Monday, August 3, 2020

Cattlemen’s Days: A local heritage and tradition

Rodeo this weekend

By Dawne Belloise

nown as the Granddaddy of the Colorado rodeos, Cattlemen’s Days in Gunnison is the oldest Professional Rodeo Cowboys Association (PRCA) rodeo since 1900, celebrating 119 years of honoring the Western heritage of ranching life.

There’s the traditional bull and bronco riding, barrel racing, roping and all the events that reflect the hard-working ranchers from pioneer times to the modern cowboys and cowgirls. The rodeo is set for Thursday, July 11, Friday, July 12 and Saturday, July 13 at Fred Field Western Heritage Center in Gunnison, along with the anticipated carnival for kids of all ages.

It wouldn’t be complete without music, and local favorite Evelyn Roper brings her band Opal Moon to the Gunnison Elks Lodge from 8 p.m. to midnight on Thursday, July 11 and Friday, July 12, then at Wapiti Ridge (formerly the Last Chance) at 9 p.m. on Saturday, July 13.

Additionally, Garlic Mike’s is having a “Ramble Inn Revival” with Ken Stonecipher and the Wooden Nickel Band on Saturday, July 13 at 9 p.m. For those old enough to remember, the Ramble Inn was a feisty bar and dance venue with live music, frequented by Western State College students during the 1980s.

The Gunnison rodeo began at the turn of the last century as a means for local ranchers and cowboys to celebrate the rare moment of time somewhere between calving and haying. Cattlemen’s Days went through a few different names, such as Pioneer Days and the unsavory sounding Helldorado before settling on its current moniker.

Gunnison’s Cattlemen’s Days still has cowboys getting bucked off broncs and cowgirls still barrel race, but for the most part this rodeo is shinier, the carnival bigger and better and its professional caliber has bucked leaps and bounds over the years.

Since it’s part of the Professional Rodeo Cowboys Association, all the competing cowboys and cowgirls must have a PRCA card. To get the PRCA card you basically have to start riding in high school to have enough rides under your belt to qualify. The PRCA was started in 1936 by a bunch of upstart cowboys and at least one feisty cowgirl named Alice Greenough Orr, who was a four-time national bronc champion.

Apparently the wrangling started when rodeo promoter W.T. Johnson refused to add the cowboys’ entry fees to the rodeo’s purse at the Boston Garden, so in protest all the contestants walked out—or more likely, rode out. The offender finally gave in but the demonstration launched the formation of the Cowboys’ Turtle Association, who were slow to organize but willing to stick their necks out and buck the system for their fair share. They changed their name in 1945 to the Rodeo Cowboys Association and it later morphed into the PRCA in ‘75.

The stock plays an enormous part in the cowboy competitor’s success because both the rider and the animal are scored. The cowboy hopes to draw an animal that is determined enough to hurl him to the moon should that cowpoke let go of the rope. They’re scored by the way they ride and the way the animal performs and the animals are essentially trained to buck with a singular focus: “Get the cowboy off my back.”

There are two types of events—rough stock events, which include saddle bronc, bareback and bull riding, and the timed events of barrel racing, steer roping, tie-down roping, steer wrestling and team roping, which reflect the ranching way of life—things cowboys have to deal with every day.

All three rodeo nights this year feature the special skills of trick ropers and riders, the Riata Ranch Cowboy Girls. Each girl on the team is a product of the Riata Ranch Youth Horsemanship clinics, and those chosen for the team go through an extensive program that focuses on all the physical attributes that promote positive life skills. The young women also train in choreography for timing, giving the show a full production of professionalism and earning the team worldwide recognition.

Thursday, July 11 is Tough Enough to Wear Pink (TETWP) night and any rodeo competitor who competes and wears pink attire is eligible for a share of the $15,000 bonus provided by Wrangler and local sponsors through the Cattlemen’s Days Tough Enough to Wear Pink program. It breaks down to $1,875 per discipline.

The TETWP organization contributes greatly to the fight against breast cancer, and all the proceeds from the local events stay in the valley.

Rodeo contestants who make a living traveling the circuit put in thousands of miles going from rodeo to rodeo across the nation, paying entry fees along with all their other expenses. They have to win to make any money, and that’s after qualifying at the National Finals Rodeo (NFR) in Las Vegas in December. There, only the top 15 contestants on the money list at the end of the season in each event advance. Rodeos with bigger purses provide more incentive, so to ensure Cattlemen’s Days gets those cowboys, they’ve sweetened the purse this year through locally provided dollars that help make up the total purse, adding $5,000 to each event and in both heading and heeling in the team roping. The intention is to add incentive for cowboys to come to or return to Gunnison.

Rodeo clowns are a special breed and although they make it look easy and all about fun, it’s a dangerous and highly respected job. This year, John Harrison returns to entertain the crowds and protect the riders as an athlete, trick rider, rodeo clown, barrelman and family-friendly comedian. Harrison, a third generation cowboy, is a four-time winner of the Professional Rodeo Cowboys Association Comedy Act of the Year and a three-time winner of the Coors Man in the Can award, an honor bestowed upon the top barrelman in ProRodeo based on peer votes. He also has worked the barrel at the National Finals Rodeo three times.

“I love my job, but the best part is the traveling and doing things with my family,” Harrison said. “There’s the stress of getting animals and everything ready for a performance, but the reward is great when the crowd comes out to enjoy the rodeo. For two hours, they get to get away from their life, and I’m glad I can be part of it.”

Whether you live in the Gunnison valley or are just visiting, you owe yourself a bit of the exceptional history that our area is steeped in. Don’t miss the Cattlemen’s Day Parade on Saturday morning, July 13, at 10 a.m., Main Street, Gunnison. After all these decades, the essence of community good-time fun hasn’t changed much. You don’t even have to wear cowboy boots—just get yourself and your family over to the Gunnison rodeo grounds this week to witness some of the finest cowboy and cowgirl traditions.

For more information, where to buy tickets and schedule of events, go online at

Check Also

Campfire Ranch: New campground opens

Offering gear rentals and local business referral service By Kendra Walker Camping in the Gunnison …