story of Floyd Stillings, cowboy.

Why did he ride?

"I loved it. I didn't have to prove nothing. I went to school on horseback at 6, 7 and 8 years (old). What else could I do (except rodeo)?

"I led a wildcat's life," he says. "You had to be 'bout half bronco to do it."

He opened a scrapbook. Yellowed clippings and faded black-and-white photographs fell from it.

Stillings left home because he and one of his two brothers "fought like stray dogs."

In Montana he helped break cavalry horses for the U. S. Army during World War I. "When I left home, I left. I didn't tell nobody where I was going. I thought I was a man. That's when hell started." He had to learn fast because he had to eat.

He turned to a page in the scrapbook with a picture of a crowd gathered under circus-like banners proclaiming: "T. O. Burroughs Wild West. Real Bucking Horses and Long Horned Steers." At the time, in the early 1920s, he was a teen-age rider in the Burroughs show. In a round-topped cowboy hat that would have done Tom Mix proud, he romped across the dirt arenas of the West, once even traveling to Hawaii.

Stillings found another picture. Astride a bronco named Hell To Set, he was wearing chaps inscribed with leather letters that spelled his first name.

In another 1920s photograph, staring out from under a huge hat and with a scarf swept around her neck, was Louise Hartwig, then Stillings' girlfriend. At one rodeo, he saddled her bronco, left the chute without watching her ride and came back later to find that the horse had bucked her and trampled her.

On two other occasions, he saddled broncos for women who were killed by them. He said his saddling had nothing to do with the deaths, which he blamed simply on bad luck and tough horses.

Even his girlfriend's death, Stillings said, didn't slow his desire to ride. "That just puts a match to the kerosene . . . just makes you that much more determined to ride."

Wedged into the scrapbook was a series of letters written through the years by friends who felt that he should be included in the Rodeo Hall of Fame. One was from Gene Autry, who cited Stillings' work in rodeos Autry ran in the 1930s and early 1940s. The Autry letter, dated 10 years ago, said: "He was always a top cowboy and I respected him very much."

Another letter, from Lloyd W. Taggart, a former employer of Stillings' who was in the construction business in Wyoming, listed Stillings' major achievements.

In 1926, he was bull riding champion in New York's Madison Square Garden. The next year, he won the saddle bronco championship in Chicago. Two years later, he won the bronco championship at the celebrated Cheyenne Frontier Days. In 1932 and 1933, he won the bronco riding at Madison Square Garden; he made the finals in that event in eight other years. In 1933, he was bronco winner at the Pendleton Roundup in Oregon.

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