During a recent visit to Mount Olivet Cemetery in Hugo, Oklahoma, a monument caught my eye.
It was the grave marker of Warren “Freckles” Brown, a famous bull rider, who died on March 20, 1987. Bull Rider Lane Frost, who died in the arena in 1989 at the Cheyenne Frontier Days Rodeo, is buried nearby. I later learned through my research that Lane considered Freckles a mentor.
Later that evening, I posted a photo of the grave markers on Facebook. My brother Mark commented that he was with our dad, Bob Swearengin, when he interviewed Freckles for a feature story to be published in the Bryan County Star, a weekly newspaper at Caddo that was owned and operated in the 1970s by my father, and mother Betty Lane (Batchelor) Swearengin.
Mark said, “Here’s the funny part. Dad wanted to do an article about a rodeo clown, and some of the bull riders told him Freckles was a clown! When we were going to see him, we assumed he was, and I was super excited! Dad figured it out early during the interview and shifted into bull riding questions without Freckles ever catching on. As for me as an 11 year old, I was disappointed he was ‘only’ a bull rider.”
Looking through a box of newspapers whose pages have become brown with age, I found the Sept. 28, 1972, edition with the Freckles article, in the bottom of the box!
It was quite a surprise to see this, considering I had just visited Freckles’ grave during one of my rural explorations, so I decided to reprint the article along with photos I took. Dad passed away in 1999 from cancer, just as Freckles did in 1987. I wish I could show these photos to dad and ask him about the interview. I remember him taking me to a rodeo when I was a small child. Dad took pictures and I watched. It was a fascinating event.
Freckles Shows The Youngsters How to Hang in There
By Bob Swearengin
Sept. 28, 1972
Rodeo? You bet. All the way from China in ‘45 to Italy, Switzerland and France in ‘70 with a world championship and a broken neck along the way.
And at age 51, he still drops his lean 150 pounds atop the big, mean ones and shows the youngsters how to hang in there with style. In fact, you might’ve noticed his name in the big city paper last week for the top bull ride at Albuquerque. It’s Freckles — Freckles Brown.
Chances are Freckles got a good draw at that New Mexico Rodeo.
“You’ve got to have the ability, he said, on a recent Durant visit, but you’ve got to draw first. You want one that’s rank because you can’t win on a mediocre bull. If you draw a good buckin’ bull, you’ve got a chance. Otherwise you don’t, unless everybody falls off — and that doesn’t happen very often. That draw is fair for everybody, but it’s like shaking dice — you can draw bad for a month at a time.”
What about China? Well … that was back during the last six months of World War II when Freckles was with the Army’s Strategic Services, working with the Chinese behind the lines. The Army used pack mules to bring artillery pieces from India through Burma into China.
Some of these mules had a lot of buck in ‘em, so the GIs had a rodeo. Freckles took first in bareback mule riding and second in the saddle mule ride.
The Europe experience was in the spring of 1970, when an American promoter launched a tour with trucks, chutes, top American cowboys, and a “sure ‘nuff good string of buckers.”
Although the rodeo was well-received, it finally folded in France due to high expenses and rainy weather. However, the cowboys all received their pay and transportation home, Freckles said.
Freckles rode steers and calves when he was a kid, then worked on ranches riding broncs as he got older. Rodeoing was a natural. “I just got into it and started riding,” he said.
For years, he entered several events, including bareback and saddle broncs and bulldogging.
“In 1962, I saw I had a shot to win the bull riding title,” he explained, “so I quit the others and started working on the bulls. I broke my neck in late October, but I was about $6,000 ahead and it held up.
“I got on my next bull at Coleman, Texas, about nine months later. I went ahead and rode the rest of the year, but wasn’t as stout as I should’ve been.”
It’s a rough sport and Freckles was plagued with injuries for the next few seasons. He broke a leg in 1964. And in 1965, he pulled the muscles loose from the bone in the arm he hangs on with. The doctor had to groove the bone and wire the muscles back.
“In 1966, I entered the finals barely in the lead. But I drew bad and road bad and took third that year,” Freckles said.
But he had a good final in 1967, the year he placed seventh. He was the first rider on Tornado, a big Brahman-Hereford cross which threw more than 300 cowboys during his career and is now buried in the Cowboy Hall of Fame.
Freckles is still a top hand, but doesn’t make enough rodeos to go for the championship, which is based on total winnings during the year. He likes to spend some time at his ranch south of Soper at a bend on the Boggy River.
The full-time riders will hit 80 or more rodeos each year and can ear 25 or 30 thousand dollars. “It’s a mighty tough grind making all those rodeos,” Freckles said. “It ain’t the ridin’. It’s the traveling, losing sleep, and figuring where to go next. The riding doesn’t bother me a bit. But losing sleep for two or three nights in a row does, and I hate to travel night and day.
Rodeoing has changed considerably since Freckles busted his first bronc. Like Freckles, most of the serious entrants now specialize in one event. “If you enter one event, you can make four rodeos in one week,” he said. “But if you’re in two or three, you just make one. If you’re really strong in one event, you can earn more by making more rodeos.
“When I started, a lot of the entrants were cowboys off ranches. Not many made a living off rodeos and very few did it year ‘round. They’d rodeo during the summer and go back and work.
“But now it’s a business and a many of the boys are right out of college. I even know several veterinarians who are rodeoing.
“The boys now are a real clean bunch and there’s not near as much partying. You just don’t have the time. We used to stay one place for three or four days. But now it’s here one night and there the next, and you dang sure need all the sleep you can get.”
At 51, Freckles is the oldest bull rider in the business by a wide margin. “It’s about like football,” he said, and I’ve known some real good hands that went downhill bad at 35. I don’t know why — I think a lot of it is mental attitude.
“I do work to keep my weight right there at 150 pounds. If you’re three pounds over, you can tell it right quick when you ride. You’ve gotta move with those bulls and feel ‘em.
“If I’d listened to other people, I would’ve quit 10 or 15 years ago. But I think a guy knows himself when to stop. If I dreaded it and hated to get bucked off, I’d quit. But I like to ride.
“I know I’ll have to quit one of these days, but I’m not looking forward to it.”
Contact Matt Swearengin at 634-2160 or email@example.com.