Don Simpson, The Old Almond Cock, and Their Role in the History of South Carolina Rollers
By Cliff Ball
In the spring of 1970, a young man named Frankie Reece rode his bicycle up to Don Simpson’s pigeon pen, still located at his dad’s house a short way from where Don lived with his family. Frankie had a box of young Pensom rollers that he had just that same day acquired from Lloyd Bagwell of Williamston, South Carolina. Bob Welbourne, of Greenville, South Carolina was the man responsible for bringing the Pensom family of rollers into the Carolinas in about 1956-’57, obtaining them directly from Bill Pensom. He (Welbourne) bred them pure and flew them until his daughter became terminally ill with leukemia. Along about 1970,Welbourne finally divested himself of his rollers to a friend in Greenville in order to focus on carrying for his daughter.
Lloyd Bagwell had obtained these Pensom birds from this Greenville friend of Welbourne’s. These birds were considered “dual purpose” rollers as they were known in those days, because they could be flown as well as shown. Bagwell was primarily interested in showing the birds. Frankie’s box of youngsters fell had fallen short of the show qualities that he was looking for, thus giving young Reece a shot at them. The rollers that Don was flying at the time had come from a “feather merchant” named Johnnie Hayes.
Frankie had always admired Simpson’s Hayes birds because he had some of these same rollers in his own loft and he like them a lot. Don, on the other hand, knew that somehow he had to have those birds from Bill Pensom. After a bit of negotiation, the rollers in the box went into Don’s loft; the birds in Don’s loft went into the box for Frankie. The trade was made!
Don’s newly acquired eight or ten Pensoms were worked hard during that summer, as Don wanted to see what these new Pensom birds could do in the air. They proved to roll deep and fast, but were prone to bumping and they kitted poorly. Later that summer, while flying his birds and helping with his dad’s cattle, a thump on the ground behind him proved to be a bird that had rolled down into a clump of South Carolina red mud. A dark tort cock that had been bred and raised by Lloyd Bagwell and acquired from Frankie Reece had been the object falling from the sky.
The next time he was flown, the cock rolled down into a corn field, again, but this time landing much more gently. He was actually a blue t-check grizzle carrying bar, recessive red, and bronze, though he had been given the name “the Old Almond” because he resembled a classic almond. Don admits that, at that time, he had no idea of what an almond was. But anyway, he decided to put the bird up for awhile after the bumping episodes, to let him mature and develop a little more. The next few times that Don released him, the Old Almond seemed to have developed a great deal of control and would actually only roll a short distance. Don then decided to breed from him.
That next spring, Don decided to mate the Old Almond to a little red check Pensom hen that had come from the box of Pensom’s he had traded for with Frankie Reece. Two red checks and two blue bars, all hens, were bred from this pair in 1971. After learning a little about genetics from his friend Ellis McDonald, it dawned on him that Tort cocks don’t produce red check hens! “Ha!” says Don. “The joke was on me. The Almond Cock was not the sire of those birds. No wonder that red check cock in the breeding pen was always smiling!” But all four of these birds were eventually culled, anyway, their performance not being what Don was looking for.
During that fall another red check Pensom hen was given to Simpson by Larry Pridmore of Greenville, South Carolina, who was also breeding Pensom birds. In 1972, Larry’s hen became the Old Almond’s second bride. Bingo! Their first clutch produced 5011, a small red t-check cock and 5012, a t-check red grizzle cock. Happy days were soon to be Don’s because these birds would prove to be the “launching pad” for his family of birds for many years to come. “Could this 5011 bird ever roll! Could this 5011 bird ever spin! Could this 5011 bird ever smoke!” Don recalls.
During his first year Don saw mostly tight, high velocity spins in the 30-foot range from 5011. In his second year, the depth of his spin increased to about 50 feet. And as a three-year-old, the spins became even longer and deeper. 5011 wasted little time getting back to the kit after spinning. Never had Don seen this kind of performance in a roller! The quality and speed of this bird’s style of performance has been etched in Don’s mind ever since ’73-’74. On one particular occasion, Don recalled, 5011 began to spin down through the outer edge of a tall poplar tree. After dropping some 60-70 feet, the branches came into play as leaves of many colors flew everywhere. This super-star of a roller pulled cleanly out of his spin, ten feet from the base of the poplar tree and ten feet from the ground, and immediately returned to his kit.
Since that day, this has set Don Simpson’s mental standard for greatness in rollers. 5011 flew for three years of greatness…on the edge. “Give me a hundred more just like him!” says Don. Meanwhile, the Old Almond Cock spent some time in several other lofts in South Carolina, being crossed onto virtually every other family of rollers that was flown in the Carolinas. As Tony Roberts puts it, “The Almond Cock was responsible for more good rollers that were flown in South Carolina than any other bird at that time.” Since that time, the Don Simpson South Carolina rollers have become known as the Old Almond family; some directly through the foundation bird, 5011, and some through other lines of these same birds that by-passed 5011. Most all of these birds were on the edge; and some were over the edge and bumped the loft upon landing; and some rolled down, of course.
In 1980, Lloyd Bagwell and Don had been discussing forming a competition flying roller club, and at a time when most roller men where concentrating on the show pen. Many men, like Bagwell, who were interested in the “dual purpose for show” aspect of the hobby, had become unhappy with the way the standards were changing for showing rollers. During a telephone conversation with Don one night, Lloyd suggested that Gilly Simmon of Anderson, South Carolina, who had gotten some birds from Don for himself and his son (Mark), would be willing to serve as secretary of a competition flying club if one was to be formed. “Let’s move on it now,” Don suggested.
