Back When They Bucked with Charley Lyons

by Ruth Nicolaus

Charley Lyons had one of the most unique acts in rodeo, one that has rarely been duplicated.
The Montana man built his reputation as a rodeo clown with his washtub saddle bronc act. With a #3 washtub bolted to a saddle tree and filled with flour, Charley would put it on a bucking horse. He’d sit in it, with legs over the bronc’s neck, and explode from the chute. Crowds loved it and it catapulted Charley onto the nation-wide rodeo scene.
He was born in 1938, the son of Ed and Vera Lyons, in Milliken, Colorado, just outside of Arvada. The city kid grew up with 4-H livestock: pigs, cattle, and horses, and somewhere in his youth, he decided he wanted to be a clown. His first rodeo was an FFA rodeo in Greeley, when he was a senior in high school.
After high school graduation in 1957, he went straight to the rodeo industry. The first few years were slim, but as committee members and stock contractors heard about his acts, he was hired for more and more rodeos.
In addition to riding a saddle bronc in a washtub, Charley had other acts. He had a pure white trick horse named Soapy who would crawl on his knees like an Indian scout, play dead, and sit like a dog. He had a half-Brahma steer named Roberto, who had foot-long horns. Roberto was broke to ride, and Charley rode him in parades and grand entries. He’d also ride Roberto in the barrel racing, dressed in a dress and wig and calling himself Charlotte. He also had a palomino Shetland pony named Dandy, and during the steer wrestling, dressed as Batman, he would bulldog a mini steer named Pistol.
Charley had a variety of solo acts, and he  rounded out his repertoire with other acts, involving kids from the crowd (and later, his own kids). They milked his donkey named Ruba or were part of his very large family stuffed into a hollowed-out car.
Charley did more than clown. In those days, rodeo clowns often worked as bullfighter as well, and he was also a contestant in three events: bareback riding, steer wrestling and bull riding. He worked acts between contesting his events, and during the bull riding, the producer saved his bull for the last one. One time, at a small rodeo, they were short of contestants, so he had to work all five events, “and he couldn’t rope worth a darn,” his wife, Carol, laughed. There was no time to spare, he said. “I did all three events and worked two or three acts in between times. In my day, if you didn’t have a few acts, you didn’t get any jobs. Them bullfighters were a dime a dozen, but a clown could stay busy.”
He started out with stock contractor Hoss Inman, from Colorado, and worked many of his rodeos, before fanning out across the country. He worked rodeos in the Dakotas for Korkow and Sutton, in Iowa and Minnesota for Bob Barnes, in Canada for Harry Vold, and for the Christensen Brothers in the Northwest. He worked Pendleton, Ore.; Burwell, Neb.; Deadwood, S.D.; Fort Worth, Texas, and a whole bunch of other rodeos in between.
It was in the early 1970s that Charley and his wife Carol Lehl, who had married in 1961, decided where they wanted to settle. They had traveled across the country and found a beautiful place in Montana, just outside St. Ignatius, and decided to buy a place there. They made an offer on a ranch, it was accepted, and they moved there in 1972, calling the ranch the TUB and incorporating the TUB brand onto their Simmental-cross cattle.
As is typical among bullfighters, Charley had his share of injuries, just “broke a few bones, nothing serious,” he said. He broke his back twice, two legs, both arms, and at a rodeo in South Dakota, was unconscious when his head was knocked off the spinal cord. There was a doctor in the crowd who knew how to adjust it back on.
Some of the nastier bulls he recalls include one of Hoss Inman’s, named the Devil’s Partner, a fighting Mexican bull who would “darn sure come and eat your lunch.” Hoss also had another bull named Shorty who was fun to fight. “If he ever hit you, he’d back up and apologize. They’d have to rope him and drag him out of the arena, every performance.” And it was one of Erv Korkow’s bulls, Sonny Liston, who got ahold of him and knocked his head off his spinal column.
With the washtub, Charley rode whatever horse the stock contractor ran into the chute for him. Stock contractors liked the tub, he said. “They’d take a good solid horse that was slowing down, and he’d be good for another four or five trips” after he’d had Charley and the washtub on him.
And there was no getting off on the pickup man. “There was no way a pickup horse would run into that fog,” he said. “I’d catch my timing, bail out after a while, and try to land on my feet.”
Charley and Carol had three children: C.J., Anna and Katie, and before the kids were in school, they all traveled together. “We had a trailer house, a twenty-footer, and lived on the road,” Carol said. Charley had a two-ton truck with a big box he built on it for the animals, and the house trailer was pulled behind it. The family left in May and returned in October. The truck was full of animals: Charlie’s bulldogging horse, Carol’s barrel horse (she barrel raced for a short time), and the clown act animals: the trick horse, trained steer, donkey, and Shetland pony. When they pulled into a rodeo, it was like “the circus was in town,” Carol laughed.
Charley’s rodeoing slowed down after he bought the ranch. With three kids, 200 mother cows, hay to put up and irrigating to do, he stayed closer to home, and in 1972 he quit rodeo. He worked at a paper mill for a while, retiring in 2006, and the couple sold their cow herd in 2008. They rent out the pasture and continue to put up hay.
In 2014, he was inducted into the Montana Pro Rodeo Hall of Fame. He and Carol attend the rodeo clown reunions and they have never missed a year of the Wrangler National Finals Rodeo for the past three decades. In 2001, his washtub act was recognized and honored in one of the opening ceremonies of the Wrangler NFR.
He loved fighting bulls as much as he did clowning. “It would give me a big thrill to stand out in front of that chute and nod for the producer to turn out his fighting bull.” He fought the first Mexican fighting bulls that were brought into the U.S. at a rodeo Buddy Heaton promoted.
And his rodeo days were good ones. “I met a lot of good people rodeoing, and still have a lot of friends I stay in contact with.”
The couple’s children are married: C.J. to Miae, Anna to Jim and Katie to Ray. They have three grandchildren: Clay, Amanda and Mian.

Charley throws an inner tube around Sammy, a Big Sky Company bull, at the Lewiston, Montana rodeo. - Rathbuy
One of Charley’s acts was to steer wrestle while wearing a Batman suit. The steer was one of his, named Pistol, and his steer wrestling horse was Dandy. - Rathbuy
Charley Lyons, dressed as a woman, barrel races with Roberto the steer. - Allen Photo
Carol and Charley Lyons celebrate his induction into the Montana Pro Rodeo Hall of Fame in 2014 - courtesy of the family

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