Annual rodeo brings ranch workers out to play
BY DAVID REESE/MONTANA LIVING
Growing up near the tiny town of Custer, Montana, Tami Jo Blake learned what the word cowboy meant.
Yes, it was a worker who helped her father their 100-year old ranch. But the word cowboy also meant something else: a man of honor, of his word, a gentleman.
Those traits might not be readily evident each year at the Custer Ranch Rodeo, but the skills and horsemanship that a cowboy needs surely are. The Custer Ranch Rodeo each year brings cowboys and cowgirls from around Montana and Wyoming to compete in the types of events that many of the ranch hands do in their day jobs.
At the 2009 Custer Ranch Rodeo, a voice crackled over the tinny loudspeaker, and the horses and riders stood at attention.
For a moment you are transported back in time to another era, when it was politically correct to actually stand and salute the flag, and sing the Star Spangled Banner. After the song, a hush fell over the crowd at this makeshift rodeo grounds on the outskirts of Custer, Montana, and the heat of June was already sweltering.
Cowboys and cowgirls in their brightly colored shirts trotted their horses about the arena, preparing for a day of fun and competition in the annual Custer Ranch Rodeo. This rodeo is a fund-raiser for the Montana Cowboy Hall of Fame, and while there are no big money payouts like the professional rodeos, the horses and riders here are professional in their own right.
These men and women are ranch hands who in their daily line of work perform the tasks of branding, cattle driving, roping and riding.
Here on a wide plateau overlooking the Yellowstone River is small town Montana and Americana at its best. Children play under the bleachers while dust flies in the arena under horses’ hooves, and the ever-present announcer’s voice alternates between making jokes, describing the action and mentioning sponsors.
After the event, in downtown Custer, a band set up on a semi-trailer platform, while families ate good grub on paper plates. The town of Custer itself is a farming community, with little relation to the namesake of General George Armstrong Custer, who was killed in the Battle of Little Bighorn about 70 miles away.
A couple of broken-down motels, a café, a former Baptist church, and a farm implement dealer are among the few businesses on main street in downtown Custer. Just off main street, down a wide, tree-lined corridor is the Custer school, a stately brick building with a playground that is right out of the 1950s.
Tami Jo Blake, one of the rodeo’s organizers, grew up on a ranch between Custer and Hysham. For her, the rodeo helps keep the cowboy tradition alive — although it’s never really gone away. “These cowboys make their livings using horses to handle cattle, and they’re among the finest people I know,” she said. “An authentic cowboy is honest, hard-working, respectful, polite, and gentlemanly. To be called a cowboy is an honor in my book.”
Modern ranch rodeo started in Texas and has since made its way northward. There have been local ranch rodeo events going on in Montana towns for 15 or 20 years, Blake said, but the last five years have seen what she calls “an explosion” in ranch rodeo interest.
“I think there are a couple reasons for this,” she said. “One, because of rising prices and uncertain economic times, people are drawing into their communities more than they have for years. There’s more interest in having a good time down the road at a local event and less in taking a vacation far away.
“We strive to make our event family-friendly.” Also, Blake said, “There’s a new generation of authentic cowboys out there. These are the guys and gals who have an appreciation for the land, the animals, the old hands, and the quiet artistry of a horseback culture that some say is fading.”
The Custer Ranch Rodeo — and other ranch rodeos like it — is part of keeping that culture alive.
“I’ve seen a resurgence among people my age, and we’re committed to living out this lifestyle that we grew up admiring,” she said. “There’s a real dedication to authentic cowboy culture and events like ranch rodeo are devoted to that culture. That’s why we have a whole community of young cowhands eager to come to the ranch rodeo, to show off the skills they use in their everyday work and to compare them to the skills of the other hands. There’s a lot of pride in the cowboy world — these guys take pride in their horse, their equipment, their ability to work with their horse and their partners to handle cattle. They don’t just come to compete. They come to show their world what they can do.”
Top ranch rodeo teams in Montana can advance to the NILE Championship Ranch Rodeo, held each October in Billings at the Northern International Livestock Exposition. “It’s a pretty big deal for these guys to take their talents to town and show them off under the lights,” Blake said.
The 2010 installment of the Custer Ranch Rodeo was its fourth annual. Even though economic times have put the pinch on some sponsors, organizer Blake said “It was our best rodeo yet. We strive to make sure our event is true to authentic Montana cowboy culture, and the interest and support we see from the teams every year prove that they appreciate our efforts.”
K.C. Verhelst also grew up on a Montana ranch. Working along side his father in the Lodgegrass country, he learned at a young age what it took to be a cowboy. He carried that skill set into his adult life and now helps run the S Ranch out of Pryor, Montana.
The Custer Ranch Rodeo is a chance for Verhelst to perform some of the tasks he does every day at his job — and sometimes pick up a few bucks.
“It seems kinda silly to work all week, ride and brand calves, then you get your day off and come and do this,” Verhelst said after the 2009 Custer Ranch Rodeo. “But it’s different when you’re doing it for fun or competition.”
He and his team of five or six guys does about six ranch rodeos a year and they’ve done well, earning enough money to pay for his diesel. Sometimes more.
“It’s treated us pretty good so far,” Verhelst said in that flat, understated tone of the cowboy. “You won’t buy a ranch doing this, but there’s enough to keep you going.”
Most of the events do actually reflect the work on the ranch, though some events, like wild cow milking, don’t. “Most of it’s pretty much how you do it at home,” he said.
Verhelst has done traditional rodeo, but he said he prefers ranch rodeo, where you can compete in several different events in a day.
The S Ranch runs about 6,000 cows and a few thousand yearlings. It’s the kind of place that draws the would be, should be and wanna be cowboys, men who dream of a life in the saddle, riding the range, checking fences and whistlin’ a tune. Sure, there’s that. But it’s called work for good reason.
“Everybody wants to ride, but 16 hours of it a day gets kinda old,” Verhelst said. “If you want to do it, it’s dang sure the place to do it. A guy can make a lot of pony tracks around the place if he wants to.”