I have been hearing about Mel Stonehouse since I arrived here, and he’s become a legend in my mind. Many of the colorful Cody characters passed away long enough ago that finding people that knew them is hard, but lots of people remember Mel Stonehouse.
Orphaned at the age of two when his parents froze to death in a snowbank, Mel Stonehouse always seemed larger than life. He ran away from an abusive orphanage in Denver at the age of nine and got a job in a livery stable. His wiry frame made him a prospect as a jockey, but due to adequate nutrition for the first time in his life, he grew too big.
Mel then became a cowboy and mustanger, chasing wild horses. He participated in some of the earliest rodeos, when arena barriers consisted of a ring of cars, and contestants slept on the ground nearby.
Mel Stonehouse became a rodeo superstar. In 1933 he won the Cheyenne Frontier Days bronc riding championship. In 1938 Mel traveled to Australia as part a four-man team chosen to compete against cowboys from all over the world. In Thermopolis, Wyoming, in 1945, Mel was the first to ride the unrideable “Walter Winchell,” undefeated against cowboys for seven years.
One night in 1950 Mel was at the rodeo arena in Cody. By this time Mel had quit rodeo and settled down to a life of guiding and trapping. Short of riders, Mel was asked to fill in. This was a mistake, as a horse named Owl Creek bucked him into a fence and shattered his leg.
After his release from the hospital a month later, Mel immediately headed out on a hunting trip. This was another mistake. It started to rain, and Mel’s cast got soaked. Mel’s buddies fixed him up. They found some barrel staves, baling wire, and plaster of Paris in an empty cabin. They placed the barrel staves on the outside of the cast, wrapped it around with baling wire and poured the Plaster of Paris over the whole thing.
The leg never healed properly. Mel developed osteomyelitis and spent thirty years in chronic pain, getting up and down the trail by self-medicating with blackberry schnapps. In 1981, Mel finally found a doctor who was willing to cut the leg off.
Mel recounted: “Old Doc McMillan said, “Hell, Stoney, why don’t we just cut the son of a bitch off?”
“And I said, ‘When do we get started? The sooner the better.’ Hell there wasn’t much to it, just a little dope for me and the meat saw for ol’ Doc.”
Mel immediately returned to ranch work, accompanied by his prosthetic leg. “Hell, it feels so good,” he said, “I’d like to cut the other leg off.” After this he enjoyed startling the local children, “Kids, have you ever seen a man stab his own leg?” and ramming his opened jackknife through the leg of his jeans.
In his later years he amused himself by loading neighborhood children into the bed of his pickup and driving into town to buy them ice cream, giving them the affection he hadn’t received as a child. When he passed away his ashes were scattered in the nearby mountains as a herd of horses grazed nearby.