Old rodeo photos prompts flood of memories and stories of bush life

A rediscovered collection of old rodeo photos has prompted a flood of memories and stories from people across the Top End.

Photographer Cooper Smith has been uploading her images into the Facebook group Tales from the Top Rail, a public group where members reminisce about days gone by.

During the 1970s she was working in the Northern Territory and Kimberley and always had her camera with her.

She took the photos in between her riding events purely to capture memories for herself.

“We only got to go to one or two events a year, so everyone made the most of it and competed in everything,” she said.

Alan Young riding Larrikin, with Robin Finger sitting behind, during a rescue race in Fitzroy Crossing, WA, in the mid 1970s.(Supplied: Cooper Smith)

Rare chance to let loose

One photo, taken during a ‘rescue race’ in the mid 1970s, shows two men on the same horse galloping at full speed — with a cigarette firmly between the lips of the front rider.

The horsemen are Alan Young, former manager at Mount House Station, and Robin Finger.

Robin’s brother, Owen ‘Froggy’ Finger moved to the Kimberley in the early 1970s and still lives there today.

He says the photo is typical of the events that were held.

“You’d have a sports day, a rodeo day, and then the races — three days like that.”

He was working at Mount House Station at the time and remembers the Fitzroy and Derby rodeos as a rare chance to socialise.

Ringers would head to the stock camps at the beginning of April and work through until October.

Black and white photo of man hopping in a sack and leading horse
Keith Anderson from Jubilee Downs in the sack race at Fitzroy Crossing rodeo in 1977.(Supplied: Cooper Smith)

It was unusual to visit town more than twice during the season, the Royal Flying Doctor Service radio was the only way to communicate, and food orders were brought up on state ships.

The combined rodeos and race events offered a chance for the workers to let loose.

“Those stock camps were dry you see. The only time you got to drink was when you got to those shows,” Mr Finger said.

“There weren’t many women either, but you didn’t know how to talk to them because you’d been in the bush for so long.”

Black and white photo of man with sunglasses riding horse
Sean Murphy at Fitzroy Crossing, WA, in the mid 1970s.(Supplied: Cooper Smith)

Change to modern times

Mr Finger remembers losing the sense of community when the telephone was brought in, as people no longer broadcast everything over the radio waves.

As time passed, the roads into the Kimberley slowly turned to bitumen and aerial mustering began to change the way stations operated.

Country race meets, which were once held at Fitzroy Crossing, Halls Creek, and Timber Creek and attended by local trainers, dwindled away.

Two men, one with a cigarette, standing on the ground next to a horse in a rodeo arena.
Dick Northcott from Moola Bulla Station and Mick Quilty from Ruby Plains at the Halls Creek Rodeo in the mid 1970s.(Supplied: Cooper Smith)

But rodeos today remain important social events, and the annual bull sale at Fitzroy Crossing is another chance for station workers to catch up.

“The way our season is, as soon as it stops raining you go to work because you’ve only got that nine months or whatever it is.

“And in the wet, well, if everyone retreats back to their station in the wet you don’t see them, unless you come into town and run into someone.”

Black and white photo of man on a horse with a stockwhip
Tom Quilty at Halls Creek, WA, in the mid 1970s.(Supplied: Cooper Smith)

Rewarding to share

Mr Finger says the photographs capture the characters and lifestyle of the era.

While it could “get a bit messy”, he says there were plenty of good times had at the events.

Ms Smith says since she began sharing the photos she has been contacted by relatives and friends of the riders pictured, including grandchildren who have found photographs of their granddad competing.

“Sharing these photos has been wonderful … I think it is so good for people to look back at it all,” she said.

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