Texas Prison Rodeo Arena Being Torn Down In Huntsville

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A legacy of Texas history is coming down, piece by piece in Huntsville.

The Huntsville prison rodeo arena was once a lively place with inmates competing as cowboys for much of the twentieth century.

It was a rodeo unlike any other.

Convicts became cowboys for 55 years just outside the Walls Unit in Huntsville.

"You know in a way it's kind of sad to see it go," said Jim Willett, Texas Prison Museum Director.

Willett witnessed the rodeo for more than ten years when he worked at Walls during the 70's and early 80's.

"But my personal feeling in all is it's really been ugly out there for a couple decades now and I really don't have a problem with them bringing what's left of it on the ground," he said.

The prison rodeo arena will soon be just a memory as the Texas Department of Criminal Justice tears down the crumbling facility that was built in 1951. The site once played host to big name stars including John Wayne, Dolly Parton, Willie Nelson, and the Judds.

At it's peak upwards of 20,000 people would come see the prison rodeo during weekends in October until the rodeo stopped in 1986.

"I don't know of anything about any prisoner safety being part of it... The prison system said that the old arena stands were unsafe and they didn't have the money to fix them and they also said that they just weren't making the money on the rodeo that they had in the past," said Willett.

TDCJ Public Information Officer Jason Clark tells us there are no plans to bring the rodeo back.

"It started to crumble and we had some issues that we were concerned about with it being adjacent to a road and so it really just made sense to tear it down," said Clark.

Of all the fond memories, Willett tells us the Hard Money event was the wildest thing to see.

"And course the object was for them to get the tobacco pouch off the bull and then carry it to the other end of the arena to the judge," Willett recounted.

"If you had good weather you could pretty much depend on over 100,000 people coming to Huntsville that year for the rodeo so it was good for the economy of this little town," he added.

A time when cowboy courage came in shades of orange.

TDCJ officials tell us they expect the arena demolition to be be complete by early February.

The site will become a parking lot where prisoners will refurbish vehicles.