Never shy with a jive, he forwardly claims to be a “distant cousin of a fellow named Noah who had a big boat.”
It requires a bit of head scratching, but most people can figure out the connection with the prominent Biblical figure.
Joe Hedrick may not have quite the diversity of animals that were on Noah’s Ark, but likely not far off.
“I’ve always liked animals, and have enjoyed working with and training livestock ever since I was a kid,” Hedrick admitted. “It was just natural evolution evidently that once I got a llama other livestock exotic animals became my life’s venture.”
Naming all of the species that the Nickerson entrepreneur has owned and worked with would certainly require an animal dictionary.
Suffice to say it’s a lot, yet the number of critters for which Hedrick pays daily room-and-board is much higher.
“I really don’t know the total head of livestock here, maybe close to a thousand at some times. Of course, it varies with new babies arriving all the time,” acknowledged Hedrick, noting birthing of animals.
Widely recognized for Hedrick’s Exotic Animal Bed & Breakfast on the Reno County home place, the life’s story is more.
Much more, diverse such chapters would overflow a big book. Perhaps call it “Joe Hedrick: Mr. Western Entertainer.” That’s what he is and always has been.
“I grew up on the road working with my family at rodeos throughout the Midwest,” Hedrick recalled. “My dad Jerry started out competing in rodeos, then worked as a clown, and finally announcer with contract entertainment. The whole family became part of the rodeo world.”
Living in a travel trailer, the Hedrick rodeo family worked in a different town every weekend.
“My older brother Jerry Jr. and I became clowns following in Dad’s boot steps,” Hedrick said. “We did trick roping and with our sisters had several trained animal specialty acts between the rodeo events.
“I had a guanaco, a cousin to the llama, that was the first animal I trained personally,” Hedrick fondly recalled. “That really got me interested in training and working with livestock. I just liked them all, every part of it.”
Of course there were horse and mule acts including those trained to do tricks and work at liberty on command. “My sisters had white tailed deer for one act, too, which was popular with rodeo crowds,” Hedrick added.
Always a special attraction for rodeo spectators was when the family came honking riding in the Bucking Model T Ford.
“Dad really enjoyed developing that act which included Mom and all of us in the family,” Hedrick smiled. “Interesting thinking back, there were still Model T Fords around then. Dad would buy one for maybe $150, take it to the welding shop have it renovated into a Bucking Ford.”
Our original Hedrick Bucking Ford continues a family prized possession. “I brought it out of retirement for the 40th anniversary of the Abbyville Rodeo ten years ago,” Hedrick said. “It was quite the deal with my bother Jerry announcing the act bringing back fond family memories.”
Continuing to clown, Hedrick attended Fort Hays State College on a rodeo scholarship riding rough stock. There he met and married his wife Sondra (Hutchins), a barrel racer, to carry on the rodeo family tradition.
“I taught high school industrial arts for a time, continued to clown some and did rodeo contracts acts,” Hedrick said.
Exotic animal population continued to expand with antelope, elk, deer, and a chimpanzee. “Then all ‘H’ broke lose,” Hedrick admitted. There were soon zebras, giraffes, camels, kangaroos, ostriches, reindeer potbelly pigs, more llamas and about other exotic creature this is.
“I bought, sold and traded exotics with zoos, owners and breeders all over the country,” he said.
Displaying his animals for grand opening of Harry Herbel’s Surplus City at Herington was the start of Hedrick’s Petting Zoo. “Who would have thought people would enjoy looking at, feeding and petting these animals so much?” Hedrick remains amazed.
“We’ve had four petting zoos on the road going all over the United States through a booking agent,” he said. “It’s very educational and entertaining. Yet that takes a lot of good help handling all of those animals around so many people.”
Pony rides have always been popular but now Hedrick’s camel rides attract as much interest or more.
Soon, Hedrick began raising his own exotic animals. “We started out with two zebras, and now about 50, two camels and now 70. A couple kangaroos, now I don’t know how many” he tallied.
There are llamas, reindeer, elk, tortoises, potbelly pigs, donkeys, longhorns, chickens, peacocks, goats and the list goes on and on.
People love to look at the animals frequently asking to come see them at the Hedrick Exotic Animal Farm.
“It became complex scheduling tours so we renovated a building on the farm into a bed and breakfast. The Western front street forte fits into our lifestyle,” Hedrick said. “It has been quite popular with the different rooms named after exotic animals. Visitors can look out their windows and see all of the animals around the farm.”
Always a showman, Hedrick heard about pig races at a Heinold Commodities Convention. “The crowd just went wild and I knew that was something else to do,” he said. “Our racing pigs have been popular at venues throughout the country too, even on the red carpet of swanky hotels.”
Ostrich, camel and zebra races coordinated with Hedrick’s animals are popular at race tracks and other community gatherings. “I’ve been contacted about being part of a reality show with animal races which I think might develop,” he noted.
Animals are provided for many nativity scenes each Christmas season. “We’ve worked animal acts with the Rockettes in New York City during the holidays for a number of years,” Hedrick added.
Typically contracting five or six dozen entertainment engagements nationwide annually, the coronavirus has impacted this year. “We had events in New Orleans, Houston and Springfield, Massachusetts, and have a number of fall and winter contracts,” he said.
Personal attention is generally provided at the events with Hedrick’s often flying in to be with the road crews.
On top of all this, Hedrick is an active professional auctioneer and a farmer with several thousand acres.
“I was in the field until after dark last night getting wheat ground ready to sow,” he said. “We have a stock cow herd, about 200 head, and winter background the calves to sell as yearlings.”
Lots of dedicated workers help keep everything done. “We’ve had more than 40 employees at some times, but about half that many now,” Hedrick said. “I appreciate all of the good help we have. Working with all of these animals requires a certain talent caring for, feeding and cleaning up.”
Seemingly notable, a dump truck load of fertilizer is supplied by Hedrick animals every other day. Certainly, despite the vast quantity of livestock the farm is a clean place with United States Department of Agriculture inspections.
“This is a family business,” Hedrick insisted. “My wife handles the bookwork and has her helping hand in everything. Sondra is especially good birthing the animals.”
Their son Aryn was a champion bull rider and works all aspects of the operations, dedicated to the cattle. Daughter Hallie lives with her family at Lawrence, but has an important part in native home operations through modern technology.
“Our five grandchildren, ages 11 to 14, three boys and two girls, get involved as well. Some of them might even end up in rodeo and the show business,” Hedrick said.
Admitting there is liability requiring insurance for operations, Hedrick said, “It’s worth it all seeing so many people enjoy everything. We contend our operations are often imitated, but never duplicated.”
“Only 76,” no slowdown is in sight for Hedrick. “It’s been a great life and I have a lot more ideas to entertain the world with animals. I was born a showman and always will be,” Joe Hedrick declared.