Bern Gregory Rodeo Photographs, 1958-1988
84,346 negatives, 17 three-ring binders, 6 document boxes
Location: 0918-0921; Reading Room Shelves; File Cabinets
Collection #: 044
Accession #: 1999.025
Between 1958 and 1988 Bern Gregory photographed rodeo events and participants in Alabama, Arizona, Arkansas, Colorado, Florida, Illinois, Indiana, Iowa, Kansas, Kentucky, Louisiana, Mississippi, Missouri, Montana, Nebraska, New Mexico, Oklahoma, Oregon, Tennessee, Texas, Wisconsin, and Wyoming. In 1975 professional rodeo competitions were divided into 4 regions with each region having 3 circuits. While many of Gregory’s photographs record activities in the Great Lakes and Southeastern ProRodeo Circuits of region 4, a significant quantity record the activities in the Prairie ProRodeo Circuit of region 3.
In 1974 and 1975 several of Gregory’s rodeo action photos were chosen among the Top Ten Rodeo Photos of the Year by Horse and Rider Magazine. His action shots appeared in the Western Horseman, Rodeo Sports News, and in a 2002 documentary about Chris LeDoux on Country Music Television.
Known by some as the St. Louis Kid, Bernard “Bern” Gregory photographically documented rodeos between 1958 and 1988. In 2002, the eighty-seven year old Gregory reported, “We [he and his wife, Mary] went to rodeos in 24 different states and Canada and in 81 towns and God only knows how many motels.” When this writer asked about his health, Gregory stated he had recently undergone a series of operations including hip replacement and spinal surgery and suffered a slight stroke. In a typical understated manner he declared “other than that I’m doing pretty doggone good.”
Born on September 29, 1914 in Alton, Illinois, Bern was the son of Cora Tracy Gregory and a man who abandoned them when he was baby. A small hardworking lady, his mother moved to St. Louis when he was about three. Working 6 days a week in a tin manufacturing place making cups and pie pans, Cora earned between $8 and $9 a week. Gregory was educated in St. Louis public schools through high school.
Living about a block away from a packing house, Gregory naturally soon developed an interest in cowboys and rodeos. He wrote, “I lived near a packing house area of North St. Louis where cattle were driven horseback from the National Stock Yards at E. St. Louis, IL to the packers on the St. Louis side of the river. The kids in the neighborhood would all have broom sticks with a piece of rope or leather on the end and help the drover turn the cattle at corner intersections. These drovers were pretty good cowboys and that was my first interest in wanting to be a cowboy.”
In a 1976 Western Horseman article by Gary Vorhes, Gregory characterized these drovers, saying “Well, some of those drovers may not have worn cowboy boots and cowboy hats, but they were dang sure cowboys.”
When he was about 16 or 17, Gregory befriended a man who owned a packing house and who spent every day in the stock yards buying cattle for his packing plant. He recalled, “He had a farm on the outskirts of St. Louis and was very interested in rodeo. He had a rodeo arena and would buy stag steers, calves, and horses that would buck. Little jack-pot rodeos were held during the summer and I would ride in them. [I] tried calf roping but was not very good. [I] would take pictures at these jack-pots for [my] own pleasure. This was all before WWII.”
On January 2, 1935 Gregory started work at $45 per month as an office/messenger boy in the freight traffic department of the Missouri Pacific Railroad. From this position he worked his way up to general freight agent negotiating freight rates for the piggy-back traffic (trailers on flat cars). He also served as chairman of the rules committee for southwestern railroads in working out rules for handling piggy-back traffic. But, his interest continued in rodeo and cowboys. In 1942 he joined the Cowboy Turtles Association.
On February 13, 1943 Gregory was inducted into the Army, served in Normandy, northern France, Rhineland, and central Europe and landed on Omaha Beach on June 16, 1944. He was awarded the Bronze Star four times. After the war in September 1945 he helped organize what might have been the first armed forces rodeo in Europe. Sponsored by the Red Cross and located in Furth, Germany, the rodeo was realized through the efforts servicemen trading chocolate bars and packs of cigarettes for large work oxen for “ bucking bulls.” The “bucking horses” were 20 head of green, three-year-old mules requisitioned from the Russian sector. The arena was built with pine poles and airstrip landing mat for fence. Cowbells were made out of artillery shells. On December 5, 1945 Gregory was discharged as Buck Sergeant and upon his return to St. Louis he renewed activities with his packing house friends. He timed, flagged, and judged the little jack-pot rodeos.
