Whispers from the past — Rodeo has a rich history

 

Last updated 6/7/2022 at Noon

THREE SISTERS HISTORICAL SOCIETY

Members of the 1944 Rodeo Association (Lewis Luckenbill, Ellis Edgington, Maurice Hitchcock, Pete Leithauser, Charles Boardman, and Carl Campbell).

The history of the Sisters Rodeo – The Biggest Little Show in the World – provides a window into the history of Sisters.

From an informal bucking contest on wild horses held in 1910 on Fir and Adams Streets at the old baseball diamond, to the multiday event beginning with an evening of bull riding, three full rodeo performances, a Saturday morning parade, and a Sunday morning Buckaroo Breakfast, the Sisters Rodeo has been enthusiastically supported by the town and has brought thousands of visitors to Sisters over the decades. The current rodeo purse is the largest offered during the second weekend in June, and cowboys come from far and wide to beat the eight-second clock.

The early days saw a great deal of variety in locations, sponsoring groups, and use of the proceeds. In 1914 and ’15, the Sisters Fair included bucking contests and horse races. The 1922 rodeo, sponsored by the Commercial Club, was held in the vicinity of Main and Oak Streets, consisting of races, bucking contests, and bull riding. The women of the group served dinner in the schoolhouse at noon on rodeo day. The proceeds went to promote the town of Sisters.

Tragedy struck during the 1924 rodeo, when a Plainview rancher was killed by a stampeding horse. The proceeds from that rodeo were used to start a fire department, following two disastrous fires in downtown Sisters, in 1923 and ’24.

The First Rodeo Association

In 1942, a group of local ranchers and businessmen organized with the purpose of putting on a rodeo, which has continued over the next 80 years. The association was incorporated in 1944. Initially, the association’s rodeos were held “down in the hole” at the old Creighton place near what is now the Sisters Airport. Actual rodeo structures were constructed, including fences, corrals, and chutes. Being wartime, many of the soldiers who were on maneuvers in Central Oregon attended not only the show in 1943, but a barbecue dinner served at noon at the rodeo grounds.

Events included bucking horses, wild cow milking, cow riding, and calf roping. Twenty head of horses were rounded up from wild herds roaming the country and put in a pasture on Black Butte Ranch. Those horses were used for bareback riding and wild horse races.

Royalty was part of the rodeo from the start. The first rodeo queen in 1942 was Mary Saxton of Terrebonne. Friday night saw the Queen’s Ball, with Jim Lawson and his Lumberjacks, a radio orchestra from Eugene. A buckaroo dance on Saturday evening featured old-time music. Both dances were held at the school gym. Because liquor was not allowed in the school, there was quite a bit of activity out in the parking lot.

In 1944, the association purchased land adjoining Sisters on the north, from Blaine Gammon, about where Hoyt Lumber is now located. An arena and grandstand with 2,500 seats were built with lumber from Maurice Hitchcock’s mill just north of the rodeo grounds. Proceeds from the rodeo over the next years were put back into paying for and improving the grounds and the show.

Rodeo weekends in the 1940s and ’50s consisted of performances on Saturday and Sunday afternoons with a parade Saturday morning, dances on Friday and Saturday nights, and a Buckaroo Breakfast on Sunday morning. Buffalo steak and burgers were featured as was Ellis Edgington’s pan bread prepared over an open fire.

The association continued to put on the rodeo each year until 1956. In 1956 and ’57, the rodeo was sponsored by Sisters Veterans of Foreign Wars, Post 8138. Their 68 members made new corrals and repaired old ones, repaired chutes and the grandstand roof. They also constructed new concession stands. The proceeds from the rodeo helped the post purchase Sisters Cascade Theater, where the VFW showed movies for the public.

The Sisters Fire Department sponsored Pat Fisk and his wife, of Antelope, to put on the 1961 rodeo. Fisk was well-known throughout the West and in Sisters as a rodeo contestant, stock contractor, pickup man, arena director, and chute boss.

A New Association

In 1964, a new rodeo association was formed. The rodeo grounds on the north edge of town had been purchased in 1963 by local businessman Pete Leithauser, from the old association. In 1968, the new association bought the grounds back.

Over the years, rodeo stock was provided by Christensen Brothers Rodeo Company of Eugene, Mack Barbour, Sunny Baines, and Billy Walker. In the 1970s, Sombrero Contractors, owned by Mert Hunking of Sisters, furnished the stock for the rodeo, after a week-long roundup, which included a delicious barbecue dinner over an open fire prepared by local women.

Barbour imported Brahma bulls from Mexico, introducing them to the 1953 Sisters rodeo spectators. The 1955 Sisters Rodeo program contained a vivid description of the Brahmas.

“Brahmas are fast as deer, mean as wolves, and can jump as though their legs were a combination of springs and India rubber. The explosive temperament of Brahmas is just the challenge which delights the cowboy who feels he must ride anything with four legs that refuses to be ridden. From the time a Brahma storms out of the chute until he’s confined again, no man is safe. Mack Barbour has some of the speediest and ugliest Brahmas in the world – watch them go!”

THREE SISTERS HISTORICAL SOCIETY

Dot Tosta being tossed off a steer in the 1944 rodeo.

Rodeo clowns and trick riders have long been a fun and exciting part of the rodeo. One clown, Troy Neighbors, had his trick mule Peanuts, and his educated horse, “Sug.” In 1963, Ted Billings, with his famed mule Whirly-Gig, had a new companion that year, Cheeta, a trained chimpanzee purported to have been in over 50 Tarzan movies.

A Permanent Home

In 1980, the rodeo association purchased land from Virginia Campbell four miles east of Sisters on Highway 20 to Bend. They developed an excellent arena and grounds, which continue to regularly receive upgrades. The rolling green lawn under the trees at the front of the property looks more like a park than rodeo grounds, until the second week in June when trucks, trailers, horses, and cowboys make it their home. The Biggest Little Show in the World has put Sisters on the map and is an important part of the rich history of this corner of the world.

 

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