James “Russ” Madison Jr.
You have to be tough to trail three horses over 400 miles from Rapid City, South Dakota to Sioux City, Iowa to compete in a world championship relay race and a chance to win two thousand dollars. James “Russ” Madison Jr. thought the prize money was worth the long ride, so he saddled up, and leading two horses, headed to Iowa to compete in the race and try for the grand prize.
It was a few years after he was married, in December of 1900 that Madison left for Iowa. The tough cowboy already had a reputation as a top hand on the Circle Bar Ranch outside of Rapid City riding the rough stock and the prize money would help his growing family. It was a thirty-five mile race and each rider could use three horses to cover the distance. Madison won the race and made the long ride home with his pockets jingling with prize money.
Russ Madison was born in Iowa in 1879. His father, “Pap” Madison, had come to South Dakota in 1876 searching for gold and settled in the Black Hills. He moved his family from Iowa in 1886. They came by train to Buffalo Gap and then boarded a stage coach to Rapid City. Russ was 7 when he arrived in South Dakota.
He went to work when he was 12 years old for Peter Lemley, owner of the Circle Bar Ranch, near the Madison’s home. Th e Circle Bar ran 3,000 head of horses that ranged from Custer to Fort Pierre, South Dakota, encompassing a 200 mile area. Young Madison worked with the horses and was soon breaking and training them. He had a lot of horses to work and was becoming a competent bronc buster. He learned his trade well and after 3 years, he was breaking horses for the U. S. Army. By the time he was 15, he was known as a “Top Hand.” His reputation as a bronc buster grew and at 17, he was entrusted to break 100 head of horses for the UBI Ranch near Rapid City.
James “Russ” Madison Jr.
Photo courtesy the Madison family
It appears Madison worked for Peter Lemley for 8 years. In December of 1890 the Wounded Knee Massacre took place on the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation. Lemley was a member of the Civilian Militia and made a trip to the massacre site in January soon after the massacre. While there he met the Army scout, William F. Cody, (“Buffalo Bill”), who was putting on Wild West shows. They became friends and Lemly eventually secured a contract to supply stock for one of Buffalo Bill’s Wild West shows in Watertown, South Dakota in 1899. Russ Madison helped trail the horses across the Badlands and then rode broncs in the show.
Madison managed to ride “Blue Dog” a bronc that had never been ridden before. Buffalo Bill was impressed with the youngster and offered him a job touring with the show. The seed was planted and Madison returned home with money in his pockets and the dream of rodeo performances in the West. That same year, he staged a public saddle bronc exhibition in downtown Rapid City.
His granddaughter, Mavis Madison recalled, “A man who was there bet him that he couldn't hold a silver dollar between his boot and the stirrup without losing it before the end of the ride,” Mavis said. “He took the bet and the horse bucked so hard and wild that it went right through the front window of Haynes Clothing store, and right back out. And, believe it or not, through the whole ride, he never lost that silver dollar.”
In the early 1900’s he went on tour with Buffalo Bill’s Wild West shows. He also began gathering bucking stock for rodeos. Many of the horses were gathered from the wild horse herd in the South Dakota Badlands. They were said to be the toughest bucking horses in the country. In 1917, he began a 30-year career as a rodeo stock contractor and promoter. He trailed his stock, including broncs, bulls and steers, to rodeos in South Dakota and neighboring states.
Photo courtesy Mavis Madison
Madison produced the first professional rodeos in South Dakota including Deadwood’s “Days of 76” which was voted “Best Mid-Size Outdoor Rodeo in the US” by the PRCA, the Tri-State Round-Up which later became the Black Hills Round-Up in Belle Fourche and the Range Days Rodeo in Rapid City. He also produced rodeos in Wyoming, Montana, North Dakota and Nebraska.
Madison produced rodeos from the late teens into the 1940’s. He supplied the livestock and in many instances, he put on the entire show. The Madison name is synonymous with rodeo in South Dakota and he became known as “Mr. Rodeo.”
Russ Madison had purchased a homestead in 1907 and grazed his stock there until acquiring another ranch 5 miles south along Box Elder Creek. He named it the Diamond S and hosted the first rodeos in South Dakota. The Diamond S is still home to Madison family members today. It is listed in the National Historic Registry and in 2003 was listed in the South Dakota Historic Registry. Today it welcomes visitors and provides western hospitality steeped with South Dakota rodeo history.
Russ Madison’s Diamond S is still a working ranch. The main ranch house was once a rodeo cowboy guest lodge and was home to rodeo greats of a bygone era. Such greats as Casey Tibbs, Jack Buschbom and Jim Shoulders have called it home. Madison Ranch visitors enjoy the unique experience of being part of rodeo history knowing the ranch was once home to rodeo legends.
Russ Madison’s granddaughter, Mavis Madison, recounted an early memory of her grandfather. She was a toddler when he brought the first Brahma bull to South Dakota for his rodeo stock. He took her out to look at the bull. “I remember he got down on one knee and asked me what I thought of the new Brahma bull. I thought it was bizarre looking but didn’t want to tell him that. He was sure proud of that strange looking animal.”
Russ Madison’s rodeo broncs were the best many cowboys and fans had ever seen and they lent extra excitement to a Madison rodeo. They were rank and reliable buckers like “Angel Sing”, “Battlefield”, “Boomerang”, “Headlight”, “Maybe” and “Stormy Weather”.
Bob Rayburn on Comanche circa 1936
Photo Courtesy High Plains Western Heritage Center
There was also “Comanche”. He was the best of all and he was unridable. In 1936, Russ offered a beautiful two-foot tall silver trophy to any cowboy who could ride him to the whistle. After five years with no winners, Madison figured the horse had earned the trophy and retired him. The silver trophy honors “Comanche” yet today. It is displayed with rodeo memorabilia at the High Plains Western Heritage Center near Spearfish, South Dakota. “Comanche” lived a long life, dying in 1959 at the age of 33.
James “Russ” Madison was inducted into the South Dakota Cowboy and Western Heritage Hall of Fame in 1986 and the Rodeo Historical Society’s Hall of Fame in Oklahoma City in 2012 and was further honored as the Director’s Choice inductee.
Russ Madison died in 1956 in Rapid City at the age of 77. He was a rodeo legend and every inch a cowboy.
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