Cuba Crutchfield 1915 Cuba Crutchfield - Chicago - 1928
THE SILENT STAR
By Guy Clifton
Cuba Crutchfield, one of the early 20th century's biggest cowboy stars, lived a near-anonymous life in Reno, Nevada.
In the summer of 1914, a long and lanky cowboy named Cuba Crutchfield was picking himself up from the dirt of the rodeo arena in Cheyenne, Wyoming, when a stocky man with a bushy mustache and round glasses approached him. Crutchfield had twice been bucked off the notorious mare Yellow Fever, a Cheyenne Frontier Days favorite and a horse known to "spin and spin until she would get you dizzy then buck you off." The stocky man had a broad grin as he shook Crutchfield's hand and said, "Well, son, don't feel bad about it because I don't think I could have ridden her, either." Crutchfield could only smile. If anyone knew about rough riding, after all, it was Theodore Roosevelt.
"What a great fellow Teddy was and how he liked the cowboys and their sports," Crutchfield wrote years later from his stone ranch home in the Sierra foothills just south of Reno. "All the cowboys admired Teddy, that he was a real time American and a go getter and a good leader and fighter."
A meeting with the president is just one of the tales in the amazing life of Cuba Island Crutchfield - a cousin and contemporary of American icon Will Rogers - and one of the great trick ropers of all time.
Like Rogers, the great humorist, Crutchfield was a Vaudeville star in the first quarter of the 1900s, appearing on Broadway, the Ziegfield Theater, the New York Hippodrome Theater, and the Boardwalk in Atlantic City with the likes of Harry Houdini, Enrico Caruso, Eddie Cantor, Mae West, Fred Stone, and Rogers. Shows in which Crutchfield performed often ended with him spinning a 100-foot lasso around the entire cast of performers. He toured Europe, spending eight weeks in England, and dabbled in Hollywood, starring in three silent films and a film commercial for Cadillac. He had an agent and was being promoted along with the likes of Tom Mix, William S. Hart, Hoot Gibson, Rex Bell, and the other cowboy stars of the day.
Then in 1927, Crutchfield and his wife, Travis, moved to Reno and virtually disappeared.
Cuba Island Crutchfield was born to Frank and Ida McDaniel Crutchfield on March 15, 1891, in Claremore, Oklahoma, the same birthplace as Will Rogers. He weighed only 3 pounds and, because there were no incubators in those days, his mother put him in an oven during the first days of his life. (It apparently worked; he grew to 6-feet-1 and weighed 185 pounds as an adult.)
The Will Rogers Museum in Claremore said the family relationship between Crutchfield and Rogers is this: Robert Rogers Jr., Will Rogers' grandfather; was the brother of Catherine Rogers McDaniel, Cuba Crutchfield's great-grandmother, making them third cousins.
Like Rogers, Crutchfield was part Cherokee Indian. And like his cousin, he left Oklahoma at an early age to join a Wild West show. In 1910, Crutchfield was a member of a Western melodrama company playing "The Cowboy, the Indian and the Lady," which passed through northern Nevada just before the July 4th world heavyweight championship boxing match between Jack Johnson and Jim Jeffries.
It was this trip that may lend a clue as to why Crutchfield decided to settle in northern Nevada and call it home for the rest of his life. His wife died of cancer in the mid-1950s, and in 1958, Crutchfield married Ann Pauley. As Crutchfield reached his mid 70s, they sold the ranch near Mount Rose and settled in Washoe Valley, where he died at age 78 in 1969.
"He told me once that he came through here in 1910 and just really liked the area," said Cleo Pulsipher of Washoe Valley, Crutchfield's neighbor in the final years of his life.
In a 1925 front-page article on Crutchfield in the Chicago Herald and Examiner, he praised Nevada's wide-open spaces. "The best combination really, is Colorado, Wyoming and Nevada, the three of them together providing a right smart little breathing space."
In a 1968 story in the Manteno (Illinoise) News, Crutchfield called his adopted home "the most gorgeous place in the West."
By age 12, the self-taught Crutchfield was already spinning ropes with amazing skill and planned to follow Rogers into show business. In 1912, "Buffalo" Bill Cody saw him perform and invited him to join his Wild West show. Crutchfield performed with Annie Oakley, among others, as the troupe toured Philadelphia, New York, and other cities.
By 1915, he was with J.C. Miller's 101 Ranch Wild West Show and was performing acrobatic rope tricks no one else in the world could duplicate. By 1918, he was a regular on Broadway, sometimes using the name Will Crutchfield, and usually performing as a team with his wife. Will Rogers and silent-movie star Fred Stone were among his best friends and they would often spend time at Stone's home in Amityville, New York.
Crutchfield is still mentioned among the old timers in the sport of trick roping. "My dad did talk about Cuba," said Montie Montana Jr., whose father was a famous trick roper in the second half of the 20th century. "He did rope with him at a couple of rodeos. He said he was a good roper, one of the best he'd ever seen."
