Old faithful, Yellowstone Park's famed sulphuric spume, isn't
Wyoming's only predictable eruption. The other one has popped the
lid off the state capital during the last full week in July for
the past 107 years. A rite of passage for cowboys, a golden goose
to Wyoming's coffers and the ultimate celebration of the Old West
to those who make the pilgrimage, Frontier Days in Cheyenne lives
up to its billing in the rodeo world as "the daddy of 'em all." ¬∂
Everything about Frontier Days is outsized. About 1,800
contestants are competing this year in nine performances that
began last Saturday and run through July 27 at The Frontier
Park, making Cheyenne the world's largest outdoor rodeo. The $1
million in total prize money is the biggest purse outside the
National Finals Rodeo in Las Vegas. Every performance boasts 40
bull rides, 28 bareback rides, 28 saddle bronc rides, 15 rookie
saddle bronc rides and a wild-horse race involving 16 three-man
teams, guaranteeing the 11,000-plus fans each day more views of
cowboys biting dust than The Outlaw Josey Wales.
"I don't know any other rodeo that has a rookie saddle bronc
event," says Kirsten Vold of the Harry Vold Rodeo Company, which
brings some 400 bucking horses and 250 bulls to Cheyenne. "The
riders don't have their PRCA [Professional Rodeo Cowboys
Association] cards, and the broncs are 3-and 4-year-olds just off
the range that have never even been saddled. That brings all the
cowboys out to watch. You see some pretty good wrecks. Some of
those young horses will buck themselves right off their feet. We
put out as much livestock in one performance at Cheyenne as we do
in four performances at other rodeos."
In the timed events every competitor draws a calf or steer that
has never been roped or wrestled. "We give the animals more of an
advantage than anywhere else," says Tom Hirsig, who heads the
contestants' committee. "We rope bigger calves and steers. Other
rodeos give an average 12-foot head start; we give the steers and
calves 30 feet. And we've got the biggest arena. You could put
three of most arenas in ours."
"It matters a bunch if a calf or a steer has never been touched,"
says 23-year-old Cash Myers, who was entered in calf roping and
steer wrestling. He's been coming to Frontier Days with his
father, Butch, a former world champion steer wrestler, since he
was two. "Those fresh calves and steers make things wilder. It's
also more dangerous, but it's worth the risk because the pay's
better. Guys who only rodeo a few times a year always make it to
Frontier Days, because of the prize money, plus they know they'll
see all their old friends."
Sixty-four-year-old Cleo Hearn of Lancaster, Texas, has entered
the calf roping in Cheyenne for 35 consecutive years. He has
never won, but through Sunday he was third in the average. "The
history, the atmosphere and the camaraderie are second to none,"
says Hearn. "And the hospitality of the townspeople is real."
Indeed, 2,500 volunteers help stage Frontier Days, which includes
four parades, three free pancake breakfasts, an Indian Village, a
replica frontier town, an aerial performance by the U.S. Air
Force Thunderbirds, an art show and nightly entertainment by
performers such as Willie Nelson, Toby Keith and Chris LeDoux.
"Folks want to be entertained from the time they get up till the
time they go to bed," says Dale Vonkrosigk, the event's general
chairman. "That's what we try to do. Frontier Days is the
third-biggest tourist attraction in Wyoming behind Yellowstone
Park and the Tetons. The economic impact is huge. If Cheyenne
does well, the whole state does well."
Wyoming, which doesn't have a state income tax, collects, on
average, approximately $1.25 million per year in sales tax during
Frontier Days, according to the Cheyenne Area Convention and
Visitors Bureau. "It's like a second Christmas to Cheyenne," says
Hirsig, whose great-great-uncle Charlie was one of the founders
of Frontier Days in 1897, six years before the first World
The event was the brainchild of a railroad man named Fred Angier,
who wanted to sell tickets on a special excursion train out of
Denver. If cowboys in and around Cheyenne put on a rodeo, the
Union Pacific would deliver the spectators. That first year there
was no arena--just a pasture and a grandstand--and spectators
kept the livestock from running loose by encircling the grounds
and raising their opened umbrellas to turn back runaway broncs.
The initial Frontier Days was such a success that a committee was
formed to expand the franchise. In 1898 the committee invited
Wild Bill Hickok's Wild West Show to ride through the streets on
the day of the rodeo, which marked Frontier Days' first parade.
Other famous names began to come to the otherwise nondescript cow
town in Wyoming's high desert plains. Teddy Roosevelt attended
Frontier Days in 1903 and '10, and in '04 Bill Pickett gave a
demonstration of bulldogging--a technique that used to be part of
The most famous bucking horse of that era was Steamboat, the
first animal inducted into the Frontier Days Hall of Fame.
Steamboat's renown was such that his likeness was put on
Wyoming's license plate, where he is bucking still. During the
Depression, when financial problems threatened to close down
Frontier Days, a group of volunteers formed, calling themselves
the Heels because, as one member said, "We'd be heels if we
didn't help out." The Heels now number some 470, and an
invitation to join their ranks is a civic honor second to none.
Frontier Days became much more than a rodeo. Decade after decade,
through wars, hard economic times and the passing of generations,
it put Cheyenne and Wyoming on the map. "When you say Cheyenne,
everyone thinks of Frontier Days," says Hirsig, who won the steer
roping event in 2002. "We have media contingents from Europe,
Australia and Japan this year. We're the only rodeo that's known
by name worldwide."
For years Frontier Days was also known for world-class
hell-raising, a reputation the town has tried to play down
recently. Ask any local about the old days, and you'll hear tales
of fistfights, topless women (usually from Denver) dancing on
tables, cowboys riding horses into the Mayflower Bar or someone
getting thrown through a plate glass window. Always the tale is
delivered with a nostalgic smile.
"That last Saturday night of Frontier Days, it was always a real
rowdy and hard-drinking crowd," recalls John Powell, who was on
the Cheyenne police force from 1981 through 2002, the last seven
years as chief. "I remember being bent backward over my patrol
car by a couple of guys, while a third was trying to steal my
revolver from my holster. It was serious stuff. We had five
transport cars to deal with the arrests, and court was held every
night. But a few years ago we had some ordinances changed, and
it's gone from 200 arrests on a Saturday night to one or two.
It's shifted from being a big party to more of a family event."
Nevertheless, says Hirsig, "You can still see some pretty wild
stuff." Like bikini bullriding at the Cowboy Out South Saloon,
where women in bikini tops and a pair of chaps compete on a
mechanical bull for the chance to win $2,000. Or Rocky Mountain
oysters--fried bull testicles--which are actually standard fare
on the menu at most local restaurants. In late July the citizens
of Cheyenne put on hats and boots and cowboy up, whether they can
sit in a saddle or not. "Nearly every community in Wyoming has a
rodeo during the year," says Governor Dave Freudenthal, who grew
up on a farm in Thermopolis and this year rode in the Frontier
Days parade as well as the ceremonial cattle drive through town
that kicked off the festivities. "Rodeo's the one thing we have
in common. It's part of a broader definition of who we, in
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"It's also more dangerous, but it's worth the risk because the