Not far from Ballentine’s Horse Heaven, housed in a small building along a back road, stands a tack and saddle repair shop. The shop is run by a kind, elderly gentleman who knows the past and can make it come alive with local stories of horses, cowboys, western singers and rodeos. That is where I first heard of Colonel Jim Eskew and his Wild West Show in Waverly, NY.
Jim Eskew was an accomplished horseman and cowboy. Originally from Tennessee, he worked on ranches, Mulhall’s Wild West Show, Sparks Circus, and eventually, managed small rodeos. By 1933 Jim had formed his own Wild, West Show, which toured New England and Mid-Atlantic states. Several years passed and his rodeo grew prompting him to seek a permanent winter home for the traveling show.
In Waverly NY, two brothers, restaurateur and inn owners Ed and Bill O’Brian, felt Eskew’s Wild West Show would be good for local business. They brought their idea to the Waverly Board of Trade and Jim Eskew. After a year of negotiations, in July of 1939, Eskew accepted the boards offer; a 300 acre farm four miles outside of Waverly. In exchange for the property, Colonel Jim Eskew would remain there for at least 3 years and annually stage a Wild, West Show for the town.
Before long, Colonel Eskew, his troupe of performers and crew took up residency at the old Ralph Shock farm also known as the Loomis farm located between Talmadge Hill road and Lockwood. They renovated and enlarged the existing barn on the property and purchased an additional 300 acres from the adjoining Jenkins farm.
The Colonel brought to the ranch 150 head of livestock including brahma bulls, buffalo, cattle, bucking broncos and riding horses. He had a weekly payroll of $1,200; in today’s dollars that would be approximately $20,264. Colonel Eskew built cabins, bunkhouses, an Indian village, tack shop, livestock barns, areas to train animals, showgrounds and grandstands. During summers the JE Ranch hosted a camp for girls and boys. His Wild, West Show was the biggest performing rodeo East of the Mississippi. Cars clogged the narrow road leading to the showgrounds as hundreds of people flocked to view the show. Waverly became the ‘Rodeo Capital of the East’; business in the small town was booming.
Everyone in the Eskew family performed in the rodeo; the Colonel and his wife Dolly, as well as his sons Jim Jr. and Tom. The stars lined up to perform read like a who’s who in Hollywood. Top cowboy singing star Roy Rogers was a regular; other famous performers included Dale Evans, Sons of the Pioneers, The Cisco Kid and Pancho, Hopalong Cassidy, Lash LaRue, Andy Devine, Gene Autry, Tom Mix and Hoot Gibson.
Colonel Eskew’s son, Jim Jr., was a star roper. He performed rope tricks on horseback including skipping rope while standing on top of his saddled horse. He became the Worlds Champion Trick and Fancy Roper when he competed and won the title at the Madison Square Garden Rodeo in NYC.
The advent of World War II triggered the end of the rodeo; the Colonel’s sons left for war and his wife, Dolly, died. After the war a new type of entertainment took hold; television. The JE Ranch and Rodeo fell on hard times as crowds dwindled. Colonel Jim Eskew sold the ranch in 1957 and retired. He moved to Ardmore Oklahoma and passing away on February 23, 1965.
In Waverly the memory of the JE Ranch faded. There isn’t much to tell that it ever existed. The only remaining buildings are the main house and a single cabin. If you ask Waverly old-timers about the Rodeo chances are you’ll get a smile and a story; otherwise, Colonel Jim Eskew’s Wild West Show is pretty much forgotten.
http://www.astortheater.org/articles16.html; Elmira Star-Gazette, Thursday, July 13, 1939; http://www.ithaca.com/news/local_news/looking-back-on-the-rodeo-capital-of-the-east/article_20623189-3473-5724-ad0e-a9b9c7f6c531.html;
http://www.tiogahistory.org/Site/Waverly.html; http://tioga.nygenweb.net/rodeo.htm; http://freepages.history.rootsweb.ancestry.com/~howardlake/amusement8/fraleysny.html; http://www.valleymorningstar.com/news/article_0030e1b7-d5b1-5714-9222-7cc6a5137b8b.html; http://www.tiogahistory.org/Site/Waverly.html; http://tioga.nygenweb.net/rodeo.htm
Note: Colonel Eskew brought the first quarter horses to the Eastern states; breeding the horses on his ranch. The sales from the horses totaled over $150,000 which would be in today’s dollars approximately $1,354,165.