Tom Ringley is an emeritus member of the Sheridan WYO Rodeo Board of Directors and a Sheridan County commissioner.
Bowser Frakes, whose real name was Captain Frank Foster (F.F.) Frakes, provided a real thrill at the 1936 Sheridan WYO Rodeo. Bowser, a barnstormer and stuntman during the 1930s, made his living by crashing airplanes into burning buildings — and living to tell about it!
According to one source, Bowser said, “I got the idea of cracking up planes before a crowd which would pay admission to see me risk my fool neck.” He performed his first “crack up” before a crowd of 30,000 spectators in 1929.
How Bowser came to the attention of the Sheridan WYO Rodeo committee isn’t known, but he must have had some kind of reputation on the entertainment circuit of rodeos and county fairs. Since the committee was always on the lookout for exciting entertainment for the rodeo fans, it hired Frakes and signed a contract for the 1936 show.
Little did they know that Bowser was on the hit list of the Civil Aviation Authority, which took a dim view of his occupation. They followed him from show to show but he was a pretty elusive fellow and often feigned injury after a crash so he could hop a ride in an ambulance to supposedly take him to the hospital. Often, he would divert the ambulance and just go hide in his hotel room.
Well, indeed, the committee had no sooner signed the contract when the CAA made their objections known. But Capt. Frakes, no stranger to this kind of controversy, threatened to sue the Sheridan WYO Rodeo if they didn’t honor the contract. The committee chairman, R. E. McNally, who was also an attorney, took the bull by the horns and wrote a stiff letter to the appropriate officials. The headline in The Sheridan Press read: McNally challenges federal authority to interfere with rodeo plane crash. At this stage of the game, the Sheridan WYO Rodeo was receiving unwanted national attention because of the conflict. But Frakes and the committee persevered in spite of last-minute efforts by the CAA to stop the stunt. And so, on the second day of the rodeo, Bowser crashed his airplane into a burning building especially built for the stunt in the back arena.
Capt. Frakes was pulled from the airplane wreckage and burning house and taken by ambulance to the Memorial Hospital for treatment of his minor injuries. Very shortly after he was whisked out of town to Billings, Montana. While in Billings he wrote a letter to the committee that stated, “I’m not exactly running away from the law…I just rode up here.”
Bowser Frakes never returned to Sheridan, but he continued his daredevil act throughout the 1930s until the Second World War began. One article written about Frakes reported that he had walked away from 99 crashes.
His notoriety for flirting with danger brought him to the attention of the R. J. Reynolds Tobacco Co. who used him to advertise Camel cigarettes.
In one ad, Captain Frakes proclaimed:
“Stunt flying isn’t exactly good for the digestion. So, I smoke plenty of Camels during and after meals “for digestion’s sake!” Camels never tire my taste — and they never get on my nerves!”
Yep. Bowser was a risk taker for sure in more ways than one. He sure thrilled the Sheridan WYO Rodeo audience 85 years ago and has become an integral part of Sheridan WYO Rodeo lore.