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Pete Knight: Canada's Cowboy King

He was the most accomplished bronc rider of his century, possibly the greatest in history. He was known to millions of spectators from Fort Worth, U.S.A. to London, England, and from Edmonton, Canada to Melbourne, Australia. His friends – and they numbered in the thousands – simply called him ‘Pete.’ When he died from a fatal injury sustained beneath the hooves of a rank, bucking bronc – at a California rodeo on May 23, 1937 – tens of thousands mourned his passing. His funeral received a floral tribute from every provincial government in Canada, and from more than three quarters of the United States of America. Without a doubt, Pete Knight was, indeed, Canada’s ‘Cowboy King.’

Peter Charles Knight came into the world on May 5, 1903. He was the last of six children born to William and Katherine Knight of Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. By the age of three, little Pete received his first horse – a hardwood rocker. Learning to ride real horses would follow, as the family left Pennsylvania and moved to an Oklahoma homestead, founded fifteen years earlier by Pete’s paternal grandfather during one of the fledgling state’s free-land runs.

While Pete was learning to ride a saddle pony, the family’s relocation was again being planned. Drawn to an Alberta government promotion booth at the Oklahoma State Fair, William’s attention was piqued by brochures advertising affordable land in the Canadian West. It took William three years to convince his family to move north, but by 1914 the family was homesteading east of Crossfield, Alberta, on a rented acreage. At Deep Dale ranch – located a mile from the Knight holdings – Pete began his formal training in the bucking-horse competition, at age twelve. The Deep Dale’s manager, Dave Togstead, was Pete’s mentor, hosting an informal weekly Sunday rodeo that drew small crowds from the surrounding population. In the course of an afternoon, Pete often drew a dozen notorious horses, and rarely bucked off.

By the summer of 1918, Pete entered the Crossfield Stampede, and won second place against older, more experienced riders of renowned ability. During the next four years, Pete’s reputation and winnings were increasing dramatically, and his riding style was becoming a piece of art unto itself – so much so, that upon watching the young man ride in small-town competition, the Calgary Stampede’s founding father, Guy Weadick, invited Pete to enter in the 1923 Calgary Stampede.

It was the same year that Prince Edward, heir to the British throne, donated a solid-silver cup to Canada’s premier bronc riding contest, to be awarded to the winning rider at the Calgary Stampede. The trophy drew hundreds of expert riders from across the west.

Before he had a chance to prove his ability in professional competition, Pete sustained a badly fractured leg after his saddle pony slipped and fell in the stampede parade.

By the following summer, however, Pete was back in the saddle. At the 1924 Calgary Stampede, he won second-place in the Canadian bucking championship, 1/10 of one point behind the national champion, Pete La Grandeur of Pincher Creek, Alberta. It was the same summer that a bucking horse of legendary renown – a tall, black Percheron-Morgan gelding named Midnight – made his presence known. It would be several years, however, before Pete would draw Midnight’s name, in a battle to be fought between champion horse and rider.

In the spring of 1925 a Calgary show-horse entrepreneur, Peter Welsh, formed the Alberta Stampede Company, a modern-day throwback to wild-west shows that had travelled the world a generation earlier. Purchasing the best bucking stock available, Welsh recruited the most noteworthy riders – with Pete Knight at the top of the list – from across the western provinces and northwest United States. The venture carried the company’s riders from Pacific to Atlantic, and featured in major Canadian and American cities across the continent. Welsh acquired notorious bucking horses Gravedigger, Red Devil, Bassano, and Five Minutes to Midnight, paying an additional $500 for ownership of the formidable Midnight. At the company’s featured stampede in Montreal, in the autumn of 1926, Pete finally drew Midnight, and managed to remain in the saddle for just over eight seconds – in what would today be a qualified ride.

In the three years that Pete Knight toured North America with the Alberta Stampede Company, he missed competing at the Calgary Stampede only once. In 1927, Pete was acclaimed ‘double winner’ of the Calgary Stampede’s ‘North American Open’ and ‘Canadian’ bucking championships; the feat allowed the Crossfield cowboy to place his name on the Prince of Wales Cup for the first time. Six years later, the cup became Pete Knight’s personal property, after winning the national championship a third time.

His accrued winnings and fame grew to legendary proportion, across North America and beyond. Pete met and married Babe Avant, of Hot Springs, Arkansas, and after that spring of 1932, took his supportive bride on the rodeo trail. Pete was invited to ride at every major bucking event in the world: the Chicago World’s Fair Rodeo of 1933, the Tex Austin Rodeo held in England in 1934, and the Stewart McCall pageant in Melbourne, Australia, later that year. Midnight died in Denver, Colorado, as the winter of 1935-1936 ended.

At Hayward, California – on Sunday, May 23, 1937 - Pete Knight made his last ride. At 5:30 that afternoon, Pete came out of the chute on a horse named Duster, a reputable bronc that had won him the Hayward championship the previous year. After the eighth second of a well-balanced ride, Duster suddenly snapped his head down and pulled his rider clean out of the saddle. In the ensuing upset, Duster’s hooves landed squarely on Pete’s chest. After being carried to the Hayward hospital, Pete and Babe had five minutes together before he died. Their six-week-old daughter, Dianna, would grow up knowing of her father only as the ‘King of the Cowboys.’

Darrell Knight is a great-nephew of the legendary bronc rider, Pete Knight, and became a founding member of the Canadian Rodeo Hall of Fame and Historical Association in 1982. Mr. Knight is currently engaged at the University of Calgary in an English degree program, and has recently launched his first book entitled Pete Knight: The Cowboy King to an astoundingly receptive audience. Pete Knight: The Cowboy King is available from Temeron Books of Calgary.

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