Though I’ve lived in Oklahoma more than six years, for the first time I attended the annual Will Rogers Memorial Rodeo in Vinita.
Will Rogers, who grew up near Vinita and attended college there, promised townsfolk in 1934 he would return to Vinita if they put together a rodeo. Just weeks before the rodeo would take place in 1935, Rogers and aviator Wiley Post died in plane crash in Alaska. Vinita residents decided to hold the rodeo as an annual memorial to Rogers, and have since.
The rodeo takes place just off Route 66, and the big arena wall that touts the annual event can be seen from the Mother Road. It has been held every year since 1935 but two times — once during World War II and, according to the rodeo announcer, during a local anthrax outbreak.
The local American Legion organizes the rodeo each year, and boasts a $55,000 purse to draw professional cowboys from all over (one who competed Saturday came from New Jersey). The event draws dozens of sponsors, and the town obviously is proud of it. And everything I saw at the rodeo — from the boss sound system to the high-tech scoreboard to well-organized program to the rapid-fire comedy by rodeo clown John Harrison — was first-rate. Here’s some video footage I shot at the event:
The rodeo also came with a sense of passage. Not only does it serve as a memorial to Rogers, but to deceased American Legion members. Played was a recording of a benediction by longtime rodeo legend and area native Clem McSpadden, who passed away two years ago. The multiple generations of people sitting in the old wooden bleachers probably recalled departed relatives who once sat there with them, too.
And a rodeo serves as as a nostalgic event itself. The Buffalo Bill Wild West shows, a precursor of modern rodeos more than a century ago, celebrated the fading cowboy culture of the Wild West. Although many of the skills shown at the rodeo still are used on ranches today, they’re withering amid encroachment of higher-tech, high-efficiency cattle-raising methods.
The Will Rogers Memorial Rodeo is set to mark its 75th anniversary next year. While watching, I wondered whether we would see a 100th edition. The rodeo industry has come under fire for its animal-treatment methods (and this former farm boy saw the steer-roping as a very rough and expendable event). The nation is becoming more vegetarian. And there are the aforementioned changes in the cattle industry itself that threaten to make rodeo skills obsolete.
I’m not necessarily lamenting these possible changes. A society that’s less cruel to its animals and more receptive to sustainable agriculture should be seen as a good thing.
But, as inexorable changes occur, one has to consider what might be lost. And after seeing what what was lost during the emergence of the interstate highways era, one could draw a lot of parallels to Route 66 and rodeos.