Thursday, June 5, 2014

South Dakota Filmmaker to Explore Life of Rodeo Legend Casey Tibbs

Ive said that the Last American Highway: A Journey Through Time Down U.S. Route 83: The Dakotas, is history written by serendipity. There is no better example of this
Credit: Lee Jeans Archive
than Casey Tibbs. Born and raised in a big city in the 1970s, I had never heard of Tibbs prior to 2009. When traveling down U.S. 83 that year, I came across his statue in Fort Pierre. Then I looked up the hill and discovered the newly opened Casey Tibbs South Dakota Rodeo Center. I was lucky to have arrived when I did. The paint was barely dry.
I spent several days that winter in the Library of Congress researching Tibbs's life through newspaper and magazine articles. (This was before an autobiography Casey Tibbs: Born to Ride by Rusty Richards was released in 2010.)
I came across the story of how a young Tibbs and a pal hitchhiked down Route 83 to White River, South Dakota, to take part in a rodeo. The story not only connected this larger than life man to Highway 83, but showed the grit and determination that would make him a superstar in his sport. It ended up being a chapter, The Babe Ruth of Rodeo, in the Last American Highway book.
Documentary filmmaker and Midland, South Dakota, native Justin Koehler is in the throes of putting together a film, Floating Horses: The Life of Casey Tibbs. Koehler, who now resides in Denver, is best known as the director of “The Buffalo King: The Man Who Saved the American Bison,” an award-winning documentary that aired on PBS stations. It recounts the life and times of South Dakotan James "Scotty" Philip. He has worked in the Denver production scene for the past nine years on projects that aired on History, Discovery, Weather Channel, HGTV, as well as historical films for the National Park Service, and the upcoming 2014 PBS series, Civil War: The Untold Story.
He recently took the time to answer for the Highway 83 Chronicles blog some questions about the new documentary.

Why did you choose Casey Tibbs as your next project?
My overall objective as a filmmaker is to shine an insightful light the remarkable history, characters, and stories within South Dakota. I chose Casey Tibbs as my next documentary subject because he encompasses all three of those points to the hilt. Casey made history with every venture he pursued, was one of the most colorful characters in rodeo, South Dakota, as well as the 1950s American pop-culture, and his rags to riches story is one that all Hollywood writers crave to produce on paper.

What makes him intriguing enough to devote an entire film to this subject?
Casey has endless intriguing qualities: Handsome, charismatic, jocular, fearless, untamable, confident, lavish, and charitable. Casey is a storytellers dream. He had the ups and downs of life that will keep an audience entertained and engaged throughout the entirety of a film.

Where did you come up with the title, Floating Horses?
The title Floating Horses came from the groundbreaking style that Casey displayed while riding an outlaw bronc. Casey believed in floating a horse rather than anchoring himself in the saddle by pure physical strength. His timing was flawless, his balance was unbreakable, and he made it look as if we all could be crowned a world champion rider. Casey once said, You fall into a rhythm, and its like dancing with a girl.

For people in my fathers generation, especially those who grew up in rural areas, Tibbs was a household name. What have you found nowadays?
There was a time in history when the name Casey Tibbs was not only a household name, but a worldwide name! Caseys name and feats remain well-known within rodeo and South Dakota, but beyond the borders of those two entities, it seems his achievements are fast becoming forgotten.

We have to remember that Caseys superstar status swelled to unthinkable heights because he appealed to all walks of life, not just rodeo fans or South Dakota residents. When Casey graced the cover of Life Magazine in 1951, he singlehandedly lifted the sport of rodeo to national attention. He was one of the most captivating athletes in American sport history, and I believe he will capture the attention of the masses once again through Floating Horses: The Life of Casey Tibbs.

This is the second time you have gone to the well in this part of South Dakota for your documentary subjects. What is it about his region that you find so interesting?
What I find interesting about the South Dakota region is that its flooded with intriguing history. You need a lifeboat and ample food supply just to make it through the overflow of compelling people and events! I was born and raised on a South Dakota ranch, so I aspire to tell stories about South Dakota that are entertaining and educational, but also entice travelers to visit the state. I am hopeful that someone or some business will collaborate with me, and together we will showcase South Dakotas long and illustrious history for years to come.

What is the timeline for this project? What have you accomplished so far?  
We plan to start filming interviews this summer and into the fall. Our reenactment scenes with two-time NFR qualifier, Cole Elshere, will likely be filmed next spring. If all goes well, we could have Floating Horses completed by fall of 2015.

I have spent the past 11 months researching Caseys life and the events surrounding his life. All of this acquired information, facts, and stories are vital within a documentary film. In addition, I have been contacting individuals who will help tell Caseys life on-screen. We have interview commitments from: Larry Mahan, Charlie Daniels, Buck Taylor, Gail Woerner, Red Steagall, Baxter Black, Dean Smith, Rick Le Fevour, Cleo Harrington, Johnny Western, John Duffy, and many other notable names.

And how long before we can see the documentary?
Winter of 2015 is our target date for the release of Floating Horses: The Life of Casey Tibbs. Many things will have to fall into place for us to reach this goal, however. Our main hurdle is fundraising for the film. We have a lot of interviews to conduct, and that involves travel expenses, lodging, food, production equipment, crew, and many other costly components.  

If anyone would like to contribute to Floating Horses, please contact Koehler via Facebook: or email: or contact the Casey Tibbs South Dakota Rodeo Center in Fort Pierre, S.D. at (605) 494-1094. All contributions, large or small, are greatly appreciated. Click here to order The Buffalo King on

Stew Magnuson is the author of The Last American Highway: A Journey Through Time Down U.S. Route 83: The Dakotas, available online and at the Casey Tibbs South Dakota Rodeo Center giftshop, Prairie Pages Bookstore, in Pierre and the South Dakota Heritage Center and State Capitol giftshops in Pierre. 
To join the Fans of U.S. Route 83 group on Facebook, CLICK HERE. And check out the U.S. Route 83 Travel page at  Contact Stew Magnuson at stewmag (a)

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