By Gayle Lovvorn
When glancing through the list of Texas Cowboy Reunion Hostesses and Sponsors, one name often repeated grabs a reader's attention: Harrison. This year another Harrison followed her families footsteps when Kameryn Mathis was named the 2014 TCR Sponsor.
The TCR-Harrison connection began in 1934 when Mrs. W. B. Harrison, Sr. (Leanora) was named the 3rd TCR Hostess. In those days, the hostess was required to be a horsewoman and ride in the parade and grand entry at each rodeo performance. Among her duties was to procure host homes for the many sponsors who came to Stamford and performed each night of the rodeo. She was also the official hostess for the formal dances held every night in the ballroom on the top floor of the pavilion. At that time her husband W. B. Harrison was also in charge of the Sponsor's committee for the TCR.
In 1949, Mrs. W. B. (Bland) Harrison, Jr. (Sophia) became the youngest Hostess ever at the young age of 25. Sophia was born in 1924 in Waco to Victor and Thelma Nelson. During the Depression, the Nelson family lumber mill burned, and the family lost everything. While her father searched for work, Sophia, Jimmy, and Thelma lived in Stamford for a year, until he found employment with the Agriculture Adjustment Administration, part of FDR's New Deal, and they were able to move to Bryan where they made their home. Every summer, Sophia, her brother, Jimmy, and her mother spent three months in Stamford with her maternal grandparents, J K and Annie Mae Brady. When Sophia was interviewed in 2012 she said that she loved those summers in Stamford and considered it her second home. She remembers attending the rodeo as a child and was in attendance in 1935 when Will Rogers made a surprise appearance.
Following her high school graduation, Sophia attended Texas State College for Women for two years before returning to Bryan to work in the Ag Department at Texas A & M. It was there that she reconnected with a young agriculture student she had known all her life from those summers in Stamford, Bland Harrison. Following his graduation from A&M, Bland attended Officer Candidate School in Ft. Sill, OK. He and Sophia were married in 1943, and were stationed at Ft. Sill until he was deployed to Europe in June 1944. He was serving overseas when their daughter, Victoria, was born. Following the end of the war in Europe, Bland was returning stateside when peace was declared with Japan, and he was discharged from the service.
Bland began farming and later worked many years for the Agricultural Stabilization and Conservation Service (ASCS). Their son, W. B. Harrison III (Dub) was born in July 1946. Shortly after giving birth, Sophia became very ill and after several months of doctors and tests, it was determined that she had diabetes. She credited the good doctors in Stamford (Dr. Hudson and Dr. Metz) with saving her life. She sayed the Lord certainly took care of her and allowed her to have two healthy children before the diabetes was discovered. She said at that time, women were simply not allowed to have children if they had diabetes.
In 1949, when Mr. Bill Swenson informed Sophia that she had been asked to be the TCR Hostess, she says she was “bumped off.” When asked what that meant, she replied, “I was surprised! I was such a young thing.” “I told him I don’t think I can do that!” Mr. Swenson replied, “Oh, yes, you can! You’ll have lots of help.” And she was able to “do that.” She found homes for all the girls (38 of them, according to the 1949 TCR program). The girls came from many surrounding towns and were housed in local homes for the duration of the Rodeo. Mrs. Harrison and the Sponsor, Marda Carlile, hosted a breakfast for the sponsors and attended all of the performances of the rodeo seated up in the judge’s stand.
Mrs. Harrison says the Hostess traditions were different then. There was no big party announcing the new Hostess, followed by the month-long parade of parties like today, but she was given a backyard party by Edgar and Effie Ellis and Hubert and Doris Watson. She says, “It was so nice, and was very unusual for that time.” She proudly showed off the TCR pin she was given, which is shaped like a horse’s bit. When asked if she was required to ride a horse, she replied, “Oh, no, that had been stopped several years before, thank goodness!” She then recounted a story of her last ride on a horse when she was very young that did not end well!
When asked what she remembers most about her time as the 1949 TCR Hostess, Sophia replied, “The dances.” She said her mother made all of her clothes, including the long formal gowns required for the dances. That year the rodeo was held only three days, July 1, 2, and 4, since the 3rd fell on Sunday. A Stamford American article from July 1, 1949, describes her wardrobe extensively and states, "Mrs. Harrison found a pair of pink linen shoes she especially liked and built a lot of the wardrobe around them. She will wear them the first day for the parade and again on July 4 the day of the Governor's dinner. Her dress for the parade is a chambray, a sort of brownish maroon with a gold metallic strip woven through it. Her hat and bag of natural straw and her gloves of natural crochet string, and of course, the pink linen shoes." Sophia remembers riding in the Parade and says, “It was HOT!”
Mrs. Harrison says that she has been an Ex-Hostess the longest, but she’s not the oldest one.
When asked what the differences are between the rodeo today and in 1949, Mrs. Harrison said she doesn’t believe there are that many changes in the rodeo events themselves, mostly just changes in the arena with the addition of the bleachers and box seating. She said as a child she always sat on the hillside. She said all the cowboys were truly amateurs and were working cowboys on ranches and there were so many entries (430) that two performances were held every day of the rodeo. She said she also remembers the Hardin-Simmons Cowboy Band providing the music in the arena each night.
In 1954, the Harrison tradition continued when Nancy Harrison Russell, Sophia’s sister-in-law, became the next Harrison hostess. Years later in 1990 Wendy Harrison, daughter of W. B. Harrison III (Dub) and granddaughter of Sophia, was named the TCR Sponsor. The next Harrison, Dub’s wife Leslie, was chosen as the 1996 Hostess, and in 2010 Kaley Mathis, Wendy’s daughter, the 5th generation Harrison, was named the TCR Sponsor.
Sophia and Bland celebrated their 69th wedding anniversary May 10, 2012. She passed away in January of 2013. In addition to their children, Victoria and Dub, the couple had four grandchildren, Elizabeth Ann, Wendy, Will, and Wes. They also have six great-grandchildren, Kaley, Kameryn, Jonathan, Sara, David, and Jody Blane.
(Photos courtesy of Bearden Photography and Ann Kinney, TCR Ex-Hostess Chairman)