BISMARCK, N.D. - Rodeo cowboy legend Alvin Nelson is being remembered as one of the best of his generation, an influence on younger riders and an innovator in the sport.
Nelson, of Grassy Butte, a member of half a dozen halls of fame and North Dakota's only world champion saddle bronc rider for 24 years, died Dec. 23 at a hospital in Rochester, Minnesota, according to Fulkerson Funeral Home. He was 80. His funeral is scheduled for tomorrow in Watford City, North Dakota.
Nelson won the saddle bronc world championship in 1957 at Madison Square Garden in Manhattan. He qualified for five Wrangler National Finals Rodeos, winning the saddle bronc riding average at the finals in 1961 and 1962, and also the all-around title in 1961 in Dallas.
Nelson told the Minot Daily News in 2004 that he remembered his 1957 title well.
"The rodeo lasted three weeks in September, and at that time, it was the world's largest rodeo according to prize money, number of spectators and the number of contestants," he said as he was preparing to be inducted into the ProRodeo Hall of Fame.
"There were eight rounds. I split third and fourth on the first horse, won the second round, split first and second in the last two rounds to win $4,234," he said. "This was the most money ever won in the saddle bronc riding at any one rodeo at the time, and this record stood until 1980."
Nelson was a member of the "six pack," a group of North Dakota bronc and bull riders who dominated the rodeo circuit in the 1950s. He is a member of two national rodeo halls of fame, as well as halls of fame in North Dakota, South Dakota, Nebraska and Montana.
Nelson was the only world champion saddle bronc rider from North Dakota until the 1980s, when Brad Gjermundson won four world titles.
"He was one of my idols growing up. He had a lot of influence," said Gjermundson, who ranches near Marshall, North Dakota. "He was a great guy in and out of the arena. To me he was always an ambassador for the Western way of life."
Nelson also redesigned the bronc riding saddle, moving the stirrups closer to the front to make it easier to spur the horse, according to Kevin Holten, executive director of the North Dakota Cowboy Hall of Fame.
"He was revolutionary," Holten said. "He redesigned the bronc riding saddle, and everybody copied him from that time forward."
Nelson, an Army veteran, will be buried in Grassy Butte Cemetery with military honors.