I have watched the Days of 1910 rodeo many times over my lifetime. It is a long lasting tradition that is likely a chore for the locals but a treat to those of us who simply drop in every few years or so. Local volunteers, local talent, local bucking stock all combine for a western South Dakota event as American to me as the seventh inning stretch, apple pie and Friday night high school football.
There is just something special about the Days of 1910 rodeo that still remains. As kids, we used to pick up the pop and beer can tabs that littered the grounds and bend them into chains of varying lengths and configurations. While whoever it is that invented the tab that now remains on the can eliminated a considerable amount of litter, he also has denied generations of kids the opportunity of racing around like it was Easter in July trying to collect as many tabs as possible. The attached tab may even have been invented by a mother tired of seeing rooms full of pop tab curtains and chains tacked into the ceilings and walls.
Later in the junior high years, the rodeo consisted of simply walking in hundreds of circles around the grounds laughing and talking with friends. There was no tent and no 4-H dance to occupy the kids. The rodeo was THE gathering place. I was probably a sophomore in high school before I ever actually watched anything other than the clown act. The only time I ever participated inside the arena was one night when the clown stuffed more than a dozen of us kids inside a Volkswagen, drove into the arena and spilled us out one at a time to go running off through the nearest gate.
Fast forward to the mid to late 80s and I am regularly seated in the stands. Pop can chains a distant memory, married to the best girl I ever circled that arena with, I now am only looking to be entertained prior to heading down to the tent to relive those high school days slowly drifting further and further into the past.
While I have watched hundreds of rides over the years, when I think of the best only two come immediately and clearly to mind. Make no mistake, I am far from a rodeo judge and these two rides are simply my opinion alone. They are two rides that left me wanting more, regretting that 8 seconds without instant replay was all I would get. The first occurred about 2 decades ago and the second occurred only two weeks ago.
The wild ride was a favorite of mine in the 1980s. The best bronc riders of the weekend were put on horses that had never been ridden. The only rule other than having to finish the 8 seconds still in the saddle was the fact that there were no rules. Tree branches, chaps, and gunny sacks were just some of the instruments used to get the horses to buck. Some were duds and some were truly wild.
The year escapes me but it was somewhere in the mid to late 80s on a Sunday night. Gumbo Lamb a personal favorite of mine had qualified for the wild ride. While we never really knew each other, our fathers had met their fates in similar fashion and I always had a curiosity about who taught him to ride and if his father was the first thing he thought of when he eventually hit the ground.
After some bantering with the announcer, Gumbo settled in and the chute opened. He had on the traditional hat, long sleeve shirt, chaps and then added some sort of battery powered glasses that were blinking red at the sides. In one hand was the buck rein and in the other was a gunny sack full of flour. He proceeded to slap the horse with the gunny sack while spurring for all he was worth. In a cloud of flour dust, the horse did its part. With all four feet off the ground at the same time, you could see and feel every muscle it had tense up trying to shake the rider with the blinking red lights loose. The horse looked like it would take a breath as it hit the ground and then hold it while jumping and snorting back into the sky. Gumbo was in command the entire 8 seconds, hands, arms, legs and torso in perfect balance while working in unison.
I was one of hundreds in the stands cheering and clapping like it was a national finals rodeo rather than another July night in Timber Lake. When it was over, you only had to look around to see everyone smiling while listening to the excited chatter. It was one of those “lightning-in-a-bottle” sports moments that can only be felt in person. He didn’t get a trophy or belt buckle that I recall but did take home a nice bit of cash.
The ride was captured on the front page of the Topic the next week. Every saddle bronc ride I have seen in a paper or magazine, watched on TV and viewed in person since have been compared to that one ride. In my proverbial sports dictionary, when I look up the words “bronc rider”, I may think of my grandfather who I never saw ride but the picture I see vividly is of Gumbo Lamb’s amazing wild ride.
The Saturday performance at the 2007 Days of 1910 held a “family feud” of sorts in the bull riding. While the timed events were going, I walked behind the chutes to visit with Doug Maher who was heading up the rodeo fresh from the emergency room and Lance Lesmeister a college friend I had not talked with in more than 20 years. Sitting and visiting behind the chutes, I was able to watch 3 cousins prepare for their section of bull riding.
Dane Maher had his game face on while striding around with his dad’s trademark walking style. Pat Maher checking his gear while carrying his grandfather’s name for his family to remember. The youngest cousin, Derek Long, was standing near the end. He appeared to be staring at the fence perhaps thinking about the ride to come. I think he must have had his lucky pants on because they looked like they had been in the dirt a time or two already.
I said my good-byes and caught Derek’s eye on the way out. With his best Chip Long smile, he said, “Hello, Mr. Anderson”. I slapped him on the shoulder and wished him luck as I walked out. I must admit that as I walked back I thought he was awful young for those big, nasty bulls. Kids of the kids I grew up with should still be watching cartoons and fixing their bikes.
Back in the stands, I found enough people to visit with until the bull riding was announced. Then, it was time to shut up and focus. One by one each bull rider came out only to hit the ground well before the buzzer, first Dane then Pat. Finally, it was Derek’s turn.
Young, old Mr. Long did not disappoint. The first spin made me sit up straight and think just maybe he had something going here. The yelling began with the next whirl of the bull. I got louder at the half way point and edged up on my seat. You could now feel the crowd get into the ride. Seemingly glued to the spinning bull, Derek was not just hanging on, he was balanced and in time with the bull’s every move. By the end, I was yelling “hang on” like it was fourth and goal at Lambeau Field.
Then just as quickly as it happened it was over for both the bull ride and the rodeo. The judges showed their appreciation with a score of 86. It was truly a “walk off”, rodeo ending bull ride for the ages. I found his parents, Chip and Rita, as the crowd was departing. Mom was smiling and dad, surely proud on the inside, simply shrugged it off as if it was routine.
When I think, “Days of 1910”, I think of all the volunteers, family, Indian tacos, hot nights, the tent, street sports, friends from days past and a small, town rodeo with local flavor. When I think, “best rides watched in person”, there are only two that make me feel the heat, see the dust and hear the crowd, Gumbo Lamb and Derek Long. Sixteen seconds that will provide memories for a lifetime all because a small prairie town has enough pride to keep a tradition alive.