May 12, 1897-July 4, 1980
From building a ranch on the Nebraska prairie to bustin’ broncs without a saddle, Russell Isaac Phipps was a true sandhills pioneer. He was born on May 12, 1897 in Macon, MO, to Luther and Matilda Phipps. When he was 18 months old, he moved to Lakeside, Nebraska with his parents and older brother Raymond. Eventually, three more boys and four girls were added to the mix: Lyle, Charlie, Hansel, Lila, Alice, Ester and Peg. The family became a permanent fixture in the state.
In 1903, the Phipps’ relocated to a homestead northeast of Whitman. Russell, who was six at the time, helped move his family’s cattle from Lakeside to Whitman, driving them through the streets of Hyannis in the process.
Starting in 1906, Russell, then nine, and Raymond, who was eleven, spent their spring and summer months taking care of a ranch their father had acquired 23 miles northeast of Whitman. The boys were alone for months at a time protecting the calves from coyotes and breaking horses. Their parents would visit every couple of weeks and bring supplies from town. However, you can’t have all work and no play, so Russell made a name for himself in the rodeo world. He rode his first bronc at age six. He practiced by catching a young range horse on the ranch and mounting up with only a mane hold.
As a young man, Russell and his friends would go to Whitman or Hyannis when the opportunity presented itself and ride a bronc down the street while a train was stopped on the tracks. The men would pass the hat to the train passengers in the hopes of earning a dollar or two.
It was said that Russell could always ride a horse if he had seen it buck once before. According to family lore, he once rode the legendary bucking horse, Tipperary. His talent was a benefit to others as well. Someone once took a horse to Arthur specifically for “that Phipps kid” to ride. John Miller from Lewellen bet $500 on Russell and won. He used that money to buy a grocery store in his hometown. In Alliance, Russell’s father bet $1,000 that Russell could ride a particular bronc. His father came home from the rodeo a wealthy man.
In 1920, Russell, Earl Monahan and Ed Becker put on the first rodeo in Omaha – an event that later became the Ak-Sar-Ben Rodeo in 1947.
On October 7, 1925, Russell married Elva LeLaCheur in Valentine. They had three sons: Leonard, Doug and Bob. Leonard, his son Gary and grandson Brett still live with their families on the ranch north of Whitman. Doug lives in Mullen. Bob was killed in the arena at Gordon in 1959—crushed while following in his father’s footsteps and riding a bronc.
Russell became a member of the Old Time Cowboy Association and the Nebraska Stockgrowers. He continued to work on the ranch, even helping out in the hayfield, until the summer before his death. Russell died in Scottsbluff on July 4, 1980.
Aside from receiving a plaque for being the oldest rider in an old cowboy rodeo, he never earned any big awards or fame for his accomplishments. But, he didn’t need it. What he left behind was much more valuable than riches or glory. He earned the admiration of his family and friends for his work ethic, honesty and love for his wife and family. Russell swore that if his word was no good, his signature was no better. His virtues were what caused him to nearly throw an oil speculator out of the house when the man suggested that Russell break a verbal contract he had made with the man’s competitor.
Those who knew him will always remember his character. Those who didn’t can still see evidence of it through the legacies he left behind: a good, working sandhills ranch now enjoyed by the sixth generation of the Phipps family and the foundation for one of Nebraska’s biggest rodeos.