Old West Cowboy Ropers Receive Rodeo Hall of Fame Induction
Inducted into the 2020 Rodeo Hall of Fame are Arizona’s John and Thomas Rhodes—father and son ropers who laid the groundwork for what team roping would one day become.

Like most 2020 events, November’s Rodeo Hall of Fame Weekend at the National Cowboy and Western Heritage Museum in Oklahoma City is postponed, but recognition of this year’s inductees remains deserved, including for father-and-son Arizona ropers, John and Thomas Rhodes.

John Rhodes, 1956. Devere Helfrich, 1956, safety film negative. Devere Helfrich Rodeo Photographic Collection, Dickinson Research Center, National Cowboy & Western Heritage Museum.

John Rhodes was born in 1887 in the literal midst of the Pleasant Valley Range Wars, 25 years before Arizona earned its statehood, 38 years before the first Tucson Rodeo, and 49 years before the creation of the Cowboy’s Turtle Association—of which he and his son, Thomas, were charter members. He was a lifelong rancher, but his heeling skills were often unrivaled, and markedly revolutionary.

His grandson, 84-year-old retired Marine Maj. John “Butch” Rhodes, recalls what roping was like for his grandfather.

“When you go through and look at all the big names in roping in those years, an awful lot of them were from southern Arizona, where they grew up on ranches. Roping was a necessity in those days. In the desert, if they had to rope something, they were running through mesquite thickets or cactus patches and they roped any way they can catch them.”

It’s hard to say for sure, some 100 years later, but it’s reason to hypothesize that this hard-scrabble heeling gave John and his cohorts the idea to throw their loops from the right of the steer instead of the left, as had been the custom.

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“I don’t remember, obviously, how the heelers originally started, but apparently, they started from the left-hand side,” Butch said. “Later on, [Hall of Famer] Asbury Schell, my grandfather, and there was a third person—I think it was Buckshot Sorrels, but I’m not sure—started heeling from the right side and that became the accepted method. They were given credit for doing it.

“Asbury and my grandfather roped together many years. There was a period of four years in the ’30s, one of them was champion and the other was in second place. Each one had two championships.”

Tom Rhodes—son of John and father to Butch—was born in 1915 and also raised to ranch and rope. Father and son each won a great many titles from the West’s most prestigious rodeos, but they rarely partnered up, Butch explains.

“They roped together periodically. But they were both such competitors that, if they roped together and one of them missed or did something to cause them to lose time, they might not speak to each other for a week or two. But after they’d get over being mad, two or three rodeos later, they’d be roping together again.”

Astonishingly, though Butch grew up knowing his dad and grandad were good ropers—“From the time I was 2 years old they were taking me to rodeos with them.”—but it wasn’t until sometime after each of the men’s deaths (John in ‘73 and Tom in ‘81), that Butch discovered just how good they were.

“As a kid growing up, I never even heard that they were World Champions. I didn’t know that until I found an old scrapbook. They never did talk about it. I went into the Marine Corps right after high school and ‘World Champion’ wouldn’t have meant anything to me anyway, but I never had heard that.”

John Rhodes–John Clem Team Roping, 1955. Safety film negative. Devere HelfrichRodeo Photographic Collection, Dickinson Research Center, National Cowboy & Western HeritageMuseum.

In fact, John was a World Champion Team Roper in 1936 and 1938, the 1944 Champion Steer Roper, and the Champion Team Tyer in 1947. Tom was 1943’s World Champion Steer Roper, 1944’s Champion Team Roper, and the World Champion Team Tyer in 1945 and 1946.

Butch’s discoveries inspired him to conduct an extensive research project into his roping lineage. His findings—including that his dad and grandad won money 28 out of the first 31 years of the Tucson Rodeo, which John helped develop—are the reason that each man, John and Thomas Rhodes, are now members of the Rodeo Hall of Fame.

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