Sarasota Herald-Tribune March 8-14 /1981 FLORIDA WEST
"MR. COWBOY" VICK BLACKSTONE'S RIDE TO FAME AND GLORY By Kyle Booth
Vick Blackstone hobbles to the far side of the barn, where he takes an old lariat from its peg on the wall. He runs his hands along the length of the rope, rubbing out a few of the kinks and muttering softly to himself, "Let's see if I can still do this a little."
Stepping from the shadows of the barn into the morning sunlight, he begins to twirl the lariat in a large loop around his head, ignored by the few head of cattle in the nearby pasture. Soon the whipping motion of his arm picks up speed and he begins to fling the rope from side to side, hopping awkwardly through the loop as it passes from left to right, then right to left, until finally it catches the heel of his boot and falls slack to the ground.
Not unlike the lariat, age and disuse have left a few kinks in Vick Blackstone too. But if you look beyond the deeply lined face and the fragile knees, you see the bronc-bustin', bull-ridin', calf-ropin' rodeo star; the cattleman, rancher and conservationist; the man whom folks in Manatee County affectionately call "Mr. Cowboy."
And Blackstone looks perfect for the role. From the bend in his hat to the bow in his legs, he's the very picture of a fella who's a lifetime in the saddle, training a cow pony, tending a cattle herd or chasing a dream. Yes, he was even married in the saddle.
"That was in 1937," Blackstone recalls. "I was following the rodeo circuit up through Nebraska when I met Faye. She was a trick rider, 22 years old." The two struck up a romance that led them to an alter of sorts, in the middle of a rodeo arena in Bladen, Neb., where they took their vows on horseback and literally rode off into the sunset.
Today, almost 44 years later, Vick and Faye Blackstone share a 40 acre spread south of Parrish just off Highway 301. A visitor must drive underneath a large wooden arch that marks the entrance to "The Flying V Ranch," then follow a dirt road that bisects the fenced pastureland, leading to a white, double wide mobile home.
Fifty yards beyond the mobile home sets the barn that houses Blackstone's office, where an occasional neighbor still comes when he's having a problem with his cattle, his soil, or if he just wants to sit a spell and chat: Blackstone, you see, is an expert at all three.
"See that picture on the wall?" he says, pointing to a photograph of a tall, slim youngster in boots, jeans and a Western shirt, "I was 15 years old there, and I was making it as a ranch hand. I'd been gone from home two years before that."
Home was his father's farm in west Texas, outside the small town of Flory, where he grew up with seven brothers and five sisters. By the time young Vick was 13, however, He already had a mind of his own, and he and his father didn't always see eye to eye. One day things came to a head: "There was a big bunch of us kids, and me and my dad got into an argument one morning when 1 didn't get up and go to school. He told me I'd better get on up, and I told him I didn't think I was going to school. Well, he gave me a whipping and said, 'You get your boots on and get on up to school.' I got my boots on and 1 went, all right, but 1 never stopped at school."
Vick caught a ride with a traveling salesman headed for Midland, about 50 miles to the south, where the youngster found his first job, as a ranch hand looking after 200 head of cattle. "I'd see that they had water, keep the fences up, and if a cow got sick I'd doctor it. . . . I was getting $35 a month, and I'd go back home to visit after that, but from then on I was on my own."
In the years that followed, Blackstone honed the skills that would shape his future. He began breaking horses' for the Scarborough Cattle Company, one of the biggest ranch holders in the state, and developed a love for life on the range. He wasn't making much money at the time, but then he didn't need much. A ranch hand would only get into town once every couple of months, then he'd buy a new pair of Levi's and a shirt-- and spend the rest of his wages honky-tonkin'. "And you'd be broke when you got back to the ranch," Blackstone chuckles, "but it didn't matter because you didn't have anywhere to spend it out there."
In 1930, however, the Depression came galloping across west Texas, and although a cowboy could still find jobs, Blackstone was making barely enough to stay in the saddle, maybe $15 or $20 a month. But he'd heard of other fellas winning $100 just for staying on a bucking horse for a few seconds, the same thing he'd done on the Scarborough Ranch all day long. "So I thought, 'Why should I work for $15 a month when I could go to the rodeo and make a lot of money?'
That's when he set out on the road to stardom, a road that led him to Albuquerque, N.M., where he made his professional rodeo debut. There were two days of competition and he had entered three events - bull riding, bareback riding and saddle broncs. Afterward, figuring he had done pretty well for a newcomer, he headed over to the front office with the other riders, only to find that the show's promoter had run off with all the money.
It was an inauspicious beginning, to be sure, but Blackstone was undaunted. He stuck with rodeoing, at first making only enough to buy the liniment he sorely needed, but eventually riding his way to a national reputation. In 1939, he won all five events at the Largo, Fla., Fair rodeo, and in 1942 he finished second in the nation in the saddle bronc competition.
Faye, too, was making a name for herself, originating the Faye Blackstone Fender Drag (a trick in which she positions herself prone alongside her galloping horse, with her head dangerously close to the hooves) and winning the Florida Champion Cowgirl titles on two occasions.
Meanwhile, following the competition at New York's Madison Square Garden in 1932, most riders on the tour headed for the next rodeo in Boston. But not Blackstone. "It was getting cold up there," he remembers. "That was in November, and somebody said they were having a rodeo in Arcadia, Fla., so I came on down." And from then on, he carne to Florida every winter, making his home base in Manatee County.
