No one knows for certain when the first rodeo was held in Routt County, but Brent Romick, a tireless and passionate advocate of the sport, says there are photographs in that indicate it could have been as early as 1897.
Chances are, the very first rodeo was an impromptu event staged around a chuck wagon, when a cowhand climbed on an unwilling mount one morning and unintentionally entertained his fellow cowboys.
Period photos show that after the turn of the century, local rodeos were still casual affairs -- the local citizenry pulled Model A and Model T Fords into a circle to contain the wild broncos. Photos are about all that's available to document those early rodeos. Not much has been written about the first Cowboy Roundup Days, held 101 years ago in 1904.
But there is documentation of that era. Romick can name some of the famous early bucking horses such as Pin Ears, Carrie Nation and General Pershing, that were bred in the Yampa Valley. Some of the best-known local rodeo cowboys were Tuffy Wren, Bill Corbett, Kid Vaughn, Walter Long and Emery Clark.
In the early part of the 20th century, horse racing played a bigger part in the local rodeo than it does today. And there were even such strange events as potato spearing from horseback.
By the 1920s, Cowboy Roundup Days and the rodeo had become a popular affair. In 1949, Steamboat Pilot reporter Betty Fulton took a detailed look at the Cowboy Roundup Days of 1924.
"The night of July 3, 1924, all Steamboat Springs was atiptoe with anticipation," Fulton wrote. "On the 'morrow was to be a great rodeo, staged by Leo Hill Post No. 44 of the American Legion."
"Fast horses, ornery horses and big purses had attracted the most daring riders of the day," Fulton wrote. "A splendid show was assured and everyone, absolutely everyone, was planning to go."
The rodeo was planned on the opposite bank of the Yampa River from town, where a straight quarter-mile track had been laid out. An arena for bucking horses and calf roping had been defined by ropes, and men called "hustlers" were organized to keep the crowds out of danger.
The first race of the day was a 300-yard pony race. Bob Mulkey, atop a horse named Jimmie Spinner, grabbed first place and a $40 prize. A horse named Babe, owned by Jess Garten and ridden by Lyle Hayes, claimed second and $20.
J.B. Sutherland's Bald Hornet claimed the winner's share of a $150 purse in the free-for-all race. Marshal Peavy's horse, Wheeler, won the cow horse race.
Wheeler also came through for Audrey Donneison in the ladies quarter-mile saddle horse race, while the stakes race was won by Tuffy Wren.
The early Cowboys Roundup Days also included a novelty race never seen at modern rodeos: Each rider was provided with a spear and after a mass start, the riders attempted to spear a potato from a box at one end of the track. Their goal was to return to the start and deposit the potato in a second box. There were no rules to speak of, and if one of the riders succeeded in knocking another rider's spud from the stick that served as a spear, that was considered fair play. Johnny Williams and Phil Leckenby emerged as the winners.
Winners of the bucking horse contest were Tuffy Wren, Stanley Larson and Jim Horney, all finishing in the money. A bronc named Tiger Tom was judged the "worst horse," signifying that he was the hardest to ride for eight seconds.
Calf roping was a popular event, with 17 participants, although the times of the local cowboys were slow by today's standards. Frank Squire hog-tied his calf in 1:04.5 for first place. Joe Beil was second in 1:13.5.
The frontier lived on in Steamboat long after it had disappeared in other Western towns. That condition was due largely to the fact that major westward expansion routes, from the Oregon Trail to the transcontinental railroad, passed by the Yampa Valley.
When you attend a rodeo in Steamboat, you could easily be seated next to a ranch family whose ancestors participated in a Cowboys Roundup a century ago.