A Look Back . . . . 75 years of Kansas’ Biggest Rodeo
(written by Jon Weinman on the 75th anniversary of the rodeo, 2004)
Kansas' Biggest Rodeo has always been unique. Many factors have come together to make it a successful rodeo, and seventy-five years of rodeo hold lots of memories and traditions for rodeo-goers to the Phillipsburg rodeo.
The rodeo started months before the stock market crash of 1929. The Great Depression and the Dirty Thirties had hit north central Kansas, but bad times didn't appear to affect the rodeo's success. If anything, people wanted to forget their troubles for a while and the rodeo was a good place to do that. Attendance at the first rodeo in 1929 was 4,000, and three years later, attendance had grown to 20,000. During the worst times of the Dust Bowl, in 1935, the Sunday afternoon attendance smashed all records and 17,000 programs were printed and used.
The rodeo was first held in town at Morse Park. After its highly successful first year, it was moved to Dr. Buchner's farm north of Phillipsburg, its present location. In 1930, fences were made of hog wire, cross ties, cable, bridge planks, anything the committee could scrounge up. The arena started out being nearly five acres in size, and parked cars were used for fencing. The committee borrowed 2 x 12's from the lumberyard and those were used as seating. Snow fence was borrowed from the state and stretched above the bleachers as shade from the sun.
Dr. John Buchner sold the farm to Everett DesJardins in 1943, and in 1949, the Phillipsburg Rodeo Association bought the pasture from DesJardins. In 1949, the rodeo grounds boasted two grandstands – the original one on the west side, and a second grandstand on the northwest corner of the arena. In May of 1950, a tornado came through and destroyed the original grandstand. The committee had it rebuilt by rodeo time of that year.
The rodeo grounds had a racetrack that was used for a variety of races – wild horse races, umbrella races, and even chariot races with bulls pulling the chariots! The bucking chutes were first built on the east side of the arena. Then in 1939, the race track was eliminated, the chutes were moved to the north end, and the arena was narrowed. The arena was made smaller again in 1953 by moving the south fence north. At this time, the old chutes were falling down.
In 1953, the Republican City dam had just been built, so Doc Innes, who was the rodeo grounds superintendent at the time and a thirty-year member of the rodeo committee, used surplus materials from the dam to rebuild the east and south grandstands. Materials such as 8'x10' and 10'x10' timbers, bridge planks, and several 55 gallon drums of aluminum paint were used. Everything, including the fence posts, got a coat of paint.
The arena underwent its third and final major renovation in 1984, when the chutes were moved from the north end to their present location on the east. The arena size was reduced by moving the east side inward to its present location.
For a long time, the only restroom facilities at Kansas' Biggest Rodeo were outhouses, two of them, each "4-holers," with white-washed 1x12's that a person could see through. Following each rodeo, the committee would receive a stack of complaint letters. Finally, in 1964, restrooms were constructed on the east side of the arena. In 2003, those restrooms were replaced with a new building, housing meeting space, a contestant lounge and shower area, and more restrooms.
A well was dug in 1949 to water livestock. In 1964, a second well was dug, and the old Phillipsburg city water tower was put up. Prior to 1964, there was no running water at the rodeo grounds, so the committee provided the public with six or seven barrels of water from which to drink. Those barrels had boards and tanks on top of them, block ice in them, and spigots to get the water. Behind the chutes, there was a wooden barrel, with a dipper, and water flavored with whiskey. City water was piped out to the rodeo grounds in 2003.
Rodeo programs from the '40's boast of a buffalo grass arena. That may have impressed the rodeo spectator, but cowboys didn't like it, because their horses couldn't get good footing on buffalo grass. In 1949, the contestants went on strike the night before the first performance, claiming they would not compete unless the buffalo grass was torn up. That night, Fred Bartlett, president of the committee, chiseled up a tiny spot in front of the chutes, and the rodeo went on. The "mostly" buffalo grass arena stayed until 1957 when Jay Winchell, in his first year on the committee and in charge of the grounds, took a three-bottom plow and plowed up the entire arena. Wallace Sullivan, a long-time and influential committee member, was furious that the buffalo grass was gone.
Another milestone for Kansas' Biggest Rodeo was in 1964 when lights were put up and the rodeo went to evening performances on Thursday-Friday-Saturday nights and Sunday afternoons. When the rodeo became a night show, all the locals promised to come. The night rodeos took care of the parties and the night life that had happened with day performances, when the locals had the whole night to let their hair down. The Sunday performance was dropped in 1971, and the rodeo took place on Wednesday-Thursday-Friday-Saturday nights. In 1980, the rodeo changed to a three day performance, Thursday through Saturday nights.
