Clovis Rodeo at 100: From dusty origins to big-time business

The Fresno BeeApril 19, 2014 

One hundred years ago, when Clovis was a small, distant and dusty farm town of perhaps 1,000 residents, a group of enterprising women decided to get together and throw a "spring festival" — a little town picnic with a parade and informal horse races among ranchers and cowboys — as a fundraising event.

Nowadays, pardner, things are different around these here parts.

With a population of about 100,000, Clovis isn't so small, distant or dusty. You're more likely to find a bicycle rack on the street than a hitchin' post. The Clovis Women's Club, which organized that long-ago festival, is no more.

But the festival that club members started in a park along what is now Clovis Avenue has survived — nay, thrived — over the past century, evolving to become the Clovis Rodeo, one of the largest in California and a major stop for the world's top professional rodeo cowboys, touring bull riders and barrel racers.

RELATED: Clovis Rodeo to be added to ProRodeo Hall of Fame

The 100th Clovis Rodeo — which opens its four-day run Thursday at the Clovis Rodeo Grounds less than a quarter mile from the park where the Women's Club held that first picnic — represents an occasion for long-established local families to mingle with newcomers in a full-blown celebration honoring the city's history. It's also a chance for local groups selling food and refreshments to rake in a few dollars, just like the Women's Club did.

"This town just reeks of Western heritage," said Mark Thompson, a Clovis Rodeo Association board member and past president who also serves as one of the rodeo's public-address announcers. The nonprofit association has run the event since 1936, when it was incorporated as the Clovis Horse Show and Festival Association.

And Thompson's not exaggerating. The city's "Old Town" business district is chock full of storefronts festooned with Western facades; the local transit service is called Clovis Stageline; a smattering of businesses and shopping centers have "Rodeo," "Old West" and "Western" in their names; and even the city's logo and street signs are marked with an image of a cowboy atop a bucking bronco. It's all designed to engender a romantic image of what the community celebrates as the "Clovis Way of Life."

"Our origins came from the town of Academy, which was cattle and sheep men," said Peg Bos, a lifelong Clovis resident and former mayor who runs the Clovis-Big Dry Creek Museum. "The rodeo is a big deal for Clovis because the cowboy is the icon of the West. He has strong work ethics, good family ethics and is dedicated to his stock and his country.

"It's good to celebrate that because it's our highest aim, something to bring us together," she added. "And it really does. Just say 'rodeo' and Clovis gets all excited."

Bos, who serves on the city's tourism committee, said the Clovis Rodeo is the city's biggest annual event — larger even than the occasional stops in recent years of the Amgen Tour of California, which attracts many of the world's top professional bicycle racers.

The rodeo is a chance for Clovis businesses "to make significant income," Bos said. "The hotels are booked months ahead of time, and the restaurants just pop. We get families and kids down here in downtown. It's a big economic boost for Clovis."

Family traditions

Some of the Clovis Rodeo's traditions go back to its earliest incarnations, including a parade through town, the coronation of a rodeo queen and contests pitting man against beast. But really, that's about where the similarities end.

Into at least the 1930s, the event on the last Saturday of April still was known as Festival Day. And the 1936 program shows that what is now considered a real "rodeo" event — a handful of cowboys and bucking horses — was almost an afterthought following a full day of activities: the parade, a high school baseball game, a pair of amateur softball games and a slate of 12 horse races (over which the townfolk likely exchanged a few wagers, modern rodeo organizers readily admit).

The 100th rodeo, which will attract tens of thousands to the Rodeo Grounds over four days, bears little resemblance to the quaint affairs of the distant past.

"When you talk about 100 years, that's four or five generations ago," said 80-year-old Dan Forbes, who hails from one of the area's old ranching families and was a longtime member of the Clovis Rodeo Association board. "If you had some of those old people who started it — and some of their relations are still here helping to put on this rodeo — they couldn't believe what we're doing today."

Forbes served for years as a member of the Clovis Rodeo Association's board, and was the group's president from 1965 to 1968 and the rodeo's grand marshal in 1997. He followed in the footsteps of his dad, Ted Forbes, the 1955 rodeo association president and 1976 grand marshal.

Bos rattled off the names of families from Clovis' early days — the Samples, Simpsons, Everetts, Robinsons and others. "All those families are still around, and their grandsons and great-grandsons are doing the rodeo now," she said. "It's just a continuation of a family tradition."

