Wilbur Plaugher hopped on a bull at the Clovis Rodeo in 1942 and rode it into a career that would earn Plaugher spots in nearly a dozen hall of fames, roles in major motion pictures and a place in the hearts of many Americans as a beloved rodeo clown.
At 94, Plaugher is still riding horses and roping cattle, living up to his title as one of the greatest cowboys who ever lived. A title Plaugher’s longtime friend and Country-Western musician Jack Hannah won’t let him forget.
“Wilbur is the greatest living cowboy today, this is the greatest living cowboy, and now let me tell you why,” Hannah said. “He wasn’t just a rodeo cowboy, he’s an authentic cowboy; he makes his living with cattle and breaking horses. Anything that Wilbur does, he does himself, and he’s a master at all he does. ”
Before Plaugher became a star he was a ranch hand, working cattle across the rugged High Sierras. That all changed when Plaugher had a day off and attended the Clovis Rodeo. On that fateful night, one of the bull riders could not ride and Plaugher volunteered. When Plaugher went home with more prize money in his pocket than he could earn in a month working in the mountains, he decided to join the rodeo circuit.
Plaugher competed in bull riding and steer wrestling, sometimes in a saddle, other times bareback. He was a successful rider, winning championships and eventually being inducted into the Pro Rodeo Hall of Fame, among others.
“Wilbur went on to become one of the top two or three cowboys in the rodeo,” Hannah said. “There was a guy named Casey Tibbs who was considered one of the greatest bronc riders of all time. Wilbur was ahead of him in the contest for the year, and would’ve beaten him, but you know what happened? One day a bullfighter got sick and couldn’t protect the cowboys and Wilbur says, ‘I’ll do it,’ and that’s how he became a bullfighter.”
Plaugher developed a bullfighting persona and was one of the pioneers in creating the rodeo clown style of bullfighting. It was a first when Plaugher asked for the bull to be left in the pen after a ride so he could entertain the crowd. Eventually, Plaugher became famous for his ability to jump, nose to tail, over a charging bull.
Aside from the daring stunt of jumping a bull, Plaugher created several acts using farm animals, acrobatics and good old-fashioned showmanship. One of the more popular performances included a Liberace impersonation complete with a glittering piano.
“Liberace was real popular at the time. I’d come out dressed up with a piano, and I had a donkey hidden inside,” Plaugher said. “Liberace would always talk about mother and brother George. So, I’d act like I was playing this piano, and this donkey’s in there. A lot of people actually thought I was playing the piano. Then I’d get away and bow and it would keep playing, that would get a big laugh.
“Then I’d say, ‘well mother’s in the audience, but brother George he couldn’t show up,’ and at the end the donkey would start braying and I’d say, ‘Oh, brother George did show up after all, I hear him! Where is he?’ and I’d open the door of the piano and out runs the donkey.”
Another of Plaugher’s famous stunts involved him sliding down a cable from six stories high.
“I thought I was Tarzan coming down that thing, but I’ll admit it was a little spooky coming down the first time,” Plaugher. “I came down with a girl hanging onto my legs, the clown was supposed to catch her, but he missed her by 20 feet. It didn’t hurt her though, ‘cause she was all rubber, but she looked real.”
Plaugher found ways to dazzle audiences no matter the occasion. Once in Denver during America’s bicentennial celebration he entered the arena dressed as Uncle Sam.
“I came marching out there with the outfit on and I told everybody to hold up their lighters to make a big birthday cake and we’d sing Happy Birthday to America,” Plaugher said. “I had a taping of a Gospel singer singing God Bless America for the crowd to sing with, ‘cause I only sing to cows and they look funny at me. But I got to Denver and the sound wouldn’t work so I had to do it. I couldn’t believe it, me out there singing and not knowing how, but then I did it at every rodeo the whole year.”
For the most part Plaugher managed a full rodeo career without any major injuries, but there were a couple close calls. One time Plaugher found himself on the neck of a bull.
