The Fort Dalles Days Pro Rodeo is not only a place where the Wild West still lives, it has become a reunion spot for high school alumni.
“I think it has been easy for college students and other local graduates to reconnect at the rodeo,” said Wally Wolf, who has served seven terms as president of the Fort Dalles Rodeo Association.
This year, the “Rough and Wild” rodeo celebrates its 50th anniversary June 16-18. This is possibly the last year for the event to be held on the River Road property that has been its home since 1975.
A deal is now in the works to sell the land to an unknown buyer, and that means the rodeo may have to move.
“We don’t know whether this will be the last year or not,” said Jake Grossmiller, one of the charter members of the association. He and the group of volunteers who make the rodeo happen each year in return for “a cold bottle of water or a beer” said the loss of the rodeo would have economic significance. They said the competition feeds $3.5-$4 million back into the community each year.
Cowboys come from across the Northwest and beyond to compete for prizes. And fans come to see them in action.
When the rodeo began in 1965, the association needed to raise $6,300 each year to cover expenses.
The event has grown to the point that the annual investment is now $125,000-$150,000, said Grossmiller.
“The rodeo is always in the third week of July because that is tracked to have the least amount of rain of any weekend in the summer,” he said.
In 1988, Fort Dalles became one of the rodeos on the national circuit, which attracted more cowboys.
At the same time the local rodeo is going on, there will be 25 others in the United States, according to Grossmiller.
Virgil Choate is the only original board member still living. He served as secretary for the inaugural year, when the late Ralph Madsen was president and the late Ralph Baker was vice-president.
P.E. Curtis, also deceased, was treasurer. Duane Fulps was the late rodeo director.
“Virgil claims he’s too old (at 80) but we won’t let him quit,” said Wolf.
“In the beginning, this was a real big deal,” remembers Choate.
He shared memories of rodeos in past decades when the local Navy League arranged for military ships to dock and sailors tried their hand at bronc riding in their dress whites. In return, several cowboys from the association rode their horses up the gangplank to the ship.
Heck Harper, a television personality, Supreme Court Chief Justice William O. Douglas and his “scandalous bride,” who was 44 years younger, were among the dignitaries who served as grand marshals for the rodeo parade, then the only parade of the year.
People on the edges of the parade route were often roped by a passing cowboy and the windows of downtown businesses were painted with promotional pictures.
A painting on the former Johnny’s Café poked fun at Choate’s ill-fated journey with a pig.
His daughter had raised the pig as a 4-H project and it was time to take the animal to the auction, so Choate loaded it into his Chevy Blazer.
The pig exuded a lot more odor that he had anticipated, so Choate rolled down the front windows in the vehicle to get some fresh air. The animal then decided it needed some air, too. So it crawled over the back seat and then into the front passenger’s seat.
When the pig decided to help with the driving, Choate was forced to get animal in a headlock to regain control. He tried not to notice the stares of other motorists as he went down the road with his arm around a pig.
Choate said as other parades emerged, the crowd began to dwindle to the point that the association felt it was time to put a halt to that event several years go.
Grossmiller said the rodeo came to life out of discussions by a group of individuals in the backroom of the former Westgate Market on Chenoweth Street. He and his father, Ken, were the first rodeo announcers.
During the first 10 years, the rodeo was held at the Fort Dalles Riders Association arena off Chenowith Road. Headquarters was a small camp trailer and officers met there late each day to count the money by hand.
“We didn’t have calculators and all of the technology to play around with that they have today,” said Choate.
He said 90 percent of everything the association needed to make a rodeo happen was donated.
Grossmiller, Wolf, Choate and other volunteers helped cowboys get situated in their saddles before the gate into the arena opened and sorted calves for roping competitions.
“I had a lot of cow poop on front of my jeans, I still remember that,” said Choate.
Former Mayor John Skirving shot the buffalo that the association fed a crowd as a fundraiser at Sorosis Park after a parade.
Garth Bonney build a saddle for the best all-around cowboy each year in his shop that is now the Baldwin Saloon.
Fred Farney, also a long-time volunteer, rounded up one of these saddles that was being sold on Craigslist.
He called the number listed on the ad and made arrangements for a purchase – and then realized the saddle owner lived in Dallas, Texas, and not Dallas, Ore.
“I asked her what kind of deal we could work out and she agreed to sell it for $350 and then we had to pay another $150 to get it out here,” said Farney.
The saddle is believed to have been built in 1972 for a cowboy from Texas who took it home and eventually decided to sell it.
“It was in real sorry shape; it had green mold on it and the leather was stiffer than stiff,” said Farney, who got out the saddle soap and went to work.
The saddle will be on display in the western room at Fort Dalles Museum.
Grossmiller said the number of rodeos in the U.S. has declined in the past decade, but he remains hopeful the events of the American West will always have a place in society.
The rodeo association once boasted 148 members but volunteerism has declined.
“It just ebbs and flows,” said Choate.
He, Wolf, Grossmiller and Farney are hopeful that Wasco County residents will want to keep their own rodeo alive and help find a new arena.