The original ranch rodeo in Kansas is planning its silver anniversary celebration.
Ranch rodeos are commonplace throughout the country today, but 25 years ago, they were pretty much non-existent except for a few in Texas.
“I saw a story in the Western Horseman magazine about one of those rodeos, and I suggested the idea of having one at Council Grove to some of my cowboy friends,” recalled Kenneth Muller, lifetime rancher who served as president of the Morris County Youth Rodeo Association at that time.
“They jumped on the thought, so I brought it up at our next Youth Rodeo meeting, and everybody was gung hoe to give it a try,” Muller said.
Rodeos up to that point generally featured livestock provided by contractors and had a following of cowboys who participated in the sporting events, even though they may not have had any tie to work on a ranch.
This new rodeo would be for real cowboys working with horses and cattle, just like they did everyday in their professional life. The difference would be that it was a sport in competition to see if the cowboys could best their friends and counterparts who did the same thing for a living: take care of cattle on the ranch.
“That first rodeo included only a handful, strictly Morris County teams, but everybody had a good time. It was a crowd pleaser, and the cowboys sure were anxious to have another one,” inserted Bruce Gant, past president and present director of the Youth Rodeo group. He has participated in every one of the ranch rodeos since inception.
Not only did the ranch rodeo notion appeal to the local crowd, but it caught on like wildfire with others. “Before long, we opened our rodeo up to ranchers outside the county, and the next thing we knew ranch rodeos were springing up throughout the state,” Muller continued.
A state championship ranch rodeo is now annually at Medicine Lodge.
Popularity expanded throughout the country, and a national Working Ranch Cowboys Association was formed with sanctioned rodeos and a year-end finals.
“We’ve continued having our open ranch rodeo on the first Sunday of October, and seven years ago, we started also having a WRCA rodeo during the summer,” said Gant, who’s been a member of winning teams in both the invitational and WRCA ranch rodeos.
He has competed in ranch rodeos throughout the Midwest and has also qualified and entered the WRCA world championship in Amarillo, Texas.
For any organization or activity to survive 25 years is notable, and then to have had such a long-stretching influence as the Morris County Youth Rodeos Association’s ranch rodeo, the present directors of the group decided a celebration was in order.
“I really think it’s a tribute to the organization, its leadership and continuance over all these years as well as all of the cowboys from throughout the Midwest who have participated in the ranch rodeos here,” evaluated Jim Lee, a director of the Youth Rodeo group.
“It seems appropriate to have a big party in recognition of the occasion,” Lee added.
What better way to do that than bring in the Great American Cowboy Red Steagall, a singer, storyteller and poet.
“Anybody who likes and lives the cowboy lifestyle and Western way of life knows Red Steagall, so we contacted him, and he will be here on July 2, for a show following the Saturday evening performance of our WRCA ranch rodeo,” Lee announced.
The Santa Fe Trail Ranch Rodeo, sponsored by the Morris County Youth Rodeo Association and underwritten by the Farmers & Drovers Bank of Council Grove, is expected to feature 15 cowboy teams representing ranches throughout the Midwest, according to Clay Wilson, president of the sponsoring group.
Events this year will be wild cow milking, stray gathering, team penning, calf branding and ranch bronc riding in performances Friday, July 1, at 7 p.m., and Saturday at 6 p.m., followed by Steagall’s show.
As a native Texan, Steagall had a career in agricultural chemistry, and then for eight years was a music industry executive in Hollywood, California. He has been an award-winning recording artist, songwriter, and television and motion picture personality for the past three decades.
Currently based outside Fort Worth, Steagall launched his one-hour syndicated radio show, “Cowboy Corner,” in 1994. The program on 170 stations in 43 states celebrates lifestyle of the American West through poems, songs and stories of the American cowboy.
An additional attraction of the Council Grove celebration will be a Western Trade Show, open both Friday and Saturday evenings, with booth space still available for interested exhibitors.
Tickets for a chance to win a ranch saddle custom made by Matt Hunn of Hunn Leather at Augusta, commemorating the 25th anniversary of the Morris County Youth Rodeo Association’s first ranch rodeo, are available for $10.
They are being sold at this time, with a drawing for the winner at the Fall Invitational Ranch Rodeo Sunday, Oct. 2, 1 p.m.
While the Morris County group must get credit for inspiring growth of the sport of ranch rodeos throughout the Midwest, it has been a leader of other developments in the world of rodeo.
“Not only do cowboys work on ranches, but cowgirls are often an important part of cattle work,” Muller noted. “Shortly after we started, there were some cowgirls competing at the ranch rodeos, too, and they decided they wanted to have competitions of their own.”
