Thursday, July 25, 2013

Let’s Go, Let’s Show, Let’s Rodeo—Cheyenne Frontier Days is Back

Decked out for Frontier Days circa 1959--Timothy Murfin, Sharon Niddlekoff, Patrick Murfin, and cousin Linda Strom.

Back in my old home town of Cheyenne, Wyoming they are about half way through the ten days of an annual athletic completion cum bacchanal known as Cheyenne Frontier Days which has been held annually for 116 years. 
Known as The Daddy of ‘em All, it is both the longest continuously held cowboy competition in the world and by far the largest outdoor competition of its kind.  Although there has been a National Finals Rodeo since 1956 to crown individual champions in each main professional rodeo event, that indoor competition, currently held in Las Vegas, lacks the pageantry and history that make Frontier Days unique. 
The first Cheyenne Frontier Day was a one day contest for local cowboys working the big ranches in the area on September 27, 1897.  The event included a raucous informal cowboy parade through downtown with the boy whooping it up and riding wildly much as they had done when they brought their herds to the rail head after round-up every year. 
Cheyenne was a bustling and modern small city, not only the Wyoming state capital, but home to major Union Pacific Railroad facilities.  Its streets had been the first in the nation to be illuminated by electric arc lamps back in 1883.   Fueled by the wealth of cattle barons on Millionaire’s Row, the city considered itself up-to-date and cosmopolitan.  Even in 1896, however, just six years after statehood and four years since the bloody events of the Johnson County War, residents were becoming nostalgic for their wild west heritage. 
The first event was so successful that Frontier Day became an annual event.  The competition was soon being promoted nationally by the Union Pacific to boost tourist traffic on its trains, and the local business community loved the sound of cash registers ringing in local hotels, restaurants, bars and brothels. 
By the turn of the 20th Century elements of the popular wild west shows popularized by Buffalo Bill Cody and others, including mock hold-ups of the Cheyenne to Deadwood stage coach, Indian battles, and in particularly bad taste given recent history, a re-enacted lynching of “rustlers” were incorporated into pageantry surrounding the rodeo.  Other events like street dances, amateur theatrics, menageries, and carnivals were added to the ever growing event over the years as more days of competition were added to the rodeo. Cowgirl competitions were an early favorite. The cowgirls rode the same stock and took the same risks as the men but were judged separately.
In 1910 former President Theodore Roosevelt was delighted to be on hand to congratulate the winning riders.  In 1903 as sitting president he had visited and a special one day rodeo was staged in his honor and he participated in a ride over Sherman Hill from Cheyenne to Laramie with Senator Francis E. Warren and big-wigs of the Wyoming Stock Growers Association.   
By the 1930’s stars of Hollywood’s popular westerns, including the state’s own favorite son Col. Tim McCoy, were regularly making personal appearances and sometimes incorporating the rodeo itself into their films.  Concerts by popular Hillbilly and Cowboy singers—and later the masters of Western Swing were added to the mix. 
Since 1931 reigning over the event has been Miss Frontier and her court.  For the first three years the winner of the honor was selected on the basis of who could sell the most tickets to a dance.  Starting in 1934 the Frontier Committee has privately picked Miss Frontier and her two attendants, traditionally drawing on the daughters and granddaughters of local cattle barons or Cheyenne business leaders.  One requirement was that she had to be an expert horse woman.  Miss Frontier of 1936 was Mary Helen Warren Wolborn, granddaughter of the state’s founding patriarch Francis E. Warren.  She designed and the distinctive white buckskin culottes costume worn to this day.  Her inspiration was a costume worn by celebrated fan dancer Sally Rand who had titillated audiences the year before. 
The 1950’s were the Golden Age of Rodeo.  The most storied figures of the sport were active—Casey Tibbs, Big Jim Shoulders, the Bell Brothers, and the legendary rodeo clown and bulldogger Wilbur Plaugher—and shined in Cheyenne.  Monte Blue, known for playing the sheriff in countless B westerns, was the arena announcer famous for his signature call at the beginning of each rodeo, “Let’s go, let’s show, let’s rodeo!”  Chief Charley Red Cloud and Princes Blue Water, who had appeared with Buffalo Bill, brought their band of Oglala Sioux each year to perform traditional dancing and live in a teepee village on the grounds of Frontier Park.  Top movie and TV stars from Roy Rogers to Hugh O’Brian made personal appearances and country music stars like Ernest Tubbs, Red Folley, and the Sons of the Pioneers performed nightly at the Frontier Pavillion.
From 1954 through 1956 my father, W. M. Murfin as Secretary of the Frontier Committee, played a leading roll in coordinating the rodeo and all of the other activities.  My brother Tim and I  reveled in riding in the parades and meeting the cowboys and celebrities that often came through our house.  Today the whole Frontier Days extravaganza stretches over ten days and includes 9 rodeos sanctioned by the Professional Rodeo Cowboys Association (PRCA).  Day Money is awarded to the winners in each event for each rodeo.  At the end of the schedule Cheyenne Frontier Days champions are named in each event and an All Around Cowboy, who has to compete in two or more events, are determined by the total amount of Day Money earned. There are also nights of separate Professional Bull Riders (PBR) competitions.
More than 2,500 local volunteers work on events that include the rodeo, parades, pancake breakfasts, concerts, chili and chuck wagon cook-offs, the carnival, exhibits, Indian Village, military open houses.  Traditional performances by the United States Air Force Thunderbirds, however, were canceled this year when the unit was dissolved because of  the Federal Budget sequestration.
This year in addition to top Country Music acts like Alan Jackson, Dwight Yoakam, Jason Aldean, Toby Keith, and tonight’s performers Rascal Flats the arena rockers Journey and Stix kicked off the concerts with a joint show.
I know many readers of this blog are animal lovers and abhor rodeo and the people who love it.  No question about it, rodeo can be brutal to both animals and human competitors—bull riding is hands down the most dangerous competitive sport in the world.  It remains so even though significant reforms have been made in how rodeo stock is handled and particularly dangerous events for animals like the Chuck Wagon Races—think horse drawn NASCAR with often horrific pile-ups—and Steer busting—roping a steer around the horns then pulling past the animal catching its feet and throwing it to the ground, a maneuver that often resulted on broken necks or legs—have been eliminated.  Nothing short of abolition by law of all rodeo competition will satisfy many animal rights folks.  I understand that.  But I also love a good rodeo.  I guess you will have to lump me with the heartless brutes. 

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