This year's rodeo association president, Chuck Rigsbee, represents that kind of tradition. Rigsbee is a longtime member of the rodeo board. So is his brother, former president Dan Rigsbee. So was their father, Emmett Rigsbee, who was the rodeo's grand marshal in 1992. His great-grandfather, Joseph Sagniere, was one of the cooks for all the beef and beans back when the Women's Club ran the festival in its early days.

"The core group of the association itself is volunteers with family connections that understand the Western way of life in Clovis," Chuck Rigsbee said. "We work really hard to preserve that as we move forward, and we hope to continue this for another hundred years."

As Clovis has grown, so, too, has the challenge of organizing the rodeo. "There is still a nucleus of 'Old Clovis,' and a huge influx of 'New Clovis,' " Chuck Rigsbee said of the community's maturation. "Our job is to get the new Clovis in touch with the old Clovis."

That includes bringing new blood into the venerable Rodeo Association. What was once a tight-knit, all-volunteer group of about 100 has, since the 1960s and 1970s, exploded into a tight-knit, all-volunteer group of more than 700 members, with more people clamoring to join every year, said Stan King, a former board member and former Clovis mayor.

"We hit a lull about 10 years ago with the number of younger people who really wanted to work out here to become a member," King said. "Now the situation seems totally different, something going on that wasn't 10 or 15 years ago. Now there are a good number of young people who want to get involved."

Growing, changing

As Clovis has changed, so has its rodeo. Originally, riders performed in a makeshift arena formed by ringing available wagons and automobiles around a community park. In the 1930s, the rodeo association built its first real arena, providing 1,400 wooden grandstand seats. In 1950, a new concrete and steel grandstand capable of holding 7,000 people was built.

Since then, more stands have been added, bring the seating capacity of the rodeo grounds to about 10,000. This year, the rodeo association will debut a new set of VIP skyboxes for sponsors.

All this has happened while the nature of the sport of rodeo itself has evolved, and the Clovis Rodeo expanded to two days, then three, and, in recent years, four days of events — including notable country performers in concerts following the Thursday night Professional Bull Riders Touring Pro program and Friday night's rodeo performance.

Rodeoing originally was the bailiwick of local cowboys and ranchers who raced their horses against one another and vied to see who could stay on the roughest ranch colts the longest or who were the best ropers, earning prizes of a few dollars.

In 1936, the total prize money awarded in Clovis for the 12 races plus the modest bucking and roping contests amounted to about $150, plus a couple of new pairs of overalls donated by Levi Strauss Co. Today, the stakes — and the level of competition — are much greater.

"In the late 1930s and 1940s, it really was more amateur, not the organized sport that it is today," Chuck Rigsbee said. "The livestock just came from various ranches in the area, and not from the sophisticated breeding programs there are now."

After World War II, the sport grew and cowboys became more professional, following a circuit of rodeos that offered more attractive prizes.

At the same time, livestock contractors began breeding horses and bulls with the appropriate temperament — "animals that like to buck," Rigsbee said.

"In today's world, I think the livestock is a lot better than the cowboy," he said. "Breeding programs have improved the sport, but the cowboy still has to have the fire in the belly to do it week after week."

Rodeo's popularity has increased with the money. In 1972, rodeo superstar Larry Mahan was one of the biggest names the sport had ever seen. He was the Clovis Rodeo's top prizewinner that year, pulling down just over $800 from a total prize purse of $11,000.

This year, more than $300,000 in prize money will be available to rodeo competitors.

Dan Rigsbee said the involvement of sponsors has helped drive up prizes over the past 20 years or so. "When I first came on the board in about 1982, I think we had a top prize of $1,250, and that was a lot of money," he said.

"We argued about that frequently as a board," King added. " 'You want to pay how much?' "

Past rodeo board president Vince Genco moved to Clovis in 1973 and soon got involved with the association. He knew that the Clovis Rodeo needed to either grow or would grow stagnant.

"I'd seen enough rodeos that had not wanted to better themselves and kept their prizes at about $500," he said. "I call them 'pumpkin rollers.' I've always said that if all the board here wants to be is a pumpkin roller, I'm not interested. If all you want to do is get people to come see somebody get bucked off an average horse, sooner or later that's going to catch up to you because you're not giving people something to want to come back to."

Today the Clovis Rodeo is one of only about a dozen nationwide stops on the Wrangler Million Dollar Pro Rodeo Silver Tour. The Silver Tour is comprised of rodeos that offer a purse of at least $10,000 in each of the six Professional Rodeo Cowboys Association events: bareback riding, steer wrestling, team roping, saddle bronc riding, tie-down roping and bull riding. And that doesn't count the Thursday night PBR tour or the women's barrel racing competitions during the rodeo.

It didn't come easily, though.