Through all the traveling and all the rodeos, Blackstone had his favorite events, and then there were some he didn't care for at all: "I liked to ride broncs and rope calves, but I didn't like to ride bulls. Them ol’ bulls are mean and they'll fight you, and if they buck you off, they'll jump on you. I had one that bucked me off over his head, and I turned crossways to him and just laid flat on the ground. He got down on the ground on his knees after me. He was hittin' the ground with his horns trying to hook me, and he had his knees up on my back. That pretty well took the wind out of me right there."
So when the Blackstones were getting along pretty well, Vick didn't ride bulls. "Then when we'd get down and get broke and need to make some money, I'd have to enter the bull riding again."
As the years passed, the rodeo trail seemed to get longer and longer, and the Blackstones began staying closer to Parrish, where Vick was managing the 6,000-acre Quarter Circle A Ranch on Highway 62 east of town.
"I'd still go off to rodeos here in the state that I could get to on weekends and still get back home. And, sure, I'd still want to win, but rodeoing wasn't the main thing for me anymore."
By then, Blackstone had turned his energies to ranching and land management. While looking after the cattle on the Quarter Circle A, and trying to learn what he could about them, he also became a student of the land.
"Managing a spread like that, you've got to figure for a year or two years ahead of time. It's not something you can learn totally from books, and you can't learn it in a week neither.
"You've got to know your cattle and be able to figure your budget. But most important, to make a spread pay you've got to stay within that budget. If you have to cut things, you just cut them where they don't hurt the worst."
He irrigated the land, improved the soil and developed a better cattle herd as well. And before long, folks from neighboring ranches were watching his operation and turning to him for advice. His membership in local farm organizations grew, and so did his list of achievements.
Blackstone became a director of the county Soil Conservation District and winner of its coveted Goodyear Award, a director of the Manatee Farm Bureau, a director of the Manatee River Fair Board, a member of the county's Beef Advisory Committee and of the Florida Beef Council.
He was selected as the county's outstanding rancher and was the Kiwanis Club's "Agricultural Man of the Year." He also served as president of the county cattleman's association and a director of the Florida Cattleman's Association. And last year the Fair Board named him Manatee County's "Distinguished Citizen."
The honor he treasures most, however, came in 1977, when the Florida Senate nominated hlm for membership in the National Cowboy Hall of Fame, a shrine in Oklahoma City dedicated to great rodeo riders from the past.
What made the award so special, Blackstone recalls, is that it came as a complete surprise. He was in Tallahassee to help with the commissioner of agriculture's annual trail ride, an outing on horseback for all the legislators and their families. And State Sen. Tom Gallen, of Braden ton, invited him over to watch the Senate in session.
"Tom was rules chairman, and he took me in, sat me down on a couch and said for me to stay there until after the opening, and then if I felt like it I could leave.
"Well, right off the secretary started reading this formal resolution, and I knew he was reading these things that I had done. Then the Senate president, Lou Brantley, asked Sen. (Dempsy) Barron to escort me up to the front, where Mr. Brantley presented me with this plaque.
"After they gave me the award, I told those senators they'd talked about things I'd done since 1939 or '40, but if they'd checked back further then that, they'd find out there was a sheriff or two after me."
Today that Senate plaque hangs on one of the white paneled walls in Blackstone's office. From his desk there, the true-life cowboy who once managed thousands of head of cattle can gaze past the window onto a small pasture where eight cows graze. He knows each by name. To the south of the pasture, Kiowa, his wife's quarter horse, romps across 15 acres of fenced orange grove, which Blackstone works with an aging John Deere tractor.
"I've had to work for what I've got," Blackstone says, moving over to the sofa and lighting up one of the Bugler-tobacco cigarettes he had rolled the night before. "When I was younger, I had a big time when 1 could, and the rest of the time 1 was trying to get enough to eat. And when I was doing those things on the Quarter Circle A, if I had enough help, fine; and if 1 didn't have enough help I did it myself. Sometimes it took me a little longer, and I'd have to work till after dark sometimes, but I'd finally get it done. I never put in to do nothin' that I didn't get done."
Blackstone pushes back the brim of his hat and scratches a temple. On his arm, the wristwatch had stopped more than an hour earlier. But then time doesn't mean quite as much to him as it used to. He says he still likes to get over to Kissimee each year for the rodeo that he once directed. And each December he heads for Oklahoma City, for the National Finals rodeo and a reunion of a group of old timers who call themselves The Wild Bunch.
But today the only trip he's thinking about is a ride to the Casa Mia, a restaurant about five miles down the road in Ellenton, where he likes to go for late-morning coffee.
"You know, they have a wall down at the Casa Mia with a lot of my stuff hanging on it, my old bronc-ridin' chaps, some riding spurs, my hat and rope... and some pictures. That's about the only part of my life that hasn't been written up."
Yep, everybody in these parts has heard of Vick Blackstone, the man who's shown that a young cowpoke from West Texas can, indeed, get along in this great big world.
"I don't think I'd a done anything different," he says, and as he looks abound at the trophies and awards, his eyes reflect, not pride, but rather a deep sense of satisfaction. "I wouldn't want to do it again, but I wouldn't take nothing for it."