Scores of pick-up trucks towing horse trailers began streaming into Fallon County June 8 as high school rodeo contestants arrived for the Montana State High School Rodeo Finals in Baker.
By Sherry Vogel
After a frenzied registration, lot assignments were issued, animals were settled and rodeo families made camp.
By late afternoon young cowboys and cowgirls strolled the grounds to meet and greet new and old friends. A few small children set up a water park of blow up pools and slip and slides as they laughed and played in the warm sun. Generators kicked off and on as animals were being grained and cooks lit their barbecue grills. Young ropers twirled ropes and lassoed roping dummies while barrel racers ran the pattern, as they all practiced for upcoming rodeo events.
As evening approached, horse trailers with living quarters, campers and a few tents spanned the immense graveled parking lot behind the fairgrounds indoor arena. Among early arrivals were rodeo queen contestants and the cutting/reining qualifiers who competed a day earlier.
The June 9 morning sun was bright and warm as it whispered promises of a scorching day. Everyone in the arena came to attention as announcers Randy Sears of Sidney and Mike Williams of Broadus gave the opening greetings. Opal Harkins, reigning 2015 Montana High School Rodeo Queen presented the Red, White and Blue bestride a sorrel horse. As the National Anthem played softly, a rodeo announcer read, “I am the American Flag”. Arena music producer, Jaycee Searer from Sidney, stood by to set the mood with music. Her goal being to help boost the energy and intensify the rodeo experience.
Then, suddenly, rodeo action exploded as Tara Novak, Helena, bolted across the arena to run the poles. She was followed, in turn, by 46 other talented cowgirl contenders from across the Big Sky State. Among these young ladies were hometown cowgirls Alycia Conroy and Kaylin Wheeler. Alycia, a very talented athlete who just graduated from Baker High School in May, could be seen competing in three other events throughout the day. She qualified to compete on the state level not only in pole bending but in break-away roping, goat tying, and barrel racing. Kaylin Wheeler, another gifted senior graduate from Baker High and a pole bending contender, competed in team roping as her second event. Her team roping partner is her brother, Quentin. Quentin Wheeler, an accomplished cowboy, competed in the morning’s second event, which was tie down roping. Then he went on in the course of the day to compete in steer wrestling and team roping.
Wyatt Gaskins, an exceptional Carter County cowboy, was a fellow competitor in the tie down roping and team roping events. His roping partner is Trey Dempewolf. Another Carter County High School contender is Katy Negaard. This skilled young athlete qualified to compete in goat tying, barrel racing, and break-away roping. To round out the list of Fallon County area contestants was Baker Spartan Seth Mastel. This Marmarth cattleman teamed up with roping partner Alexis Shipp. Together they gave an impressive showing in their event.
“Some days are good days for diamonds and other days are good for dust, today is a good day for dust,” quipped the announcer. As temperatures soared close to 100 degrees, spectators were thankful for a fully covered grandstand and an occasional breeze sweeping across the fairgrounds. By late afternoon many a weary cowboy and horse welcomed a refreshing cool down from the livestock barn water hose.
Everyone barely had enough time to rest, eat and get “spiffed up” for a much anticipated Rodeo Cowboy Prom that evening. This was the first time the MSHSRF hosted a prom for their members. The members did not have to be contestants to participate. The young ladies were encouraged to ask the fellas to this event. The response was tremendous. A casual evening drive through the camp was awe inspiring. “Those cowboys and cowgirls cleaned up pretty durned good.” Beautiful floor length gowns, many drooping over a pair of cowboy boots, were in vogue. Dapper young men, neat and trim in dress, stood tall in jeans, boots and cowboy hats. Montana was made proud that evening of the rodeo finals as its “cream of the crop” young citizens came out for an evening of fun and to dance the night away. It wasn’t much of a surprise to rodeo folk from southeastern Montana when sudden wind gusts arose, clouds quickly gathered and the sky blessed the countryside with much needed rain.
6:30 a.m. came all too early as the welcoming aroma of frying bacon and sausage came drifting from the 4-H concession stand in the livestock barn. June 10 saw another day of competition as contestants did their very best to move on to Saturday’s short go. That evening at 5:00 found the grandstands nearly full as contestants wholeheartedly gave their all to delight spectators. Later that evening Charlie Jenkins entertained young and old alike on the ground level stage at the south end of the grandstand. He engaged the crowd with his foot stomping music, even giving a few dancing lessons, to boot. As the moon hung high, the rodeo crowd found their way back to their living quarters. Generators were silenced and a slumber fell a cross the sleepy camp.
June 11 was a repeat of the previous day, although rodeo participants and Bakerites alike enjoyed a vast array of tempting foods as well as browsed various western retail venues. The noon hour realized larger crowds eating in the food courts. Many people congregated in the shade or at picnic tables to eat while swapping daily happenings. It was the perfect time to interview a few of the rodeo contestants and their families.
Many contestants and their families enjoyed coming to this end of the state. Traveling across the state and viewing the flat prairie was a “first” for many of the young contestants. Some expressed how strange it felt not to have any mountains in the background. Tyler Houle, a 17 year old steer wrestler and junior from Ronan, traveled 622 miles to get to the finals in Baker. He stated, “It’s flat here, really flat, I’m used to seeing mountains.” He added, “But I could live here. It’s nice country.” He could see himself being the owner of a ranch and running cows out here. He was impressed with the fairgrounds and the arena. He admitted, “It is definitely better than I thought it would be. I’ve never been to Baker and I thought, ‘why did they pick Baker?’ I expected a dusty arena with a fence around it.”
A pretty cowgirl, Tara Hansen, a junior from Manhattan, said she liked southeastern Montana’s weather. She felt it was hotter here. She also commented, “Baker’s arena has a better set-up for state finals than most.” She felt things were running pretty smooth.
Rachel Cutter, a Bozeman cowgirl, 16 year old junior, commented, “Baker is a quiet little town.” She thought it would be fun to swim in the lake. She commented on the nice covered grandstand and the indoor barns. She felt they are both nice.
A steer wrestler from Bozeman told of how in his down time he and his family had taken the opportunity to visit Medicine Rocks State Park, Ekalaka Museum and ate at the Wagon Wheel Cafe in Ekalaka.
Many families were camping at the fairgrounds over the week-long rodeo. It was interesting to discuss the virtues of a rodeo camp. The phrase that echoed over and over was: “rodeo family”. Many of the athletes and their families actually started their rodeo season in March and travel to a different rodeo each weekend through the summer into fall. They come to know each other very well by the end of the season. For that reason they prefer staying in the rodeo camp instead of local motels. Of course, the cost of a weekly motel bill and having to eat out every meal doesn’t make sense economically. Then there is the sound reason that they want to be near their animals to ensure good care and early feedings. Yet an even more endearing reason surfaced that of camaraderie. They enjoy being part of a rodeo family.
An eleventh grader who has been barrel racing for five years perhaps best expressed this camaraderie among the families. This young cowgirl from the Gallatin Gateway shared, “Getting to know other families and becoming part of a rodeo family is a big part of camping out together. We set up close together to visit, have potluck dinners and support each other’s events. You definitely have more than one mom or dad. Everyone jumps in to help and support one another.”