Rodeo's beginnings stretch back to the early 1700s when Spanish missions dotted what eventually became the American West. Back then vaqueros, Spanish cattlemen, used such skills as riding, roping, branding, and herding in daily ranch life. As time went on these early cowboys' style of dress, equipment, and ranching traditions were adopted and adapted by newcomers settling the open range.
After the Civil War cattle herds were increased to meet the demands of a growing country. Twice a year cowboys rounded up their free-ranging herds and drove them to market in Kansas City or Fort Worth, the end of the line for some railroads. After these long cattle drives cowboys held casual competitions to discover the best roper or rider.
By the late 1800s cattle drives were becoming a thing of the past. Barbed wire crisscrossed the range and ever-expanding railroads brought cattle cars to all points west. With the dwindling need for ranch hands and the homesteading of the plains, cowboys were at a loss on how to make a living. Enter Buffalo Bill Cody and the Wild West Show!
Designed to captivate and thrill audiences, the Wild West shows of the late 19th and early 20th centuries featured cowboys and Indians, bucking broncos, snorting bulls, and the like. The pageantry of the performers' parade into the arena was followed by competitions of fancy riding, rope tricks, and other feats of showmanship.
During this time cowboys still held informal competitions at stock-horse shows and other venues, but now they performed in front of a paying audience. When Wild West shows fell victim to high production costs, cowboy competitions gained in popularity, often becoming the annual highlight of many a frontier town. Entry fees were added to prize purses, encouraging ropers and riders to compete for a little extra cash. As the sport grew, performers were able to earn a living on the rodeo circuit.
Rodeo soon professionalized itself. In 1929 the Rodeo Association of America was formed to set uniform competition rules. In the mid 1930s another organization was started by a group of cowboys angry about cheating rodeo promoters, poorly advertised shows, and unfair judging. Their efforts made a difference and the group became the Rodeo Cowboys Association in 1945. The modern era of rodeo had begun.
Springdale's first rodeo was held in September 1926 at the local ball park. Two Oklahomans organized the event which featured 20 performers and various livestock. Cold weather led to a low turnout and the show lost money. People may also have stayed away because of their unfamiliarity with rodeo, described by the local newspaper as a "most unusual" type of entertainment.
The notion of holding another rodeo in Springdale started with Paul Bond and T.W. "Bill" Kelley, two Oklahoma construction workers who were in town on a remodeling job. The men, both rodeo promoters on the side, approached their boss, Walter Watkins of Welch's Grape Juice Company, about staging a rodeo. Watkins passed the idea on to Thurman "Shorty" Parsons and Dempsey Letsch, owners of the Farmer's Livestock Sales Barn on east Emma Avenue. With their support and that of the Clarence E. Beely American Legion post, the rodeo was on!
All of this happened in 1945 at the tail end of World War II, when patriotism was high and victory was in sight. The good folks of Springdale were ready to celebrate. It's no wonder they chose the Independence Day holiday to stage the rodeo. Springdale had a long tradition of marking the Fourth of July with elaborate parades, picnics, races, ball games, band concerts, and speeches.
Organizers knew that they needed paying spectators in order to repay the loans necessary to bring lights, bleachers, performers, and stock to the empty lot next to Parsons and Letsch's stockyard. Watkins organized a "goodwill caravan" to promote the rodeo. Members of the Springdale Riding Club and "Doc" Boone's Skunk Holler Hillbilly Band hit the road, bringing horses, fancy riding gear, bluegrass, and comedy to the region's towns. At each stop they'd perform music and boost the rodeo.
The promotion worked and tickets were sold for the three-day event. But on July 1 heavy rains fell and the rodeo's first day was cancelled. Over the next two days good-sized crowds came to watch performers such as bronc stomper Sampson Sullivan of Oklahoma and local roper Glenn "Pup" Harp compete for $25 war bonds. Tragedy struck on the final night of the show. The wood bleachers collapsed, causing minor injuries to many spectators and severe injuries to a few. But despite bad weather and a terrible accident, the rodeo was a modest success.
Improvements were necessary for the 1946 rodeo, now dubbed the "Rodeo of the Ozarks." Sturdy, permanent bleachers were built and lights installed for nighttime performances. The Legion constructed box seats and the Chamber of Commerce provided financial support for advertising and prizes. Once again a rodeo caravan rode forth to spread the word. Best of all, the Rodeo Cowboys Association sanctioned the event, making it more desirable for performers to compete. The rodeo was a rousing success.
The following year the newly formed Springdale Benevolent Amusement Association bought the rodeo grounds and took over management of the rodeo. Over the years the rodeo has grown and attracted numerous visitors and top-quality performers to Parsons Stadium. These days cowboys and cowgirls compete for over $100,000 in prizes, crowds line Emma Avenue to watch the parades, and thousands of people make their way to Springdale to participate in the excitement and drama of the rodeo.