Will Rogers told a newspaper that in Stamford he “went to a real cowboy reunion…not a professional rodeo like you see everywhere else, but a real celebration in a real cowtown by real old timers.”
[Publisher’s Note: This is the first installment of a series spotlighting people, places, history and events that create the spirit of West Texas Exceptionalism– and there are plenty of such stories to tell. We are currently considering further submissions. If you have a story to tell, contact jay@westtexasdrive dot com.]
It was 1930. The Great Depression was only beginning, but collapsing crop prices, overproduction, and heavy debt burdens had long since plunged rural America into economic misery. In the ranching, farming, and railroad center of Stamford, thirteen business and community leaders met to discuss an idea. The gloomy economy was damaging morale, and these men would not let the hard times hamper their young, growing community. They proposed a celebration to boost spirits. Given the area’s rich ranching history, the men settled on a rodeo, centered around July 4th festivities, and so began the Texas Cowboy Reunion.
Not only would this event provide a diversion from the country’s ongoing struggles, it would also promote the legacy of the West Texas cowboy, a way of life that was quickly declining as 20th century mechanization transformed farming and ranching methods. The first year was a success, as over 12,000 people watched three days of calf roping, bronc riding, steer riding, and rodeo’s first exhibition of wild cow milking. The Old Timers’ Association, a group composed of retired cowboys, was formed for historical commemoration.
The event took off. Permanent facilities were built around the natural amphitheater location. In 1937, as rural West Texas was at its most populous, a record 70,000 visitors made their way to the event. Wild cow milking would not be Stamford’s only innovation. In subsequent years, double mugging, a Texas rodeo staple, and the worldwide phenomenon of barrel racing would be created. In 1940, the American Quarter Horse Association would hold its first show at the Texas Cowboy Reunion. With a contestant roster made primarily of working cowboys and regular folks, the event would come to be billed as the “world’s largest amateur rodeo.”
In 1935, legendary cowboy humorist and performer Will Rogers quietly flew to town and was spotted watching the events up in the grandstand. After some prodding, he agreed to perform a roping demonstration in what would be one of his last public appearances before his death the next month. Rogers told a newspaper that he “went to a real cowboy reunion…not a professional rodeo like you see everywhere else, but a real celebration in a real cowtown by real old timers.”
Today, dozens of volunteers strive to uphold the mission of the thirteen founders and the vision of the event so eloquently described by Will Rogers. On June 28-July 2, 2016, Stamford will play host to over 15,000 visitors from near and far. The Old Timers’ Association will meet, as it does every year, to preserve the historic legacy of the West Texas cowboy. Visitors will eat barbecue, talk about the cowboy life, and watch the contestants, still primarily amateurs, perform
Real cowboys will ride broncs and bulls, rope calves, wrestle yearlings, milk wild cows, and tame wild mares. Real cowgirls will race barrels and rope calves. Old timer cowboys and cowgirls will rope calves and race barrels. Western artists, chuckwagon cooks, and cowboy poets from across Texas will present the culture of the Texas cowboy. Cowboys and cowgirls will square off in an old-fashioned matched horse race. And, every night after the rodeo, visitors will dance under the stars to western swing and Texas country music.
In 1930, West Texas was consumed by uncertainty and discouragement. The weather and economy weren’t cooperating and the government wasn’t much more helpful. Thirteen bold men, who had spent years building a new community on the dusty Rolling Plains, were not to be deterred. They chose to make Stamford the center of something memorable, something better than the melancholy world around it. 86 years later, that legacy lives on. Agriculture and oil may experience boom and bust. Weather and government may not be any more helpful than they were in 1930. But, no matter what else happens, on the July 4th weekend in Stamford, you’ll find a real cowboy reunion in a real cowtown.
Feature Photo: www.smyth1.net