GERRY RODEO HISTORY
Many thought that the idea of a rodeo wouldn’t succeed for even one year, but they were certainly wrong for when July 31 rolls around this summer, the tiny hamlet of Gerry just north of Jamestown, New York, will celebrate the opening night of its 75th consecutive annual rodeo, the longest running PRCA rodeo east of the Mississippi. For four days this quiet little village becomes "The Rodeo Capital of the East" as approximately 200 professional cowboys and cowgirls roll into town and pay their entry fees to compete for more than $45,000 in prize money in four performances.
The event, sponsored by the Gerry Volunteer Fire Department, got its start in 1945 when a former working cowboy named Jack Cox moved from the West to Gerry and suggested a rodeo as a way of raising money for the newly formed fire department. In spite of the doubters, his dream became a reality as members of the department and other volunteers in 70 days turned four acres of swampland into an arena and parking lot in time for the arrival of the renowned Colonel Jim Eskew and the livestock that first year. Bleachers were borrowed from area schools and portable lights were rented.
In those early days the stock arrived by train in the middle of the hamlet, traffic was stopped, and the animals were herded down the middle of Route 60 to the rodeo grounds by volunteers, making for some exciting moments. Today the stock arrives by modern semi trucks, but the excitement of rodeo time still fills the air. Several hundred volunteers of all ages pitch in to make the event possible each year, filling jobs from painting fences to serving the famous beef barbeque dinners. Many residents take their vacation just to volunteer, and others who have moved away return to help.
The Gerry Fire Department felt from the beginning that their rodeo should be "top-notch" so they have always contracted for a rodeo sanctioned by the Professional Rodeo Cowboys' Association (PRCA). Participants pay an entry fee, and money earned in Gerry counts toward qualification to the annual National Finals Rodeo in Las Vegas in December. The contractor for this year's event will again be Painted Pony Championship Rodeo of Lake Luzerne, New York, owned by the husband and wife team of Shawn and Shana Graham, who will be bringing more than 100 head of stock for the competition. They have been producing rodeos for more than ten years at their home location in Lake Luzerne as well as sponsoring rodeos across the Northeast. Both of them have previously participated as contestants in Gerry and are excited about returning as the contractors for this event.
Over the years constant improvements have been made to the rodeo facilities. Additional land has been acquired, permanent bleachers have been installed in an arena seating 4000, new lighting turns night to day, and the old dining hall has been enlarged, refurbished, and air-conditioned to accommodate the hundreds who come each year just to enjoy the world-famous beef barbeque dinners. Over a thousand pounds of beef is cooked daily in pits over wood fires outside the dining hall. The wood must be one-year-old maple in order to create the proper cooking standards. Perhaps one of the best kept secrets is the recipe for the homemade barbeque sauce. The dinners also feature everyone's favorite – crisp browned potatoes done outdoors in large iron kettles. The dinners also include gravy, corn, tossed salad, cottage cheese, ice cream, and a beverage.
The midway houses more than 20 booths offering everything from cotton candy to Western wear to pony rides. The rodeo has always been promoted as family entertainment and is therefore alcohol free.
Today the rodeo consists of the same competitive events it did 75 years ago: bareback bronc riding, tie-down roping, saddle bronc riding, bull riding, steer wrestling, team roping, and cowgirls' barrel racing, with all the entrants competing for cash which counts toward qualification for the National Finals Rodeo.
In addition there are specialty acts such as trick riding, animal acts, and clowns. A recently added feature allows young spectators to enter the arena to compete for prizes as they chase ribbons tied to calves' tails. Also, there will be a return of a free kids' rodeo at 4:00 on Saturday afternoon, August 3, where kids from ages 3-8 can compete in the arena in rodeo related games supervised by pro rodeo cowboys and cowgirls.
Over the years the profits from the rodeos has enabled the Fire Department to purchase modern fire and rescue equipment for the protection of the residents of the town. Today the Department has two pumpers, a tanker, a rescue truck, an ATV with trailer, and a state-of-the-art ambulance to respond to more than 300 calls per year.
The Department’s first piece of fire-fighting equipment, a 1921 Ford Model T, is on display at each rodeo. Their first pumper was built during World War II in the 1940's by members of the Department, who traveled to Buffalo by bus to work on the truck weekends since the factory was being used weekdays to build war equipment.
This year's rodeo runs July 31 through August 3 with nightly performances at 8:00, Wednesday through Saturday, in the arena located five miles north of Jamestown on Route 60. Barbeque dinners are served each evening at 5:00. Additional information is available by phone at (716) 985-4847 or 1-888-985-4847 or on-line at www.gerryrodeo.org. The website for information about Painted Pony Championship Rodeo is www.paintedponyrodeo.com.
All the charter members who planned the first rodeo are gone, but the dream that began 75 years ago is still alive and well, proving what can be accomplished when neighbors have a common goal and work together to meet that goal. Following the last performance on August 3, the rodeo grounds will empty out within hours as the stock will be loaded onto semis, the contestants will pack their gear and move on down the road to their next rodeo, and the residents of Gerry will begin the cleanup process after a long, tiring week. But as they go back to their normal routines on Monday, they look back with pride on the accomplishments of their little town and begin planning for next year's rodeo.
Photo: Carl Westerdahl and Walt Peterson, charter members of the Gerry Fire Department, check out the ticket booth at one of the early Gerry rodeos in the 1940’s. Note the ticket prices 75 years ago.