Sylvester Braun, a trick roper and historian of the sport, agreed: "He was one of the good old-time rope spinners," said Braun, 88, who lives in Mira Loma, Calif. "He did acrobatic tricks, which is what set him apart."
In a 1991 story about Crutchfield in True West magazine, others attested to his skill with a rope. "I do remember my father talking about him," Will Rogers Jr. told the magazine. "When he was going to do an extra hard trick, he'd say, `Now watch this, Bill. I'm going to do a Crutchfield.'"
Like other cowboy stars of the day, Crutchfield worked the stage for much of the year then turned his attention to the more lucrative rodeo circuit in the summers. He performed and competed at most of the big rodeos, including the Pendleton Round-Up in Pendleton, Oregon, the Boise (Idaho) Stampede, the Calgary Stampede, and Cheyenne Frontier Days. He also had a close relationship with promoter Tex Austin and the World's Championship Rodeo in Chicago during the late 1920s.
From at least 1925 through 1928, Crutchfield was commissioned during the weeks ahead of the rodeo to teach roping skills to children in Chicago. He was paid $175 a week. The Chicago Chamber of Commerce so appreciated his efforts, it rewarded him with a 1927 Buick Sport Tour. He registered the car in Reno in December of 1927 for a fee of $12.60, listing his address as 1119 Forest Street.
A few years later, Crutchfield put the car to practical use on the ranch. "He had the chassis made into a hay lift," said Reno's Leo Knuf, 82, who met Crutchfield in the 1960s. "I have a '28 Buick that I restored. I remember his so well because no one wanted those cars in those days."
In 1924, a film company in Los Angeles signed Crutchfield to a long-term contract. Billed as "Cuba Coolidge," he was supposed to star in four western films. He had made three of them when the bottom dropped out of the economy.
In June of 1928, the Crutchfields were living at 30 Caliente Street in Reno, where they received a letter from their friends and fellow performers Jim and Leah Chatham, who were in Buffalo, N.Y. The economic depression was having a huge impact on show business. "Show business is all shot to hell in this country. The salaries in Boston, N.Y. and Philadelphia are just about half what they were five years ago and the booking conditions are awful." Another letter lamented "the only one making money is Al Jolson."
Perhaps it was the economy, or a desire to be off the road, but sometime in the next few months, the Crutchfields decided to retire from show business. They bought their ranch property near Galena Creek, built a two-story stone home and settled into a comfortable life. Cuba rarely talked of his days as a performer, though he did sometimes show off his roping skills.
"He could make that rope do a lot of tricks," said Larry Callahan, a member of Reno's pioneering Callahan family who used to help his father assist Crutchfield at the ranch (Crutchfield had bought the property from Larry Callahan's maternal grandfather, Martin West.) "He was a nice man, always friendly, but he just didn't talk much about his past."
Crutchfield's stepson, Bill Gaston of Salem, Ore., said Cuba didn't want to come off as a braggart. "He was bashful about it," Gaston said. "My mother used to have to pry the information out of him. He was embarrassed about bragging. He was a big man, but he liked to stay in the background. He didn't puff his chest out and say, `I'm an old-time famous performer.' It just wasn't his way."
Pulsipher, his Washoe Valley neighbor, agreed: "He was pretty close-mouthed about his past," Pulsipher said. "He wasn't ashamed of it and he would talk about it if you asked, but he was just a real modest man. I think he just didn't want to be seen as bragging."
In the mid-1960s, Crutchfield's second wife, Ann, convinced her husband it was OK to share his past. The Reno Evening Gazette ran a story in 1964. It included details of Crutchfield's Vaudeville career and also mentioned how his friend Clark Gable would visit during the filming of "The Misfits" in the Reno area.
Crutchfield might have been describing himself when he told the Gazette, "Gable would come out here for a while when he felt like getting away from the high life in Reno. (He was) a wonderful man, a good friend, and success never went to his head."
In 1966, a large Sierra wildfire destroyed several out-buildings on the Crutchfield ranch - and much of Cuba's memorabilia from his performing days. With Cuba aging and suffering heart problems, he and Ann moved to a home on Lonesome Polecat Lane in Washoe Valley.
Ann Crutchfield started researching her husband's life and began contacting people from his performing days. Most were shocked. They thought he had died years before.
In 1968, just a few months before Cuba's death, the Crutchfields attended Will Rogers Day festivities in Claremore. He rode a white horse in the parade and was the subject of a story in the local newspaper. "In a sense, she brought him back to life," Gaston said.
Cuba Crutchfield died Oct. 14, 1969, at home in Washoe Valley. A man who had entertained thousands in his life was remembered in a small service in Carson City, attended mostly by his Washoe Valley neighbors. Among them were Art Bernard, the longtime warden at Nevada State Prison, rancher Frank List and several members of the Callahan family. Crutchfield rests today in Carson City's Lone Mountain Cemetery beside his wife, Ann, who died in 1997 at age 98.
Information for this story came from several sources, including personal papers of Cuba Crutchfield, newspaper archives, the Will Rogers Museum in Claremore, Okla., and interviews with former relatives, friends, neighbors and acquaintances of Cuba Crutchfield.