Inducted in 1998
The children of William “Sagebrush Bill” and Lusetta (Cleveland) “Bessie” Thomas were working cowboys and cowgirls who bridged the gap between the “Sunday Rodeos” of the early twentieth century Kittitas Valley and the world of the modern professional rodeo cowboy. The “Thomas Boys” and their descendants loom large in the history of the Ellensburg Rodeo.
William Thomas was born in 1860 in North Carolina and raised and educated (at Roan College) in Tennessee. He followed the carpenter’s trade through Tennessee, Kentucky, and Ohio to Washington State, where he went to work for the Northern Pacific Railroad. He arrived in the Kittitas Valley in 1886 and, by 1893, had purchased the Naneum district ranch which he would turn into a substantial holding (3100 acres and 500 head) called Sunnybrook Farm. In 1895 “Sagebrush Bill” Thomas married Lesetta “Bessie” Cleveland. They produced eight children: Lillian, Wilburn (Bud), Emma (Babe), Harry (Hap), James (Jim), Veta, William (Howard), and Margie Mae.
The “Thomas Boys”—Bud, Hap, Jim, and Howard—grew up in the saddle, busting broncs and running steers in northeast Kittitas County. Family member Sandy Thomas writes, “the boys got busy learning to ride the ‘rough’ off their horse herd; often they rode with only a ‘mane and tail hold,’ a precarious riding experience.” When it came time to build the Ellensburg Rodeo grounds, the Thomas Boys stepped forward. Howard Thomas remembered:
I was riding for Cooke’s [Ranch]… ‘Can you spare me a few days to work on the Rodeo?,’ [I asked George Cooke. He said] ‘I can give you a week.’ So I brought four horses, plows, and a spring tooth harrow, and a scraper. I drove them in town…When it was light enough to see I was going to the grounds and when it was too dark to see I was coming home.
Meanwhile, Hap helped cull the rodeo’s roughstock, rounding up “every Columbia River Cayuse we could find” and “trying them out for the best buckers. The horses that “bucked us off we kept for bucking horses” in the ’23 rodeo. Howard remembered that first 1923 Ellensburg Rodeo “was a good one.” The Thomas Boys would see many more rodeos in the years to come.
Hap, Jim, and Howard Thomas all followed the rodeo road intermittently over the next two decades. Hap’s daughter, Judi Thomas Oehlerich, notes that Hap rode broncs throughout the first decade of the Ellensburg Rodeo. He competed until the early 1930s, when a broken leg and a metal pin sent him to back to a career in ranching and irrigation work. Jim Thomas hit the road as a bronc rider, traveling across the United States and Canada. Later, he gave up rodeo and married Edith Ferguson; they ranched while Jim became a noted local horseshoer. Every fall in the 50s and 60s Jim worked the ketch pen gate at the Ellensburg Rodeo. Like his brother Jim, Howard Thomas traveled around the United States and Canada as a rodeo cowboy, returning home in the late 1920s to marry Edith Christiansen and pursue a career in ranching and, later, the real estate business. Howard rode in the Ellensburg night show, performing a square dancing act on horseback with other local riders. He later rode with the Ellensburg Rodeo Posse and served on the Ellensburg Rodeo Board.
Today, Thomas children and grandchildren carry on the rodeo traditions of their forbearers. John Ludtka aptly entitled his 75-year history of the Ellensburg Rodeo, ‘The Tradition Lives’ and the Thomas family is proof of the role of rodeo in the history and traditions of the Kittitas Valley.