Calls were made and a planning meeting at the home of John Castro was called. Thus the Piedmont Flying Roller Club was formed in 1980. Few of the club members knew much about kit boxes and scoring rollers in competition, Don recalls. Some of the members had experience only in the show arena; and, in some cases, had never even bred a performance roller. “One was a ball-headed roller man…uhhhh….pardon me….a breeder of bald headed rollers!” Don recalled, amused. Others were being introduced to pigeons for the first time. Early on, only Frankie Reece and Simpson, himself, actually had any experience flying rollers and the two of them stocked many of the lofts of the club members.
There was yet another major development in Don’s family of rollers. Ed Garrett of North Carolina was flying Joe Houghton birds at the time, and was the publicity director for another national roller club. One night, he revealed to Don that he was keeping some rollers from Ed Larm (from the mid-west somewhere), that had come directly from Lloyd Thompson of Canada. Larm hoped to sell these birds, for personal reasons, so Don decided to buy them for $25 each, a lot of money for a pigeon in 1980.
They were longer cast birds and mostly black and whites. One particular black and white cock had the longest neck, wings and tail that he had ever seen in a roller. Don says he was an ugly bird, not very typey, and he named him “George”. When George was mated to one of the Thompson blue-check hens with white flights, two cocks and a hen from this pair were the only Thompsons that performed well enough to be stocked. One of them, unlike his sire (George), was a large, black badge cock with white flights; and well-balanced in Don’s opinion. Don nick-named him, “The Badge”.
The Badge, by about 14 months of age, could spin better than any large roller that he had seen up to this point. Meanwhile, James Thompson of Georgia, who had two black and white hens that he had also obtained from Lloyd Thompson, donated these particular birds to one of the guys in their club. Eventually, they made their way to Don’s loft. (Many roller men have confused the role that these two Thompson men played in the history of the Carolina rollers).
So Don mated the Badge Cock to one of these hens; and thus began the Lloyd Thompson influence in his family of rollers. The Badge turned out to be a super pre-potent breeder. “He is the only bird that I have ever bred that I can honestly say had no weaknesses,” says Don. “The Lloyd Thompson birds were more stable and better at kitting than the Pensom-based Old Almond line. Thompson bred his birds to come into spin at six months and to come in deep, and they did just that. The crosses of these two families produced rollers that were much easier to manage than the Old Almonds were, and provided the basis for my current family of rollers.” The Badge was eventually purchased by Tony Roberts’ wife as a birthday present for Tony, who raised many excellent spinners from him as well. Tony ultimately traded him to Don Greene for the same purpose.
Early in the 1980s, The Old Almond Cock and several of his progeny were lost, unfortunately, when a varmint broke into Don’s stock loft and destroyed them. Tony Roberts, of Piedmont, South Carolina took care of Simpson’s entire breeding stock for a period of time while Don rebuilt his loft. He, naturally, bred some of Don’s birds during this time. Ultimately he mated 5012, the nestmate of Don’s foundation bird 5011off the Old Almond Cock, to a dilute blue bar that he had obtained from Paul Porter in Orangeburg, South Carolina which he called the Orangeburg Hen.
This pairing produced a particularly high quality hen which Tony called the Shooting Star. She was bought out of the air above Tony’s loft by Carl Hardesty and became one of the foundation birds of Hardesty’s well-known family of rollers. The Orangeburg Hen went to Ellis MacDonald to live out her years. Meanwhile, Tony began to focus his competition efforts on Paul Vaughn birds that he had obtained.
Pictured above is Don Simpson with Dennis Cook (2015) – George Mason with Don Simpson (2019)
Don Greene, of Easley, South Carolina came into the roller hobby about the same time. Greene and Turner also obtained birds from Don to breed from, along with other Pensom/Thompson birds that each of them were working with at the time. James Turner, Don Greene, Don Simpson, Tony Roberts, Bob Simpson and John Castro all flew and fiercely competed against each other with high quality kits as a result of the infusion of the Pensom/Lloyd Thompson birds into the Carolinas. Ultimately, Tony Roberts’ Paul Vaughn line succumbed to too much inbreeding, after dominating the skies over the Carolinas for several years, and Tony returned to his old family of rollers, with progeny from the Orangeburg Hen, the Shooting Star Hen, and a few other birds that he had passed on to other roller men. Over the years, he and James have continued their focus more on the development of high quality performance in rollers that have imported genetic modifiers of color and pattern.
After that period of time, Don crossed very few of the Lloyd Thompson birds into his Old Almond line. Don used half brother/sister matings, primarily, in the development of his family of rollers. Ultimately, the descendants of these birds made it to many lofts in the Southeast, and eventually to other regions across the nation. “Admittedly, some say that the Old Almonds are too hot to handle; but they remain the only birds for me,” Don proclaims confidently.
Don summarized his lifelong adventure in the roller sport. “I do not ever tire of breeding and flying this very exciting little bird, because perfection is never really reached. And, yes, I find that many discouraging events occur from time to time. Three steps forward and two steps back, always seems to be the process of forward progression in this hobby.
One must be totally addicted to flying rollers if he is to endure the setbacks that occur. I have few regrets. My later years have been the most rewarding for me. Judging competitions has allowed me to visit areas for the first time and meet, in person, many of the “cream of the crop” when it comes to breeding and flying rollers. Flying rollers is very challenging yet relaxing in its own way most of the time. Come fly with us, sometime.”