The Belgrade Bull 4: Corbett Throws All Challengers — Maybe

Pres Johnston Sketch

After the Johnston brothers “discovered” The Belgrade’s Bull’s bucking prowess, they bought him and launched his rodeo career. At first, Corbett took on challengers on Sunday afternoons in Belgrade giving the town a circus atmosphere. Then he took to the road performing in cities across southwest Montana.

To read the story beginning with Part 1, click here.

The Belgrade Bull, Part 4.


The Johnston brothers named the bull “Corbett” after the world heavy weight boxing champion and began taking bets on him. They took up collections from Belgrade residents to make up the $25 purse they offered and never had trouble raising the money. Of course the residents were making money by betting, selling liquor, and—as a local doctor who was a regular contributor observed—repairing broken bones.

The first man to ride Corbett in Belgrade was Bill Sitton. Sitton rode with a double cinch that kept the bull from arching his back. That meant he couldn’t make his best jumps so the Johnstons barred such equipment.

Next up was John “Kid” Kelly from Fort Ellis. Kelly got the bull saddled and signaled that he was ready to go. The man who was supposed to remove the bull’s blindfold botched the job so the bull couldn’t see. Corbett bucked and then ran into a nearby wagon that spectators were using as a viewing platform. When the bull crashed into the wagon, he stopped and Kelly got off. The Johnston brothers decided Kelly technically had met the rules, which said a man had to ride until the bull stopped. Although nobody considered it a fair ride, the Johnstons gave Kelly the $25 prize. Pres Johnston said it was the only time they paid.

Men began coming from all over a hundred mile radius to ride the bull and prove their prowess, but Corbett bucked all of them off. The Bozeman Courier joked that the Johnston brothers had made so much money betting on their bull that they planned to start a bank or build a railroad

In December 1893, the Bozeman Chronicle reported that a cowboy named “Starchy” had ridden the bull and won the purse. Apparently they were referring to George “Starkey” Teeples, a cowboy who owned a ranch in Carbon County. Pres Johnston makes no mention of Steeples in his letters. Will Everson said that Steeples used hobbled stirrups (stirrups that were tied together under the bull’s belly), an arrangement that wasn’t allowed.

Corbett’s fame spread and by the summer of 1894 he could draw a crowd wherever he went. Perhaps his largest audience was at the July 4 celebration in Bozeman where he had a conspicuous place in the parade where he marched placidly down the crowded street. In the afternoon, 5,000 people came to watch him but it was difficult to find challengers. Finally two men, named Sam Brumfield and John Foster mounted the bull and got themselves thrown.

In August, a union in Anaconda agreed to pay expenses so Corbett could participate in a Labor Day celebration there. The Anaconda Standard reported that when the bull was led onto the baseball ground where several thousand people waited “he appeared so good natured and easy going and wore an expression of contentedness that applications to ride were made by several persons.” The first up was Martin Johnson who the Standard called “the iceman” apparently because he was in the refrigeration business. Corbett baulked at being saddled and wouldn’t let Johnson mount. Finally the iceman decided to drop onto the bull from above. When Johnson hit Corbett’s back, a chute man released him. The bull jumped 12 feet into the air, arched his back and sent Johnson sprawling several yards away. The Standard reported that the audience laughed and yelled itself hoarse. A man named John Brass who worked at the Standard Brick Works tried next. Corbett threw him on the third jump.

Two weeks later Corbett went to a fair in Butte where he sent a man named Jim Radford into a full somersault and threw a man called “Mormon Ben” on the second jump.

Six days later, Corbett was in Helena where Pres Johnston said nobody was willing to give him a try. The Helena newspapers, however, reported that two men tried—and one of them succeeded. The Helena Herald said a cowboy from Fort Benton won a $200 prize for riding the bull, The Helena Independent said that after several men attempted to ride, “a local ranchman” named Joe Kirkwood stepped forward. “When all was ready, the Helena man jumped lightly into saddle and the circus began. The bull arched his back and gave a succession of jumps. He pranced around and bucked in his best style, but when he got through his performance, much to his chagrin, the man, like the stars and stripes, was ‘still there.’”

The newspaper reports can’t be reconciled with Pres Johnson’s statement in that Corbett’s reputation preceded him to Helena and “no man tried to ride him.” Perhaps the most weight should be given to the newspapers contemporaneous reports. After all, Johnston’s denial appeared in a letter published in the Bozeman Courier in 1948—more than 50 years after the events in question. Also, as will be described in the section on the Jake Smith controversy below, the events in Helena are even more complicated.

After the events in Helena, the Johnstons sold Corbett to Charles Beveridge and Donald Davenport, two Helena businessmen who were starting a wild west show. The Johnstons got $300 for the bull and $50 for ‘young Corbett,’ a calf that Corbett had sired and Pres had trained as a bucker.

The show hired John Mardis of Bozeman and his duties included caring for Corbett. When Mardis retuned home he reported what happened to the show, and the bull.

The Beveridge-Davenport show went to Peoria to train, then began a tour of the East and Southeast. The Bull Durham Tobacco Company presented the bull with a blanket.  On the tour, Mardis said, only two men tried to ride the bull. Both were thrown.

The show went broke in Indiana and Corbett was sold there to a farmer who apparently planned to use him as a herd bull.


— To see the next Installment: “The Jake Ross Controversy.” Sixty years after the bucking stopped an old cowboy’s obituary relaunches the legend of Corbett, The Belgrade Bull, click here,

— To see all of the stories about Corbett, The Belgrade Bull, click on “Belgrade Bull” under “Categories” in the column to the right.

— Illustration from the Pioneer Museum of Bozeman.

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