The Late, Late Frontier

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By the year 1890, at any rate, when the trailing of cattle had been terminated by the completion of the rail network and the arrival of the granger and barbed wire, brisk rivalries had sprung up between communities over the staging of rodeos—Cheyenne versus Denver, or Pendleton versus Walla Walla, for instance. Each city discovered in the go-arounds a tourist attraction and a stimulus for local business.

“Up in the air and down with all four legs bunched stiff as an antelope’s, and back arched like a hostile wildcat’s, went the animal,” wrote the Denver Republican ’s, man on the spot at an 1887 cowboy tournament. “But the rider was there, and deep into the rowels he sank the spurs while he lashed shoulders and neck with keen stinging quirt. It was brute force against human nerve. Nerve won. … The crowd cheered, and an admirer dropped a box of cigars into the hands of the perspiring but plucky victor.” The reporter found the performance “as exciting as a bull fight … the kind of sport nine men in ten like.” With such credentials, the man in the ten-gallon hat, leather-fringed chaparejos, and bright fuchsia shirt began to appear regularly at fairs, expositions, jubilees, vigilante days, stock shows, and especially Fourth of July celebrations.

Cheyenne, Wyoming, elaborated the first of the bigtime rodeos under the rubric Frontier Days. At high noon on September 23, 1897, Battery A of the 76th Field Artillery fired a salvo, bells rang, factories and locomotives blew their whistles, and the visitors who had arrived on a Union Pacific excursion from Denver (two dollars) and Greeley (one dollar) shot off their artillery, too. At the rodeo grounds there were, in addition to the usual contests, a pony-express ride, a sham battle, and a “predominant Western mood.” Contributing to this atmosphere was the seizure of a “robber” by masked vigilantes who hustled him to a high pole across from the race track. It is only fair to say that the figure which was hauled up the pole and riddled with bullets was merely a dummy.

The Frontier Days rodeo has been innovative and imaginative in many ways, in hiring operatives from the Burns Detective Agency to patrol the streets and in introducing the first rodeo clown, the bucking chutes, and a baby-sitting service. Teddy Roosevelt and William Jennings Bryan came to see the fun, Sally Rand brought her fan dance, and in 1931 an inspired committee presented the first Miss Frontier, which “made queen participation in rodeos both popular and dignified.”

There were, of course, Indians present. One year, when the local committee negotiated with the Indians directly, the red men refused to work unless they were issued beefsteaks and watermelon twice a day. After that, the chiefs were hired through “a responsible Indian.”

Equally rich in tradition and prize money is the important Oregon event that pays homage to the pioneers, the Pendleton Round-Up, where the boys who are “ridin’ the shows” gather in September when the nights are getting cooler and the goldenrod is turning to bronze. Since 1908, when the first Pendleton Round-Up was held on a baseball field, Pendleton has been honoring “the qualities of the American West” by means of an annual rodeo. Visitors are entertained by simulated shoot-outs, by ox teams and Mormon carts, Indian chiefs, a competitive Tribal Ceremonial Dance—a total, one recent September, of eighteen crowd-pleasing events “run with clock-like precision.”

The modern rodeo consists of five standard events, usually run off in this order: saddle bronc riding, bareback riding, bull riding, steer wrestling (a euphemism for bulldogging), and steer or calf roping. These are de rigueur . There may also be team roping, novelty acts such as working a bull with a cape, comedy-style, and optional events such as the wild-cow-milking competition, in which two men try to catch a few drops of milk in a Coke bottle, a popular number that adds “zest and a bit of robust humor.”

Most rodeos open with a serpentine parade called the Grand Entry, consisting of fifty to a hundred horsemen and horsewomen, richly garbed in gabardine and satin, with silver-mounted equipment glittering and jingling, a color guard, judges and officials in line, sheriffs’ posses and Shriners’ patrols, too, and often a nubile Queen of the Rodeo escorted by her court. The colors are posted, the national anthem is played, and the fun begins.