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She's Wild: The Beginnings of the Bozeman Roundup

by Rachel Phillips   |  Saturday Jul. 1st, 2017

It was the summer of 1919. The Elks Club was busy finalizing plans for their statewide convention—their first big meeting since gathering in Butte in 1916, just before World War I. The war had definitely put an end to large-scale entertainment events and tourist attractions. Bozeman’s famous Sweet Pea Carnival, established in 1906, lasted through the 1916 season before all energy and focus shifted to the conflict in Europe. In 1919, locals were ready to celebrate again.

Despite a frightening outbreak of Spanish Flu, the end of the Great War and the upcoming state Elks Convention gave local businessmen an opportunity to create a new signature event. Investors, including Walter Hill, R. P. McClelland, Lester Work, T. B. Story, and Nelson Story, Jr., were confident that the time was right to introduce a new celebration in Gallatin County—The Bozeman Roundup. They quickly organized the Bozeman Roundup Association and set to work building a massive arena that would become the center of Bozeman’s summer entertainment for a decade.

Optimistic that the Roundup would rival the big northwest rodeos in Oregon and Wyoming, the Association hurriedly constructed an enormous grandstand and arena on four square city blocks (between North Tracy and North Grand), just south of today’s Gallatin County Fairgrounds. Construction on the stadium didn’t begin until mid-July, 1919, leaving very little time to build. Opening day of the Elks Convention was set for August 12, so the contractor, W. E. Walker, worked his large crew in shifts, racing to complete work in under a month. The project provided jobs to WWI veterans in need of work, but the accelerated timeline and the employ of non-union workers caused a bit of tension. Virginia Walker Thompson, daughter of contractor W. E. Walker, recalled later that “During the many times that these union leaders called at our home on the corner of Sixth and Story…our father used to send my sister Eleanor and I next door to protect our tender young ears from the profane language that was sure to follow.”

Despite the setbacks, work continued. Kenyon Noble Lumber Company supplied an enormous amount of lumber and supplies for the project. Besides the gigantic grandstand, workers constructed corrals, bleachers, and an elliptical quarter-mile track complete with banked turns for safety and speed. The new venue was completed in the nick of time, but land and construction costs elevated the price tag to over $20,000.

In addition to the stadium, track, and corrals, a large area behind the stands was reserved for autos and could accommodate up to 300 cars—one of Bozeman’s first parking lots. Accommodating motorized vehicles at the new arena was a smart business move. With the end of WWI, the supply and popularity of automobiles exploded, both in Bozeman and throughout Montana. People embarked on weekend excursions in their automobiles, traveling further than ever before. Local service stations reaped the benefits of an increase in motorized vehicles. An article in the June 26, 1919, issue of the Bozeman Chronicle titled “Costs Money to Run Cars,” estimated that 5,300 gallons of gasoline (adding up to $1,590 in sales) were sold the previous weekend as Bozeman residents journeyed out of town to enjoy the warm summer weather. Popular day-trip destinations included Bridger Canyon, Gallatin Canyon, and Yellowstone Park. Roundup organizers hoped that this increased automobile use, and the accompanying parking area near the new stadium, would encourage out-of-town rodeo fans to attend the upcoming Bozeman Roundup premiere.

As predicted, the first Roundup was wildly successful—over 12,000 rodeo fans flooded Bozeman that week in August, 1919. The Elks Convention kicked things off on Tuesday morning, August 12, with a large parade, followed by a baseball game and the famous Elks carnival. At two o’clock that afternoon, the Roundup began. A $6,000 purse attracted cowboys and cowgirls from across the west to compete in a variety of events, choreographed into a five-hour-long performance. Trick roping and riding, relays, horse racing, bulldogging, bareback riding and bucking events, roping competitions, and clowns entertained the crowd for hours.

The first event was so successful that the Bozeman Roundup was held each summer for the next seven years. The Roundup Association continued to award cash prizes, which attracted top competitors and thousands of tourists. The Bozeman Roundup slogan, “She’s Wild!,” was a fitting description. Famous cowgirls like Fox Hastings, Mabel Strickland, and Bonnie McCarroll competed in traditional male events like steer wrestling and bronc riding and performed daring stunts like the two-horse Roman Jump over an automobile. According to a paper by Phyllis Smith titled “The Outrageous Cowgirls: A Golden Era in Rodeo,” accidents frequently occurred, and renowned Idaho-born bronc rider Bonnie McCarroll died in 1929 after her mount fell backwards on top of her at the Pendleton rodeo in Oregon.

Future Hollywood stunt rider Yakima Canutt competed in at least one Bozeman Roundup. Canutt began his stunt career in the 1920s and is perhaps best known for his famous maneuver in the 1939 John Wayne western, Stagecoach. In the film, Canutt jumps on a team of galloping horses, falls underneath the speeding coach, clings to the underside, and eventually makes his way up again.

Thanks to these talented cowboys and cowgirls, the Bozeman Roundup became a popular new stop on the U. S. western rodeo circuit in the 1920s. In 1921, the Roundup Association’s owners felt it might already be time to upgrade the hastily-constructed 1919 stadium. They contacted Richard Ringling of White Sulphur Springs to provide funding, and Ringling promptly purchased the entire organization.

Richard Ringling was born in 1895 and was the son of Alfred T. Ringling, one of the Ringling brothers of the nationally-renowned Ringling Brothers Circus. Richard operated his own traveling circus in 1917 before moving west to White Sulphur Springs, Montana, to work for his uncle, John Ringling. Over the next several years, Richard acquired nearly 100,000 acres of land and established a large and highly successful dairy operation. After purchasing the Bozeman Roundup, Ringling built new grandstands and continued to host an expanded four-day Roundup event each year through the 1926 season. At the 1926 Bozeman Roundup, Ringling’s crew hoisted a circus tent on West Main Street that served as a dance hall and Shrine convention center. This was the last, and possibly largest Bozeman Roundup celebration.

Sometime after the 1926 event, lightning struck the massive stadium and heavily damaged the grandstands. The entire property fell into disrepair. In 1932, the remaining structure was sold for $1,000, taken apart, and hauled away for scrap lumber. Fortunately, the Bozeman Roundup event was revived in 1940 by the Junior Chamber of Commerce. The Gallatin County Fairgrounds (located just north of the previous Roundup stadium) provided a venue for the event several times in the 1940s and 1950s. The Fieldhouse on the Montana State

College campus was completed in 1957 and quickly became a unique indoor venue for rodeo events. The Bozeman Stampede rodeo was established in 2010 and continues to be held each summer at the Gallatin County Fairgrounds—right next door to the spot where one hundred years earlier, excited fans shouted in anticipation: “She’s Wild!”

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