If you knew Buck Bradford, friends and family say, you’d never forget him. But if you didn’t know him and you team rope, you’ve undoubtedly fallen under his sphere of influence.
Buck was the kind of guy who couldrebuild an engine in the morning and put a soft feel on a green horse in the afternoon. He loved everything about team roping and was one of the foremost students of the sport, teachers of the sport and probably the sport’s most influential inventor.
He roped at the National Finals Rodeo as an invited heeler for his son Bucky in 1969 and 1973. He was a saddlemaker extraordinaire whose ideas and carving patterns are copied to this day. He was a jack-of-all-trades, and unlike most people who are so inclined, he was a master of them all.
Last March, he died at the age of 86 in Butte, Mont. The final four years of his life were difficult for he and his family. He was on dialysis and his only wish was to run one more steer-it went unfulfilled.
Buck had two sons, Bucky and Tiny. His son Bucky, the 1976 world champion team roper and 11-time NFR qualifer, passed away in 2001 at the age of 56 after a long battle with cancer.
Tiny, who qualified to the Finals two times, survives him and today follows in his saddlemaking footsteps.
“I look back and think of all the things he’s done and all the hearts he’s touched and lives he’s changed,” said Tiny. “And I think, When they made Buck Bradford, they broke the mold.”
“He was one of the earlier roping school people I know of,” said lifelong friend John Keller. “He did it for six days. Some of the ropers would be a little disenchanted because he wouldn’t let them get horseback right off the bat. He’d say, ‘I want to see you rope this bale of hay with the steer horns.’ Then he’d say, ‘You’re doing this wrong,’ or ‘Your delivery was wrong’ or whatever. Then he’d get the heelers roping the dummy real good. He’d get them all lined out, that’d take two or three days, and then he’d go to the pens and start roping horseback. He got all their basics down first-where they didn’t have to break any bad habits. He was a real student of the game. He was a perfectionist. And he passed it on.”
In his prime, he would get it in his mind to go to a roping or rodeo somewhere that he heard was putting up the big money. He would pack up, load his horse in a trailer he had made himself from old car bodies, announce he’d be gone for a week and hit the road.
“That trailer was pieced together,” Keller said, “But it looked professionally-made, it wasn’t some cobbled-up thing.”
Six weeks later he’d return. His family would ask where he’d been and he’d tell a story about how after the roping, a local would ask him to put on a school. Then, someone 50 miles down the road would make the same request, and before he knew it, he had been gone a month. He might end up in Arkansas as easily as Arizona.
“Dad was the greatest teacher I’ve ever run into,” Tiny said. “He could tell you more about a rope than any man I ever knew. Dad and I put a lot of schools on together, probably more than anybody in the state of Montana. People would say they learned more from Buck Bradford than any other schools.”
In his later years, he would tell Tiny about a man in Iowa who did such-and-such or a person in Wyoming who did this or that, and ask, ‘What was that fella’s name? Don’t you know who I’m talking about?’
Tiny thought his dear old dad was full of it in his older years. Then after he died, Tiny started getting calls from people in Iowa or Wyoming who told the same story Buck did-and more. How he’d influenced their lives so much and how they finally understood how to rope right after the week they spent with Bradford. You could knock Tiny over with a feather.
At one school that Buck and Tiny hosted in Big Timber, Mont., there was a contention of New Yorkers among the students whose parents had ‘ranches’ in the area. One particularly young participant, who was obviously more of an eager student than the others, caught Buck’s eye.
“How much have you ridden, son?” asked Buck.
“I want to be a cowboy and the only time I’ve ever ridden I paid $5 for a 30 minute pony ride in New York,” he replied.
Buck went through his usual routine and taught the student to rope the dummy on the ground first. After three days, Buck put him on his own horse and turned a steer out. He caught that one and the next two he threw his loop at.
The last day of the school, his parents came to pick him up. The young Easterner strode up to his mother and said, “Mom, I’m not going back to New York. I’m going to be a cowboy.”
“I’ll never forget that if I live to be 500 years old,” Tiny laughed.
As a man who lived hand-to-mouth for most of his life, Buck Bradford became not only self-sufficient, but exceptionally creative.
He came up with the first breakaway stirrups, the quick release rope for tie-on ropers and cinches with rollers. His most famous invention, though, was the Super Steer. The Super Steer was the predecessor of today’s Buford roping dummy. It started out as just a push-powered device, and later Bradford added a motor.
