It's hard to imagine there was ever a time in Montana when Fourth of July didn’t mean a rodeo somewhere.
Cowboy Christmas is back this week. By Sunday, hundreds of brave or crazy men, women and children will have entered at least a dozen dirt arenas around the state to compete for cash, circuit points and everything else that’s wrapped up in the culture of rodeo.
It’s a tradition so entrenched in our 21st-century DNA we forget how it got there.
We didn’t used to call them rodeos. A look back through the Missoulian archives indicates “rodeos” were the stuff of newsreels, like that of the California Rodeo in October 1912. A Missoulian ad promoted “parades, fancy riding and roping, bulldogging steers, aeroplane flights over the grounds — all shown in remarkable clearness at The American.”
In 1917, actor Douglas Fairbanks hired champions and trick riders from the Cheyenne Rodeo for his latest flick, “The Man from Painted Post.” It was shown in December at the Empress, the former Bluebird Theater, on North Higgins.
By then Missoula had its own rodeo but didn't call it that. The first Missoula Stampede was held on the Fourth of July, 1915, at the new fairgrounds south of town. We waited until after harvest in October for the county fair.
The Stampede was billed as a "Wild West Show" produced by the Chamber of Commerce. It featured not just bulldogging, bronc and bull riding but also wild horse and stagecoach races, cowgirls' bronc riding, buffalo roping and tying. In all, there were “22 thrilling and different events" for four straight days over the Independence Day weekend.
By 1927, the Western Montana Fair was in mid-September and rodeo events were intermixed with the popular horse races. Fair Saturday, Sept. 17, featured a bucking mule exhibition, bareback riding, Bobby Rooker in fancy roping, a Roman race, an aerial act, a novelty auto race and finals to the bucking contest.
Famed stock contractor Leo Cremer brought his string to Missoula in 1936. It seems to be the first time the word “Rodeo” was paired with the Western Montana Fair. Cremer, of Big Timber and Shawmut, supplied his own floodlights and staged Missoula’s first night rodeo in late August.
It was a professional production, starting at 8 p.m. Of the second performance on Thursday, Aug. 27, an unnamed reporter wrote:
“The only near casualty of a fast-moving evening of events occurred when John Elfic, otherwise dubbed 'Whirligig,' lived up to his nickname under the flaying hoofs of a Brahma steer."
Whirligig was loaded into an ambulance but as it left the arena he "slipped out the side door and reappeared on the arena amid great applause from the stands.”
Doris Case rode “a vicious bundle of angry horseflesh" to a dead standstill. And Monte Montana, Hollywood trick specialist, “thrilled the audience with a stand-up stunt on a galloping horse while he whirled two loops.”
Cremer produced the fair rodeo once more, in 1937.
Fire destroyed the crowded grandstand and two other buildings on Thursday of the fair in 1941. Remarkably, there were no deaths and just a handful of minor injuries. Carpenters and WPA crews from the nearby airport project at Hale Field cleaned up the mess and erected temporary bleachers.
The Missoulian reported the next day, “In best tradition of the business, Chairman John Stahl of the fair board said the championship rodeo show will be continued at 8:15 o'clock this evening with the full evening program to be shown.”
The rodeo continued to its Sunday finale, but the fire and World War II ended all Missoula fairs until 1954. The Junior Chamber of Commerce (Jaycees) stepped in to fill the rodeo void in 1946, reviving the Missoula Stampede. It was a thing on the third week of July until 1957. By then Hall of Fame rodeo cowboy Oral Zumwalt, once Cremer's arena boss, had something special cooking up Miller Creek.
Under the headline “Arena is Ready for KO Rodeo,” the Missoulian reported:
“Members of the Missoula County Sheriffs Posse, sponsor of the rodeo to be staged Sunday at the KO Ranch up Miller Creek, this week put the finishing touches on the new arena at the ranch. The rodeo, first of the season in this area, will start at 2 o'clock Sunday, with a mountain ‘suicide race’ as one of its features. Posse Maj. Roy Rodenberger said an attendance of more than 4,000 is indicated, if good weather prevails.”
So began one of Missoula’s great traditions. The annual May rodeo supplied memories for nearly four decades, with names like founders Zumwalt and Bud Lake; Zumwalt’s son-in-law Billy Lawrence; Reg Kesler, Zumwalt’s successor on the KO Ranch; world champions Benny Reynolds and the legendary Trails End; announcer Bill Holt; hillside seating; rainy Sundays, but more often spring sunshine, and Pat Boone’s “Love Letters in the Sand” over the PA system.
For years Missoula was the only city in Montana to hold two Professional Rodeo Cowboys Association events each year — what became known as the Oral Zumwalt Memorial Rodeo on a Sunday in May and the three-night Western Montana Fair Rodeo in August.
In 1987, the Keslers moved the Zumwalt rodeo to the fairgrounds as facilities at the Miller Creek arena became too dilapidated. What was last known as the Kesler Spring Rodeo was included on a big horse weekend that included the University of Montana’s Big Sky Region rodeo.
But the college rodeo was moved to late April in 1994. The spring pro rodeo had lost money three years in a row, and the Missoula County Fair Board, its last operator, voted to end it in early 1995 — 40 years after the first KO Rodeo.
These days the rodeo at the Missoula fair is produced by Ike Sankey’s Sankey Rodeo Co. in the same arena the first Missoula Stampede was held. In some ways it’s not much different from when Leo Cremer, Monte Montana and Whirligig came to town in 1936 and ’37 for the first night rodeos in the Garden City.
In 2008 a rodeo committee headed by Kyle Stensrud and Kory Mytty pumped new life and sponsorships into the event. They even came up with a new brand name, albeit with a familiar ring.
They called it the Missoula Stampede Rodeo. Still do.
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