Let’s Talk Clovis: 1977 Rodeo Grand Marshal J.E “Shorty” Cunningham

Shorty and his brother Tom Cunningham in 1964. (Clovis Museum)

John Estes “Shorty” Cunningham (1909-1988) was born in Colorado and arrived in Clovis by train in 1917. His family had traveled from Colorado to Missouri by covered wagon prior to their arrival here.

Shorty, whose nickname evolved from his five foot, six inch stature, attended Clovis schools and graduated from Clovis High. He was interested in the newspaper media and attended Cal Poly San Luis Obispo for a short period.

Vaud Cunningham, a second cousin to Shorty, established a backpacking station at Huntington Lake in 1922. Huntington Lake is two miles north of Big Creek and was first known as Basin Creek where grain and cattle were raised. The post office was established in 1913. The name was changed to Huntington Lake in 1916 in honor of Henry Huntington, who was the president of the Pacific Light and Power Company.

In 1927, Shorty and his brother Tom joined Vaud at the Huntington packing station. Vaud’s son William Patrick, who also worked there, passed away at age 92 on April 1, 2015. He served with distinction during World War II as a B-24 pilot in the North Africa and European theater.

Shorty worked at Huntington until he joined the service during World War II. He returned after the war. Vaud sold the Huntington Lake packing station in 1948. Shorty and his brother Tom established their packing station at Mono Hot Springs that year.

Mono Hot Springs resort was founded in 1935. It has six separate hot springs and is located 60 miles northeast of Clovis. Hot springs are produced by geothermal heated ground water from the earth’s mantle.

In 1968, Tom’s son John, named after Shorty, bought Shorty out. The Forest Service moved the Cunningham operation to Edison that same year. John and his wife Janice continue to operate the family business at that location.

In 1954, bachelor Shorty would marry widow May Keplinger. Her family had arrived in Clovis in 1917. They settled on a 1,000 acre cattle ranch on Tollhouse Road near Humphrey’s Station. May brought her three children to the new family and Shorty started his career as a cattleman.

In 1968, Shorty began working for Max Yancey who had located a tray mill on Rush Creek in 1916. In 1938, Yancey moved his shingle and tray mill to Tollhouse.

The selection of Shorty as parade grand marshal was the result of over 50 years of membership and dedication to the Clovis Rodeo Association. He remembers riding in his first parade in 1925. He would continue to ride in the parade until his last entry in 1976.

A 1977 article published by The Clovis Record quoted Shorty: “We used to bring horses from the mountains down here to Clovis to run races on the track. We also held pack mule and chuck wagon races during the year. But now everything is commercialized and professionalized.”

In a separate story, the Clovis Record stated that the top purse for the 1976 Rodeo was $5,250. The Rodeo Association had expended $25,000 in 1976.

Shorty was active in the Sierra Farm Bureau, Chamber of Commerce, Westside Packers Association, National Recreation Association and the advisory board of Sierra High School.

The 1977 grand marshal, mule packer, lumberman and cattle rancher left us a rich heritage.

Peg Bos is the president of the Clovis Museum on 4th and Pollasky avenues in Old Town Clovis. She not only manages the museum but she also writes her Let's Talk Clovis column in our publication which features and highlight the amazing history of our city and culture. One fun fact about Peg Bos, she was the first female mayor of Clovis from 1984-86.