The world-famous Ellensburg Rodeo happens annually every Labor Day Weekend, and we thought it was important that visitors get a bit of background on this special event.
How It Began
Rodeo as a sport is relatively young. Dating back to the last quarter of the 19th century, most of the rodeos in the West were considered impromptu and amateur. But the diverse group of men and women who formed the Ellensburg Rodeo in 1923 weren’t amateurs in their fields.
A mixed group of “ranchers, farmers, Indians, and community-minded citizens” did their best to celebrate a “vanishing frontier way of life.” The financial lift it brought to the area was a happy and hoped-for surprise. When visitors started coming to watch the rodeo, they brought with them a thirst to be taken back into the Wild West, and they were willing to pay for it.
Ellensburg was once home to thousands of cattle and horses, and this plays an important role in the formation of the rodeo. With a sizable local community of cowboys, people were itching for a chance to show off their skills. And with the financial benefits discovered, townspeople were determined to make this an annual event.
Overwhelming approval from just about everyone in Ellensburg initiated the work to create a venue, schedule and plan. The original plan, pitched by the Kittitas County Fair Board, was to have the rodeo be a part of their annual Fair. They saw this as a way to promote local businesses, the annual Kittitas County Fair, and the new rodeo.
The Community Comes Together
But an ugly obstacle reared its head: money. There was a need for land to build the grounds, an arena, and a stage. On April 1st, 1923 a budget of $10,000 was set aside for the purchase of 18 acres adjacent to the fair grounds. With some money left over after the land purchase, they began to build the arena and bleachers. Of course, this was not going to cover the rest of the costs that were desperately needed to make this dream a reality.
In true old-time fashion, the community came together with donated materials and labor and built the arena. It’s estimated that over 500 valley men and women, and over 200 horses showed up to work on the new grounds. And come together, they did. “They finished building corrals, fences, three bridges and a grandstand; they plumbed new water mains, dug ditches and pruned trees.”
The First Official Ellensburg Rodeo
With all of their hard work finished, the collation planned the first rodeo. It was to be September 13th-15th, with 18 major events. A few of these events included wild horse, stagecoach and chariot races as well as entry parades, bucking broncs and bulls, calf roping, relay races, bulldogging and more.
The entire Yakama Indian nation was also invited to participate in the rodeo, keeping their traditions alive with their annual “Meeting Ground,” dancing, and horse racing.
After a rowdy, but extremely successful first rodeo (over 500 people were turned away, and that’s after having hundreds too many in the arena), everyone in Ellensburg knew that this would be an event to look forward to each year.
While the Ellensburg Rodeo has come a long way from its very humble, yet impressive beginnings, it truly was always meant to be a family and community event. When visiting this year, take a moment to soak in all of the back-breaking work that got this annual event started.
Information found at the Ellensburg Rodeo Hall of Fame.