“My dad first invented the push dummy,” Tiny said. “Ten or 15 years later he figured out how to put the motor in it. We called it the Super Steer. They just copied off of that and just changed the mold a little bit to where the patent didn’t mean anything. I’ve had the patent for years, which means nothing.”
“It had a belt-driven front wheel, and the legs oscillated and it was self-driven,” remembers Keller. “It had a slip clutch on it and when you roped it and went to your horn, it would stop. Then you’d give it the slack and it would go on.”
David Adams, who owns Rope-O-Matic Systems, the makers of Buford, has heard all about Buck Bradford.
“The way I understand it, the guys who originally made the Buford looked at Buck’s designs to decide what they were going to do,” he said. “The machines are too similar to not have some kind of a link, but the Buford is electric. I hadn’t realized how many of those things were sold, but I hear about them all the time. Everybody that ever had one, when I see them, they tell me all about Buck Bradford. So I’ve heard lots of stories and they’re all good ones.”
Adams has even had customers convert their old gasoline-powered Super Steers into the electric Bufords.
“I think the Super Steer added a lot to team roping,” he said. “It got a lot of people able to rope that wouldn’t have been able to rope otherwise.”
Bradford never did profit much from his ingenuity, though, making marketing about the only thing that he wasn’t a top hand at.
“My dad wasn’t a real good businessman,” Tiny said. “If he would have been a good businessman, he’d have been a billionaire. Dad was one of those guys who’d make something just to prove to the rest of the world that he could. He’d go with it for a little bit and then he’d get burned out and he get another idea and make something else.”
Bradford would and could make any saddle his customers ordered. His roping saddles, however, were his specialty.
When team ropers used to tie-on, the saddle horns were small and often jerked out of the tree. About the time many of the Arizonans started dallying, they found Buck. He had created a metal post horn, out of his own machine shop, which proved better suited for the technique.
“I can’t tell you how many of those saddle horns we replaced,” said Tiny.
Bradford’s carving was second-to-none.
“He was a very good carver,” said Keller. “His works of art and patterns are still going. Tiny learned from his dad, and he’s kind of a chip off the old block as far as the saddlemaking goes. In fact, me and all my boys still ride Bradford saddles.”
Buck had a pretty good sense of humor, too. He would draw and carve his own patterns in the saddle shop, where he made most of his living, and then four or five months later he’d see a Circle Y, Tex Tan or Longhorn saddle with a suspiciously similar pattern.
“Dad would just laugh and draw another, more intricate pattern up to see if they could copy it,” Tiny said. “We’d never see that one come out, so Dad would draw up a more simple pattern, then in five or six months, there it would be.”
Buck Bradford could work just about as much magic with an engine as he could with a rope. The Super Steer being the best example of his vast capabilities.
One time, when things were tight, he had an old Farmall tractor in which the block had broken. The wheels in his head started contemplating the gears in that tractor, and he bought an old Plymouth car that had been in an accident.
“He took the motor out of the Plymouth car and put it in that Farmall tractor,” said Keller. “He got everything to jive, which was quite an achievement.”
Tiny remembers on one trip from Arizona back to Montana, the old truck they were driving broke down in the middle of no man’s land Utah. Three hours later, Buck had two saddle blankets laid out on the side of the road and on them sat the engine.
“Bucky and I looked at each other and said, ‘We ain’t ever leaving,'” said Tiny.
After a while, a farmer happened upon them and asked if there was anything he could do to help. Buck replied that if they could get to a machine shop in town, he could get some work done on the block.
“They come back about four hours later, about 11 o’clock that night,” Tiny said. “Bucky and I went to sleep in the back and mom held the flashlight for him and long about 4 o’clock that morning Dad said, ‘Hit the key.’ Away that son-of-buck run and on to Wyoming we went.”
Buck Bradford was 100 percent cowboy, and people adored and admired him. He was from the old school: tough, but fair.
“Yeah, he was a pretty stern guy, but a real fair man,” said Keller. “He always rode a good horse, roped real good in his younger days and was just a good person.”
“He was a workaholic, a perfectionist, is what he was,” said Tiny. “I don’t care what it was, it had to be the best. I’ve got my talents, but his talents had no end. People all over the world, we can do a few things real well, but for him it was anything. He’d perfected so many things. Bless his heart, he taught me a lot of it.”
And in fact, he taught a lot of what he knew to a lot of people in and out of the team roping world during his life. And if there’s one thing he can teach us all in his death, it’s to run that last steer.