September 2, 2010 at 8:52 am

Neal Rubin

Party till the cows come home

Bonnie Hughston and her 'boys' saddle up for McBain's annual Cow Camp Rodeo

Bonnie Hughston, rodeo queen
Bonnie Hughston, rodeo queen: Now 78, she started the annual Cow Camp Rodeo in McBain, Mich., more than 3 decades ago, and still keeps a hand in it.

Dallas tells the story all the time, so it's probably OK to pass it along here.

He's the oldest of the Hughston boys, each separated by four years: Dallas, Denver, Laramie, Star, Laredo. As No. 1 in the food chain, that meant he was the first to get a little too big for his chaps.

"Mom," he said to Bonnie Hughston one day, "I don't think you're quite as tough as you think you are."

Bonnie is 78 now, the matriarch of the roping and riding Hughstons, and she's down to about 5-foot-2. Back then, she was probably 4 inches taller, and more important to the tale, she was also a former trick rider raising her kids on a working ranch. She reached for a buggy whip, cracked him across the back of the legs, and he dropped to his knees like the most devout parishioner at the Church of the Old West.

"Well," Dallas reconsidered, "maybe you are as tough as you think."

There's a rodeo this weekend in McBain, 10 miles southeast of Cadillac, and it's fairly rugged, too. It's the 35th-or-so annual Cow Camp Rodeo -- nobody was taking notes when it started, so the exact age is uncertain -- and it'll bring cowboys, cowgirls and a herd of spectators to Missaukee County, the gateway to Deadwood and Dodge City.

The rodeo ground sits amid 500 acres, and each of the brothers has a nearby spread of his own. Four of them run trucking companies, and Star, 44, runs horses and cattle.

They're living a life you wouldn't picture in Michigan unless someone told you where to look. It centers around Bonnie, who you used to see everywhere.

Early days on the rodeo circuit

Bill Hughston could make a rope sing Roy Rogers' greatest hits. On the rodeo circuit, he was a Roman rider, galloping around the arena standing atop a pair of horses with one foot on each of them.

After he married Bonnie, she started entertaining, too. She'd do the death drag, hanging upside down from the side of her horse, or pass beneath its belly on the run, or hop off and jump back on in full stride.

"I wasn't very smart back then," she told Detroit News photographer Elizabeth Conley, "but it was fun."

Conley spent time with the Hughstons last week and came back with pictures that made me want to learn more. (You can see them at http://www.detnews.com/rubin">www.detnews.com/rubin.) I called Star, and he told me about a line that runs from Bill all the way to Star's youngest, Kara, a 14-year-old barrel racer.

Star works rodeos as a pickup rider. When the eight-second buzzer goes off and it's time for a successful bronco or bull rider to evacuate, he's the one who trots up alongside and provides them a place to go.

His three boys, 21 to 16, ride saddle broncs, and sometimes it's Myles, Ty or Trace who'll hop aboard. Or after a less successful effort, he'll ride past one of them sprawled in the dirt and ask, "You OK?"

Cow Camp Rodeo lives on

As tough a hand as Bill had been, he was ailing for most of the time Star knew him. He received one of Michigan's earliest kidney transplants, and when he died in 1989, that was just about the only part that worked.

The early Cow Camp Rodeos were benefits for the National Kidney Foundation. Then the event grew so big that it's all the family can do to make it pay for itself.

Some people camp on-site. Some bring their horses. There's roping all day Friday through Monday, and 7:30 p.m. rodeos Friday, Saturday and Sunday with a dance after each one. For directions and fees and such, go to http://www.cowcamprodeo.com">www.cowcamprodeo.com.

Bonnie doesn't play as big a role as she used to, not since two years ago when some stranger's mount backed up on a trail ride and broke her leg with a vicious kick. She'll come in on horseback each night with her boys, though -- 78 years old and shrinking, but still tall in the saddle, the rodeo queen of McBain.

nrubin@detnews.com">nrubin@detnews.com (313) 222-1874

She doesn't do tricks any more, but Bonnie Hughston still rides in for the Cow Camp Rodeo. / Elizabeth Conley / The Detroit News
Bonnie always made her own costumes, and those of her sons. (Elizabeth Conley / The Detroit News)
"I wasn't very smart back then, but it was fun," Bonnie ...
More Neal Rubin