By: Roseanne McKee
Al J. Kester has a framed photo someone took of him riding a bull in jeans, not chaps, in Burwell, Nebraska, before he retired from rodeoing at the age of 21. Photo from Kester’s personal collection.
Al J. Kester, a resident of Bartlesville since the age of six, was born the son of a bootlegger, but he didn’t let that stop him from having a regular childhood.
“I grew up with Butch Donald Stern, known as Butchy. He grew up around the whiskey at my house. When he’d stay over at my house during the summer, we’d get up in the morning, and have to walk around baskets of whiskey to get to the other room. He knew all my dad’s customers just like I did,” Al J. Kester said.
Although Al J. Kester was a bootlegger’s son, he didn’t let that stop him from having a regular childhood. Al J. Kester, on the right in a cowboy hat, is pictured with his childhood friend, “Butchy” Stern in the ball cap. “He was a football player and I was a cowboy…Around me he never acted like a big shot, but all the kids wanted to be his friend,” Kester said. Photo from Kester’s personal collection.
Describing Stern, Kester said, “[H]e was a little pit bull. He went to College High and played football. Bill Holbrook was the coach; when the coaches heard Butchy Stern was coming to College High to play football, they grinned from ear-to-ear. All the girls loved Butchy Stern. When he played football, they would flock. They would all be there to watch him to play… Around me he never acted like a big shot, but all the kids wanted to be his friend.”
“Butchy was a football player, and I was a cowboy,” Kester said with a smile.
Instead of playing football, Kester joined the Bartlesville Roundup Club and began bareback bronc and bull riding.
“I started rodeoing at 13. Bret Fowler, who was three or four years older than me, was the one who got me started.
Showing the bareback rigging he used when riding broncs, Kester said: “They made this for me when I was 12 years old. It was made by Dickson, which was one of the best rigging makers for all the champions. It was worth $500 in 1983, according to a letter I received from the Rodeo Headquarters in Denver. I don’t know what it’s worth now.”
Showing the bareback rigging he used when riding broncs, Al J. Kester said: “They made this for me when I was 12 years old. It was made by Dickson, which was one of the best rigging makers for all the champions. It was worth $500 in 1983, according to a letter I received from the Rodeo Headquarters in Denver.” Photo by Roseanne McKee.
Showing photos, Kester said: “This is when I started at the Bartlesville Roundup Club. Here’s Cheyenne, Okla., that’s where I won this buckle. There’s my second horse in my life. I was 13. I won this in Hennesey, Okla. I won $27 and that was a lot of money then.”
Al J. Kester bareback riding a bronc in Hennessey, Okla., at the age of 13. “I won $27 and that was a lot of money then,” Al J. Kester said. Photo from Kester’s personal collection.
Dewey, Okla., had a professional rodeo arena, but Kester was too young to ride there, he said.
“Butler Brothers got to be the biggest rodeo outfit in the world and it started at Dewey.
“Eddie Curtiss was such a great promoter that he got all the bulls at Dewey, Oklahoma. Then when they went to sign the contracts in Denver, all the rodeo committee men loved Eddie Curtiss. He would party with them from Cheyenne, Denver, Odessa, Texas, Vinita and Claremore, North Platt, Nebraska. He promoted all the rodeos for Butler Brothers.”
Al’s nickname in the rodeo circuit was “Cocklebur.”
“When I was 16, I was winning everything, and Curtiss said, ‘Cocklebur, it’s time for you to get in the R.C.A. (Real Cowboy Association). In Dewey it was called the Turtle Association, then it went into the R.C.A. In the 1950’s I was in that first bunch. I was the youngest professional bull rider in the world – didn’t go to school. I travelled all over the United States with these guys rodeoing in Albuquerque and South Bend, Indiana.”
The best bull riders became celebrities, Kester explained.
“Buck Rutherford was the first cowboy in the world to make $40,000. He lived in Delaware.”
In those days rodeo clowns were big celebrities too.
“Buddy Heaton was one of the top rodeo clowns and he got all the rodeo clowns for Butler Brothers. Buddy Heaton was a tall guy. He was the most feared guy in the rodeo business. You had to be a certain person to be able handle him. Everybody know better than to mess with him because he’d pick you up, put you in a slop can and put a lid on you. He was one of the great bull fighters. But Buck Rutherford and Andy Curtiss, whatever they said, he would do.”
Kester claimed that Heaton even made the cover of National Geographic riding a buffalo.
Kester was urged to continue his career, but decided to stop at the age of 21, when he was at the top of his game, and joined the family business.
No, it wasn’t bootlegging. The family also had a restaurant in Bartlesville.
“We had a restaurant for 25 years: 1954 – 1975 and boy we had the business! We had all the business. The restaurant, called The Log Cabin Drive-In, was located at the corner of Frank Phillips Blvd. and Comanche in Bartlesville.
Even after the restaurant closed, Kester’s family life was food-focused.
“We had big dinners on Sunday at my house for 40 years; we just quit about two or three months ago. We’re gettin’ old. This was for our family and friends. For 40 years we cooked Sunday dinner.”
At the restaurant, Kester developed his own, special barbeque sauce.
“I’ve been makin’ it for 50 years, but I didn’t know how to make it to sell it.
“I have a real good cowboy friend I gave the recipe to. This sauce a child can eat!”
After the restaurant closed, Kester took a job at the Bartlesville Hospital in maintenance, where he stayed for 13 years before retiring.
Kester showed a picture of a friend’s birthday party. Among the group was a man named Gene Wing, he said.
“Gene Wing was one of the great horse trainers of the world, but he was also a safe cracker. He would go to all the big cities and crack the safes. He did do time in the penitentiary,” Kester said.
“You might ask how could you be friends with these guys but not get in any trouble? Well, I didn’t go with ‘em. We were friends, but I didn’t go down the road with ‘em.”
Now 77, Kester credits his longevity to his decision to quit drinking and smoking in his 40’s.
“All of my friends who kept drinking and smoking are gone now,” he said wistfully.
Another of his good health practices is daily prayer and a dose of honey and apple cider vinegar.
Kester boasted, “I have friends who’ve taken this for over 50 years and they never get sick!”
These days Kester lives with his wife and family in his childhood home in Bartlesville on Cheyenne Ave., which he repurchased 20 years ago.
Al J. Kester in front of his childhood home on Cheyenne Ave. in Bartlesville where he grew up. He repurchased the home 20 years ago.