Driving along Interstate 20 west of Coahoma, Texas, (pop. 1,000), it’s hard to miss the huge water tank sporting a larger-than-life painting of a red-faced clown—and not just any clown, but the face of celebrated rodeo clown Quail Dobbs.
Dobbs jumped in and out of barrels, chased, and was chased by bulls for 35 years in rodeo arenas around the country. Now semiretired at 57, he’s gone from protecting bull riders to enforcing laws in his hometown as a recently elected justice of the peace.
And that’s just one of many faces of a man who loves people, rodeos, and his hometown.
In west Texas, where towns have their own rodeo arenas, many children dream of growing up to be cowboys, so it wasn’t surprising that Dobbs tried his hand at riding bareback and bulls.
“I had someone ask me one time if I had ever rode a bull, and I said no—but I got on a bunch of them,” Dobbs says.
Then, in 1962, Dobbs was traveling the rodeo circuit working for a stock contractor as a bareback and bull rider. The barrel man didn’t show up for a rodeo in Buffalo, Minn., (pop. 8,584) so Dobbs took his place.
“You might say I got in that barrel and never got out,” he says.
Creating an exclusive image to promote himself, Dobbs would drive a red, beat-up, old Model T into the arena as it spewed flames and shot off firecrackers. “It was just an old jalopy—the steering wheel would fall off, the radiator would catch on fire—things just didn’t always go as planned,” Dobbs says. He also had a chicken that pulled a two-wheeled cart and an ever-present pet pig and dog.
“When his old car would explode, he’d tell the audience, ‘I didn’t know they were going to light my fuse,’ and the announcer would shout at him to get out of the arena,” says longtime friend Rob Etheridge.
Dobbs’ wife, Judy, and their two children would travel the rodeo tour with him during the summer, returning to Coahoma, located about 10 miles east of Big Spring, for the school year. “My children were what you called rodeo brats,” he says. “But they got to see a lot of different places and meet a lot of different people.”
Dobbs worked the rodeo in Cheyenne for 28 years, getting a standing ovation as he rolled his barrel out of the arena for the last time in 1998. Numerous honors during his career included working as a bullfighter and barrel man at the National Finals Rodeo. He was chosen “Rodeo Clown of the Year” by the Professional Rodeo Cowboys Association in 1978 and 1988.
Last year, Dobbs was inducted into the Texas Cowboy Hall of Fame, along with prominent cowboys like World Champion Bull riders Ty Murray and Tuff Hedeman.
“It was a great career,” Dobbs says.
He still delights his hometown by performing every year at the “World’s Original Kindergarten Rodeo” at Coahoma Elementary. The children dress in full rodeo regalia from chaps to hats, boots, and spurs. Along with their stick horses and stick bulls, the children perform as bull riders, pickup men, announcers, and rodeo queen. And he still works local rodeos, does charity work, leads the town parade, and takes his clown act to the state hospital or the veterans’ hospital in town.
Howard County Judge Ben Lockhart, a longtime friend, persuaded Dobbs to run for justice of the peace. “He knows everybody and everybody knows him.”
Dobbs does miss the people, saying every rodeo was like a homecoming. “Working the rodeos over the years I met a lot of people—I watched their kids get married and have kids.”
But for now, the former, traveling rodeo clown is home for good.