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Moab Historic Happenings June 2004

Rodeo Competitions date back to 1920s
in Grand County

by Jeff Richards

Although organized rodeo competitions date back as early as 1872, it wasn’t until the early 1920s that a formal rodeo or “stockmen’s competition” was first held in Grand County, Utah.


A bronc rider performs at the 2002 Canyonlands Rodeo.
Photo by Jeff Richards

Rodeo originated in the West in the 1860s and 1870s, when cowboys on cattle drives would often hold informal competitions, usually at the end of a long day on the trail. The term “rodeo” is derived from the Spanish word rodear, meaning “to surround.” Between 1890 and 1910, traveling Wild West shows has become a popular form of entertainment, and rodeo events became part of Fourth of July celebrations and county fairs around the United States. However, standardized events, judging, and official rules didn’t yet exist (the Rodeo Association of America, the first formal rodeo organization, wasn’t founded until 1929, with the Cowboys Turtle Association–later called the Professional Cowboys Rodeo Association–following in 1936).

Grand County, which had since at least 1904 talked of having its own county fair, finally managed to pull one off in 1922. However, rodeo events apparently weren’t added to the fair’s schedule until its third year.
Back in 1919, organizers had tried to put together a stockmen’s competition in Grand County. However, the event, which was originally scheduled for Nov. 25-27, 1919, was canceled on account of rain and snowfall. “The First Annual Stockmen’s Carnival has passed to its final resting place without so much as a single bronco twisting exhibition or a horse race,” lamented the Nov. 27 issue of Moab’s weekly community newspaper, the Grand Valley Times (later The Times-Independent).

The following year, on Sept. 2, 1920, the Times proclaimed: “Moab will have a big stockmen’s celebration this fall, probably in October, if the plans of a large number of local people are carried out.” According to the article, “the plan is to hold a number of high class racing events, offering prizes which will attract horses from all over this section of the country. There will also be bronco riding, steer roping, and other cowboys’ sports.” However, it appears that this idea also fell through, as there is no record of the event happening in the pages of the newspaper that year.

Then, in March, 1921, the beginnings of what would become the first Grand County Fair were set in motion when F.M. Young, the principal of the local high school, wrote a letter to the editor urging residents to show their support for a county fair by beginning to plan for it. “If the fair is to be given, preparations must be commenced at once,” his letter noted.

In September of 1921, the Moab Chamber of Commerce appointed a committee to organize a county fair in the fall of 1922. Young noted that a small community celebration had taken place a week earlier with only a few days of preparation, but he declared it to be a “highly successful” event and “the beginning of something bigger and better.”

The ensuing year-long preparations paid off the following autumn, when the first-ever Grand County Fair was held Oct. 13-14, 1922. Encouraged by the fair’s success, organizers added more events and activities for the following year’s event, held Oct. 12-13, 1923. “Although the program will not include horse racing and rodeo events, it will nevertheless provide plenty of excitement and entertainment for the fair visitors,” said the newspaper almost apologetically on Sept. 20, 1923.

The following year, in 1924, the third annual Grand County Fair was held in late September. “The school athletic field was used as the fair grounds, and the new circular track, grandstand and judges’ stand made it possible to conduct a program of races and rodeo events surpassing anything ever before witnessed at Moab,” declared the Oct. 2, 1924 issue of the Times. “The track, while somewhat soft, was in every way satisfactory, and several dozen thrilling races were staged during the three day program.”

The following year (Sept. 25-26, 1925) even more events were added, with cash prizes for each race (ranging from $10 to $75 for the first-place finisher). In addition to horse races, there were mule races, a “potato race,” several footraces and relays, and even a “3-mile Ford Car Race.” In the rodeo category, cash prizes were awarded for “best bucking horse” ($10) and “best rider” ($40).

Commented the newspaper the week after the 1925 fair: “The horsemen and riders who furnished the entertainment were a bunch of real sportsmen. They were ready to enter any event called and they gave the best they had, all the time. They made many friends by their sportsmanlike conduct.”

“Albert Maxwell of Moab is a regular rodeo performer,” added the article in the Oct. 1, 1925 issue of the Times. “Mr. Maxwell got away with the lion’s share of the money in the cowboy events, winning first place in the bed race, the cowboy relay, two free-for-all relays and the potato race–in fact, every event in which he entered.”

In the 1950s, the Rodeo Grounds were at what is now Moab City Park (Swanny Park) on 100 West and 400 North.

Nowadays, rodeo is as popular a sport as it has ever been, especially in the United States and Canada, where more than 2,000 rodeos are held each year, attended by millions of spectators. Larger events like the National Finals Rodeo in Las Vegas are televised. Modern-day rodeos consist of five standardized events, including but not limited to the following: bareback riding, steer wrestling, team roping, saddle bronc riding, calf roping, and bull riding. Many rodeos also include women’s barrel racing.

This month, Grand County residents will once again get a chance to enjoy the annual Butch Cassidy Days Canyonlands Rodeo, a PRCA tour event, scheduled for June 10-12 (8 to 10 p.m. each night) at the Old Spanish Trail Arena (3641 South Highway 191).

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