“When I jumped bulls I’d need them to charge me so I could clear ‘em, this one wouldn’t do it. He just stood there,” Plaugher said. “The cowboys started yelling at me to jump him, saying ‘chicken’ and I couldn’t stand it. So I ran and he didn’t move, I landed on his neck with knees bent, and after that he slung his head and slung me, you wouldn’t believe how far.”
Plaugher said he broke a few bones over the years, but one of the most painful incidents involved a hit where the sun doesn’t shine, still it was not enough to keep Plaugher from the arena.
“When you mix a Mexican Fighting Bull with a Brahman, they are rank. A Brahman will usually hook and go on, these will stay on you,” Plaugher said. “In Cheyenne they let this bull go. The other guy wouldn’t fight him, he was too scared, so I get in the barrel and he jumped clear over it.
“I’m running to the fence, which is too far, and about what it would feel like to get stabbed with a sword, he hooked me right in the butt. It doesn’t hurt too much if a bull throws you in the air, but if he throws you against iron it does, and he threw me against the iron and smashed my testicle, now that is painful.”
Plaugher said he hobbled out of the ring in the most pain he had ever felt. He was packing on ice when he heard the crowd cheering.
“I heard that crowd and I couldn’t just sit there,” Plaugher said. “I threw that ice off and went and did my job, took a pain pill, but I finished the whole rodeo. I was a 13 pound baby and big boned, but I don’t know how I did some of this stuff.”
Plaugher also made a name for himself on the silver screen, helping with the production of McDonald’s commercials and starring in “Run, Appaloosa, Run” a Disney film. Fame did not change much about the cowboy, however, he kept up his wild stunts and humility.
Hannah acted in the McDonald’s commercials that were filmed on Plaugher’s ranches. Hannah said that Plaugher was disappointed in the tame nature of the ads and told the producer they needed more action.
“The producer says, ‘well you know Mr. Plaugher, we’re selling hamburgers, this isn’t a rodeo,’ and Wilbur says, ‘yeah but can’t you get something exciting in it?’” Hannah said. “The producer says, ‘what do you mean,’ and Wilbur says, ‘I’ll show you.’
“So, Wilbur gets on his horse, and there’s a creek. Where we were at it was deep, maybe six or seven feet, and Wilbur rides out and here he comes, he’s 80-years-old, here he comes running right straight for this creek. The bank is six feet off the water, he runs and the horse leaps out into the sky and hits the water, it splashes and out comes a whip and he goes whack, then that horse starts bucking, three or four times, then to a sliding stop. Wilbur comes jogging back and he says, ‘that’s what I mean.’”
Plaugher even maintained a loyalty to the Clovis Rodeo when he was a part of “Run, Appaloosa, Run.” Plaugher said they needed a rodeo to film at and someone in Woodlake, California offered him money to chose their location. He turned it down to bring the production to Clovis.
“In the movie it says Clovis Rodeo, and it went all over the world,” Plaugher said. “Clovis being responsible for my life, everything I accomplished started at the Clovis Rodeo, I always felt connected to it.”
Presently, Plaugher works cattle on his ranches, but he has also found different kinds of herd to guide and tend to.
“The Dalton Gang used to come through this country shooting people, and when they knew they were caught they’d try to shoot everyone and take everybody they could with ‘em,” Plaugher said. “Well, I’m trying to take everybody I can to the Kingdom of God.”
Plaugher said his faith is an important aspect of his life, and he encourages everyone to welcome Christ into their hearts so they may be saved.
“We’re only on this planet earth, God made us, and we’re only here for a visit,” Plaugher said. “God’s got a hall of fame, and He wants everyone in it, but you can only get your passport while you’re visiting here. The Bible talks about rewards and I’m working on mine, I want a ranch when I get up there.”
It is not difficult to draw some parallels between an honorable cowboy and a good Christian. Hannah and Plaugher embody many of those qualities and both agreed it is not the boots and hat that make a true cowboy, rather it is a person’s character.
“Cowboys do anything and everything on a handshake, when you deal with a cowboy you don’t need a contract,” Hannah said. “A cowboy’s word is his bond. Loyalty and integrity, and, of course I like to throw in, rugged individualism, that’s a cowboy.”