Steamboat is known as the cradle of ski competition West of the Mississippi, but cowboys and cowgirls have been trying to best each other in rodeo events here longer than ski jumpers have been gliding off Howelsen Hill. When you think about it, they didn't have much choice. Ranchers have been punching cattle here since the 19th century, and that was a daily rodeo.
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, said there are photographs in existence 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 19th 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 like 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 back 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 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.
For many years after those early beginnings, Steamboat hosted its annual Cowboys Roundup Rodeo on the Fourth of July.
In the 1970s, the rodeo arena at Howelsen Hill played host to a weekly jackpot rodeo that used entry fees posted by amateur cowboys to pay out the winners. Jackpot rodeo had a good deal of authenticity, but the level of competition wasn't consistent enough to support a business model that would allow Steamboat's rodeo to thrive.
Romick had a hand in building the platform that launched the Steamboat Springs Pro Rodeo Series. Steamboat hosted two rodeos sanctioned by the Pro Rodeo Cowboys Association in 1988, he said, and made a permanent shift to PRCA-sanctioned events in 1989.
"That's where we stepped up to the major leagues," Romick said. "That's when we were able to charge enough admission to support the rodeo," two nights weekly throughout the summer.
The next big step came in 1990, when the covered steel grandstand on the north side of the arena was dedicated (and later named the Romick Rodeo Arena). The grandstand meant rodeo fans didn't have to get soaked during the thunderstorms that briefly roll through the Yampa Valley on summer evenings.