History of the Prescott Rodeo
“The World’s Oldest Rodeo®”
A History of the Prescott Rodeo – by Jim Anderson & Danny Freeman, photos courtesy of Sharlot Hall Museum – Updated 2010CP
July 4, 1888, became the birthday of professional rodeo when a group of Prescott, Arizona, merchants and professional businessmen organized the first formalized “cowboy tournament” and offered cash prizes. A cowboy named Juan Leivas walked off with rodeo’s first professional title and was documented in the subsequent edition of the Arizona Journal-Miner. These “Cowboy Contests” continued and were planned, promoted and carried out by a committee of local merchants. From then on, rodeo has grown into a multimillion dollar enterprise with more than 700 professional rodeos in 50 states.
The act of rodeo is as old as cattle raising itself. Stemming out of the Spanish traditions of the vaquero, it has become a world phenomenon. But only in America has rodeo reached its zenith. Of all the sports that we the viewer, or the participant, have to choose from, no other is directly related to the natural world like rodeo. And unlike any other sport, rodeo is a reflection of the skills used in real life. The knowledge, tenacious spirit, and athletic ability are inherent in the ranching world and are exemplified in the competitive arena of the rodeo.
The earliest editions of Prescott’s rodeo were mostly appealing to the local cowboys and ranchers because it gave them the chance to bring their ranch-bred skills to town for people to see. The fancy rodeo arenas that we know today were simply nonexistent in the late 1800s and early 1900s. Prescott’s rodeo “arena” was merely a tract of land, in what was called Forbing Park, off of what today is, Iron Springs Road, very much unimproved, and roped off to keep the broncs from running away after they unseated their riders. Exact numbers of total contestants were often confused but total purses of less than $1,000 were common.
The name, Prescott Frontier Days—a committee of the Yavapai County Fair Association, came into being in 1913, the year the July 4th celebration began at its present location; then the Yavapai County Fairgrounds; today the Prescott Rodeo Grounds. Participation by the likes of Tom Mix and attendance by celebrities such as Will Rogers increased the awareness and popularity of the event. ‘Rodeo’ is a Spanish word meaning “to roundup”, and the word ‘rodeo’, for cowboy contests wasn’t used anywhere until 1916. It was first used in Prescott in 1924.
Whereas the Yavapai County Fair ceased operation from 1933 until 1947, the rodeo continued uninterrupted and has never missed a year since 1888. In the mid ’30s, the Grandstand, the two Rock Buildings (today called the Pardee and the Freeman buildings), and the stone ‘Fish Pond’ were built at the existing site with the help of federally funded WPA and the CCC projects. Recovered artifacts from that construction are on display at the Smoki Museum today, along with other rodeo artifacts and memorabilia at Sharlot Hall and Phippen Museums. A week-long celebration marking 50 years of Prescott rodeo was held in 1937. Several locals participated in the gala event and many former rodeo contestants helped put on festivities that also attracted thousands of Arizonans from around the state.
In the early ’40s, a group of locals called the 20-30 Club decided to lend a hand to help produce Prescott’s rodeo. In those days, problems of a financial nature were pressing on the producers of the rodeo so much that there was talk of postponing or cancelling it entirely, but they didn’t! The 20-30 Club, composed of young men from 20 to 30 years of age was led by local historian Lester “Budge” Ruffner. These men decided to promote the “working” cowboy concept of rodeo, and any professional cowboy was banned from 1941-1946. World War II took many men and contestants from the rodeo ranks during this period, but with the help of local ranchers and volunteer workers, the show went on.
During the late ’40s and ’50s, Prescott saw the rodeo tradition continue with the help of die-hard supporters such as Gordon Koch, Danny Freeman, Fred Schemmer and Andy Jauregui. These men garnered considerable support from rodeo lovers from around town and Yavapai County. Rodeo grew as a spectator and contestant sport continually for a period of years. Purses grew to compete with rodeos in the West that sprung up to compete with Prescott’s crowds. Purses grew to astronomical sums for those days, often exceeding $20,000. With the competition for the rodeo spectator came the increases in charges for quality livestock. No longer could the local rancher provide enough calves, steers and broncs to fulfill the needs of the larger number of cowboys coming to Prescott.
The 1960s saw the transition of rodeo production change hands until 1968 when the Prescott Jaycees took control. The Jaycees made many changes, perhaps the most important being to hire a stock contractor named Harry Vold in 1972. Vold continues to furnish some of the best stock available today to Prescott’s Frontier Days Rodeo, attracting top cowboys to compete on top stock. That same year, the Hollywood movie, ‘Junior Bonner’ with Steve McQueen was filmed around the actual rodeo and parade and thrust the Prescott Rodeo into the national and world-wide spotlight.
In the 1970’s, the Prescott Jaycees ran the celebration. In between, the Yavapai County Fair Association, a non-profit organization, was always there to keep the rodeo going. In 1978, the present organization, Prescott Frontier Days®, Inc., a non-profit corporation, was organized and conducted its first 4th of July celebration in 1979. The Prescott Jaycees folded in 1979 due to internal problems, but Prescott Frontier Days®, Inc. kept the rodeo going. In 1984, a number of the Rodeo Committee members signed notes on their own houses to guarantee the perpetuation of the World’s Oldest Rodeo®. It has continued ever since with the main event being the ‘World’s Oldest Rodeo®‘. This name was approved and registered by the U.S. Patent Office in 1985 based upon five separate criteria to which it qualified. This non-profit organization exists today as the backbone of Prescott’s rodeo. This group is composed of hundreds of hard- working members and volunteers, dedicated to the preservation of Prescott Frontier Days® and the ‘World’s Oldest Rodeo®.’ In 1988, the World’s Oldest Rodeo® celebrated its 100th Anniversary. In 2012, when the state of Arizona holds its 100th year Centennial, Prescott Frontier Days®, Inc will hold the 125th Annual World’s Oldest Rodeo®. In 2004, Prescott Frontier Days®, Inc hired Mr. JC Trujillo, 1981 Bareback World Champion, five-time Prescott Champion and 1994 Pro Rodeo Hall of Fame Inductee as its General Manager.
In July of 2008, the Prescott Frontier Days®, Inc Committee was inducted into the Pro Rodeo Hall of Fame in Colorado Springs, Colorado as one of only sixteen rodeos ever to have this honor bestowed upon them. Prescott Frontier Days®, Inc., is an organization of people of all ages from the Prescott area. They give their time and talents, as volunteers, to put on a number of events each year. There are currently over 200 active members and during the peak period, around the 4th of July, that number swells with an additional 700 volunteers, who typically stage a Golf Tournament, 10K Run, Arizona’s second largest parade, the Prescott Frontier Days®, Inc. Rodeo Parade, a Happy Hearts event for challenged children, an Old Timers Gathering, and of course, the 8 performances of the ‘World’s Oldest Rodeo®‘ . The organization has a 9 member Board of Directors, including the President, and some 40+ Chairmen of as many committees.
It serves people – it is the major economic engine for the surrounding communities that draws approximately 27,000 spectators for rodeo and an additional 25,000 in the other 11 months of the year. Prescott Frontier Days®, Inc. has been able to donate thousands of dollars in past years to organizations such as: the American Cancer Society, Big Brothers/Big Sisters, Justin Cowboy Crisis Fund, Dress a Child, 4-H, Make a Wish Foundation, Miss Prescott Frontier Days Scholarship, Prescott Development Center, Prescott Fine Arts, Prescott Schools, Sharlot Hall Museum, Toys for Tots and the United Way, among others.