The grand entry has always been an important part of the rodeo. In the 1950's, there might be as many as 400-500 horses in the serpentine drill around the pivots. A limit had to be put on the number of horses, so the committee decided to limit the grand entry to saddle clubs only. This irritated a Phillipsburg man, who organized a maverick saddle club, saying that anyone who showed up was a member of his club and therefore could ride in the grand entry. Back then, as is true now, all riders in the grand entry receive a ticket to the rodeo.
Kansas' Biggest Rodeo even had live music. Ki Wolfe, who ran the cleaner's in town, organized a band that played during the rodeo. High school students helped fill out the band, which played at rodeos from the late '40's to the '60's. After the band dissolved, an organ was brought in and someone was hired to play it during the rodeos. Today, the organ is no longer part of the rodeo performances.
In the '60's and '70's, a variety of television stars and recording artists were brought in each year for entertainment. Fess Parker, star of TV's Daniel Boone, Festus and Sam the bartender of Gunsmoke fame, country music star Lynn Anderson, and Goober from the Andy Griffith Show all entertained in Phillipsburg during rodeo days. Surprisingly, attendance for their shows was poor and the acts were discontinued.
Not only the Phillipsburg rodeo, but professional rodeo has seen changes since 1929. When Kansas' Biggest Rodeo had four performances, each performance was a different go-round. That meant that the same cowboys competed each night, so they came to town and stayed all four days. Horses were hauled in the back of pickups with stock racks. When a cowboy arrived in town, he would unload his horse, clean out the back of his pickup and bunk there. Each cowboy might not have his own horse; several cowboys would follow one good roping or steer wrestling horse from rodeo to rodeo, each using it to compete. Cowboys would make the circuit, competing at rodeos in Pretty Prairie, Kan., then Cheyenne, then to Phillipsburg or Burwell, Neb., and then on to Sidney, Ia., or Ada, Okla., or Colorado Springs. In 2004, Kansas' Biggest Rodeo is one of four rodeos in Kansas sharing the same week. Many cowboys enter all four of those rodeos: Abilene, Dodge City, Hill City, and of course, Phillipsburg. Nowadays, the Phillipsburg rodeo is one go-round, which means cowboys compete only once during the entire three performances. Professional rodeo has become more competitive, and cowboys are likely to compete at a rodeo, and head to the next rodeo, not even staying to see the end of the rodeo in which they just competed.
The Wrangler Bullfights were another much loved part of Kansas' Biggest Rodeo. They began in Phillipsburg in 1981 and featured three bullfighters competing against each other in freestyle bullfighting competition. The last Wrangler Bullfight took place in 2000 when Wrangler discontinued the shows.
Kansas' Biggest Rodeo has never had a year with weak attendance. Attendance has fluctuated, but it has never been so low that the committee was concerned about the next year's rodeo. Rod Innes, president of the rodeo committee, long-time member and son of Doc Innes, remembers selling programs at the rodeo in the '50's. Programs were 25 cents each, and the seller got a nickel for each program sold. He could make $20 a day, which pencils out to selling 1,000 programs, and that was with two or three other program sellers.
In the early days of the rodeo, concessions were handled by John McLaughlin from Louisiana. He would put up a tent on the west side, and grill onions because he claimed the smell enticed people to eat. He often hired high school kids to help. After John quit, committee member Don Lumpkin, who ran Lumpkin's IGA in Phillipsburg, ran the concession stand. Now it is manned by the rodeo committee.
Kansas' Biggest Rodeo has been fortunate to have its history documented in photos. A photographer from the O'Neill Photo Co. in O'Neill, Neb. was on hand in 1931 to take pictures of the rodeo as well as of the parade. Dr. Buchner's brother, Glenn Buchner, who was a professional photographer, took photos in the '30's and even had a movie reel of the rodeo. Local druggist Rex Rankin, an AP photographer, took pictures from the late '40's into the '60's.
Life in Phillipsburg has changed since 1929, and so has rodeo. Gone are the days of the horse and buggy and 25 cent programs, and hauling a horse to a rodeo in the bed of a pickup. But it is certain one thing won't change. The rodeo that started in the "big pasture north of town," will continue to be "Kansas' Biggest Rodeo – where champions compete."
Many thanks to Bill DesJardin, a life-long supporter of Kansas' Biggest Rodeo, who provided much of the history that was shared in this article. Bill, whose father was Everett, grew up on a farm just south of the rodeo grounds.