“We may not have had the first women’s ranch rodeo, but due to the popularity, we have had several over the years,” Gant inserted. “Actually, most of our rodeos have been co-ed, with both men and women contestants.”
Youth was the reason for incorporation of the Morris County Youth Rodeo Association 33 years ago, so it was only appropriate to include something for future cowboys and cowgirls as part of the ranch rodeos.
Over the years, there have been youth calf scrambles as part of the adult rodeos, and a mutton busting, in which little cowboys and cowgirls attempt to ride sheep, has been a major attraction for the fall ranch rodeos.
However, children of some the sponsoring group’s directors wanted to be more like their dads and moms.
“Keith Mahanay was a director of the association for several years, and has a son who wanted to be in the ranch rodeos,” Lee recalled. “So, we started talking about letting the kids have a ranch rodeo of their own.
“We patterned it after the adult rodeo, but set up events and rules that were more in line for youth,” explained Lee, who not only helped with the ranch rodeos, but also competed for several years and has more recently judged ranch rodeos locally and over a wider area.
“The junior ranch rodeos have really caught on now, too. Initially, there was hesitation about participation, but now we have youth excited about entering,” Wilson related.
“Many of the sons and daughters of cowboys who participate in the adult rodeos look forward to coming here so they can be in their own junior ranch rodeo,” added Wilson. “Now, there are junior ranch rodeos being sponsored by other groups around the country.”
These contests are included as added attractions for both the summer WRCA and the Fall Invitational Ranch Rodeos at Council Grove. This year, they’re scheduled Saturday, July 2, and Sunday, Oct. 2, both at 10 a.m. Events are team penning, ribbon roping and calf branding.
When something works, others want to imitate it.
“We made up our own rules when we started, and we continued to change them to what would work best,” Muller related. “It’s interesting how other rodeos adopted our rules, and even the WRCA has developed several of the ideas we originated.”
Of course what makes ranch rodeos most unique is that they are patterned in the manner of the real life work of cowboys.
“After some of the local cowboys who are members of the Youth Rodeo group had a wreck gathering cattle, ending up having to rope and tie several of the renegades down in order to get them gathered. Nick Allen, who’s on the Youth Rodeo board, suggested we include stray gathering one of the events at our rodeo,” Lee recalled.
“It went over so well, that other ranch rodeos started have stray gathering, too, and now the WRCA has it as a sanctioned event,” added Gant.
Noteworthy, a number of the past world champions at WRCA finals have competed in the WRCA ranch rodeo at Council Grove,
“There were four out of the top seven teams at the finals last year that had entered in our rodeo,” noted Wilson, who’s in charge of entering teams for the local event. “They all want to come back, so that sure says something for the quality of our rodeo.”
Start of the Morris County Youth Rodeo Association was when several individuals in the community had children participating in high school and junior rodeos. They decided there needed to be a local event catering to hometown youth.
“We wanted to have something for those who didn’t necessarily have the ability for larger events and really couldn’t afford to travel distances to participate,” qualified Muller, who was the original chairman of the board and served that post nearly two decades.
“I was a member of the fair board, too, and we used to have the youth rodeo as a special attraction concluding the fair,” Muller continued. “We always kept our entry fees low and gave nice working prizes, so the youth rodeo started attracting from a wide area, too.”
Muller was announcer of the youth rodeo for eight years, and a member of his Muller Ranch team that won the Fall Invitational Ranch Rodeo in 1990.
Originally hosted at the club’s arena in the city limits, the group has constructed new facilities on the fair grounds east of town where the rodeo will be this year.
“Many of the cowboys who compete here tell us our arena is the best they’ve ever seen, and they go to rodeos all over the place,” Wilson confirmed.
The youth rodeo continues to be sponsored by the group, generally on the first Saturday night of August, even though all of the original directors have now stepped down from leadership posts. This year’s rodeo is Saturday, Aug. 6, 6 p.m.
Interestingly, Wilson competed in the youth rodeo as a youngster and now is a board member, and sometimes serves as a judge for the youth rodeo.
He is a member of a ranch rodeo team, competing in both the fall rodeo and the summer WRCA rodeos, other ranch rodeos over the Midwest and has been entered in the world championship.
His dad, Jack Wilson, competed at the ranch rodeos in the beginning and now judges a number of ranch rodeos in the area. Clay’s son, Cole, will likely be competing in future events.
Gant’s son, Jim, was a member of the top Youth Ranch Rodeo Team a couple of years ago and has collected numerous awards in the August Youth Rodeo.
Tradition continues forward in the Morris County Youth Rodeo Association.
Additional information is available at www.mrcoyouthrodeo.com.