"When I came on the board, things like sponsorships were a no-no," King said. "You didn't have a sign out in the arena. It wasn't traditional. But the board was confronted with the economics where it was difficult to pay for what we were doing out there. ... That's when we started out selling the chute gates and went from there."

Expect the unexpected

The volatile combination of cowboys, leather, horses, bulls and steers will provide plenty of thrills for rodeo fans, but past history has taught rodeo organizers to always expect the unexpected.

Consider, for instance, the 1974 rodeo, when a female streaker invaded the rodeo arena clad only in high heels and three Clovis Rodeo bumper stickers. Forbes said he's weary of telling the tale, but there's a tone in his voice that says otherwise:

"Rae Crabtree was the grand marshal ... and he was getting ready to ride out into the arena, and that streaker came right up behind him," Forbes recalled. "It was a shame no one got a picture of the expression on his face when she ran by."

"And the board apparently bought those bumper stickers pretty cheap, because the glue was so bad they wouldn't stay on her," he added with a wry smile.

That particular year, one of the rodeo clowns was a man named Wick Peck, "a good-looking fellow with long hair about down to here," Forbes said, putting his hand to his shoulder. And at the east end of the arena were two aging directors with failing eyesight, Jack Estill and Jay Robinson.

"Well, that streaker came out in the arena, and down at the east end, Jack — his eyes were so bad — was squinting down there at her and said to Jay, 'Hey, that ol' Wick is always coming up with something new, isn't he?' "

With or without streakers, despite its growth and prominence in the sport, however, the Clovis Rodeo remains at its heart a community celebration, just like it was in 1914.

All of the food vendors at the rodeo grounds are local organizations running the booths to raise funds. "Every tri-tip sandwich that's sold, every soda that someone buys, is money going to one of our community organizations," said Ron Dunbar, another rodeo board member and past president who practically grew up working and playing "and farting around" at the rodeo as a kid.

"We give in excess of $150,000 back to the community as an organization each year," Chuck Rigsbee said of money that comes in from the sale of rodeo and concert tickets, souvenirs and other paraphernalia. "This is something we've created to try to help everybody out."

If you go

What: 100th Clovis Rodeo

Where: Clovis Rodeo Grounds, east of Clovis Avenue between Barstow Avenue and Fifth Street

Tickets: Reserved tickets range in price from $20 to $30. Parking is free on the rodeo grounds.

Contact: ClovisRodeo.com; ticket office (559) 299-5203; rodeo office (559) 299-8838

THURSDAY

6:30 p.m.: PBR Touring Pro Division bull riding and crowning of the 2014 Rodeo Queen

9 p.m. (approximately): Scotty McCreery concert, free with paid rodeo admission

FRIDAY

5:30 p.m.: Opening ceremonies; PRCA rodeo competition (bareback riding, steer wrestling, saddle bronc riding, team roping, tie-down roping, bull riding); women's barrel racing; kids' mutton busting

9 p.m. (approximately): Tyler Farr concert, free with paid rodeo admission

SATURDAY

9:30 a.m.: Clovis Rodeo Parade through downtown Clovis

2 p.m.: Opening ceremonies; PRCA rodeo competition; women's barrel racing; kids' mutton bustin'

7:30 p.m.: Clovis Rodeo Dance with Chris Curtice & Wild Horses

SUNDAY

Noon: Special kids rodeo with Break the Barriers

2 p.m.: Opening ceremonies; Rodeo Finals performance for PRCA rodeo competition; Gold Card roping finals; women's barrel racing; kids' mutton bustin'   Valley traditions

The Clovis Rodeo is the granddaddy in the central San Joaquin Valley, but others have long traditions, too:

Laton Lions: The rodeo celebrated its 50th anniversary April 4-6. www.latonrodeo.com

Springville: 66th annual rodeo is Friday-Sunday. It traditionally runs the same weekend as Clovis; many competitors hit both in the same weekend.

www.springvillerodeo.com

Coarsegold: The 62nd annual rodeo is May 3-4. www.coarsegoldrodeo.com

Riverdale: Always the first weekend in May. The 58th rodeo is May 3-4.

www.riverdalerodeo.webs.com

Woodlake Lions: Always on Mother's Day weekend. The 61st annual rodeo is May 10-11. www.woodlakelionsrodeo.org

Mariposa: Part of the Mariposa County Fair, held annually since 1939 on Labor Day weekend. This year's one-day rodeo is Sept. 1.

www.mariposafair.com

The reporter can be reached at (559) 441-6319, tsheehan@fresnobee.com or @TimSheehanNews on Twitter.

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