A true partnership emerged when Gregory married Mary Harman on June 29, 1946. Mary, the daughter of a livestock farmer, grew up on a farm at High Hill, Missouri and helped her father with farm work after her mother died around the age of 12. A graduate nurse, Mary resumed her work as a private duty nurse after their marriage.
Around 1955 the couple began taking rodeo photography vacations and attending rodeos on weekends. He used a German 35mm Realist SLR camera which could sync with a strobe light at 1/500 of a second. He called this “the greatest rodeo camera ever made” because other cameras could only sync at 1/125 of a second. The faster the shutter speed, the sharper the captured action image. Wearing out four of these Realist cameras, Gregory went to a Nikkormat with a 55mm lens for bucking stock and a zoom lens, 85 to 204 mm, for roping and steer wrestling events. By 1958 Gregory had sold his first action photographs at $1.50 a print to stock contractor, Tommy Steiner, at the St. Louis rodeo sponsored by the St. Louis firefighters. Thus began an avocation which would consume his life through 1988.
In 1968 the Gregorys bought a house in Black Jack, Missouri in which Bern built his first darkroom. While Mary attended night school taking classes in photographic developing and printing, Bern read books on the same subjects. In the darkroom he used the enlarger to expose the image to paper while Mary ran the paper through the chemicals and wash. In the arena he kept the log books while Mary marked up rodeo programs with times and scores which served to reconcile Gregory’s records. “Without Mary’s help,” he said, “it would never have been possible.” In later years Gregory carried his own darkroom components on the road enabling him to set up in a motel room, develop negatives at night, and print 8×10 prints and contact sheets the following morning.
After his retirement from the Missouri Pacific Railroad on April 30, 1975 Bern devoted more time to rodeo coverage. Through various rodeo and western publications and building up confidence with the cowboys and stock contractors such as the Kajun Kid, Tommy Steiner, and Walt Alsbaugh, Gregory’s rodeo action shots gained notoriety and his reliability and good reputation became well-known.
Gregory lists many sensational action shots among his favorites. Perhaps a more unusual one was the wreck of Clyde Kimbro being bucked off the bull “YD” in St. Louis in 1968. Kimbro was bucked off as the bull kicked the bell off the rope. The bell flew up into the air and landed on the head of a fellow sitting in a box seat. Gregory laughingly exclaimed, “You had to see it to believe it.”
Gregory’s rodeo photography career ended in a somewhat ironic fashion. Covering the 1988 American Royal rodeo in Kansas City, Missouri, he was run over by an announcer on horseback, an accident which caused injuries to his shoulders and one leg. “I had ducked bulls and horses for 30 years but it took an announcer on horseback to get me.” This, however, was not the first time he had been run over. During the 1970s he was hit by pickup man, Ron Conatser, in Memphis from which he suffered broken ribs, a bruised shoulder, a swollen knee, and “mashed up” hat. In a second accident in Kansas City, he was hit by a pickup man from which he was “just shaken up a little and dazed for a couple of minutes.”
Reflecting on his first time in the arena, Gregory stated he was not nervous or scared. He knew what to expect with stock. Vorhes wrote, “Bern knows whether the bull or bronc will come out of the chute to the right or left, or spin, or bog down.” Gregory’s biggest concern was his desire and hope to sell the pictures. As all great rodeo photographers do, he anticipated the shot. He saw the picture before he took it.
To any up and coming photographers, Gregory advised that they first cover amateur and high school rodeos and learn what the action and the danger are before getting in the arena. Because many novice photographers inadvertently obstruct professional photographers and judges, Gregory admonished, ”Most of all, don’t get in the way.”
Following Mary’s death after a long battle with cancer on August 21, 1998, Gregory moved from his home in Black Jack to an apartment in Flourissant, Missouri. Quoted in a 1976 Western Horseman article by Gary Vorhes, perhaps Gregory’ s comments about how a photographer fit into the rest of the rodeo world best summarizes his profession in that era.
“It’s interesting, because you’re doing something for your own satisfaction, and you’re doing something the fellas like. And they know that you’re just about in the same position they are. You’re not makin’ any money and they’re not makin’ any money and you’re doin’ it because you like it. But most of all you are recording rodeo history.”
The Bern Gregory photographic collection, preserved in the Dickinson Research, Center documents thirty years of rodeo history. It, along with the Ralph R. Doubleday and DeVere Helfrich collections, documents the activities, events, and personalities of over 75 years of the sport of rodeo.