As the days grow longer, the Kansas wind gets warmer, and the school year draws to a close, the thoughts of ranchers and would-be cowboys in Chase County and the surrounding communities turn to rodeo, specifically the Flint Hills Rodeo. The oldest consecutive rodeo of June, the Flint Hills Rodeo draws thousands of spectators from near and far. This two-day event is an experience that is not easily forgotten. The Flint Hills Rodeo is an important yearly event with roots deeply embedded in Chase County history.
It is said that in the 1930s, the children of E. C. Roberts, including Cowgirl Hall of Fame inductee Marjorie Roberts and her brothers, rodeo stars Ken and Gerald, used to “play rodeo” on their ranch using their family’s livestock. Gradually, local interest in these impromptu performances grew, and in 1937, Roberts, his son Ken, and his son-in-law Eddie Boysen staged what is widely considered to be the first professional rodeo in Chase County. At that time, no rodeo facilities existed, so Roberts offered the use of the big corral on his ranch located two miles west of Strong City.
The event was such a rousing success, the Flint Hills Rodeo Association was formed the following year and plans were made to continue the Flint Hills Rodeo annually (“FlintRodeo,” 348). The early years were quite exciting, and the citizens of Chase County embraced the Flint Hills Rodeo. According to longtime resident Edith Edwards Kutz, it was community spirit and hard work that got the rodeo off the ground: “At the start, we all took cars and went around to towns throughout the state, putting up posters, honking horns and just letting people know we were having a rodeo” (“Collection” 24).
During the weekend event, many residents of Strong City and the neighboring towns invited the cowboys, rodeo clowns, and wild west show performers into their homes. Mrs. Kutz remembers hosting Spike Bronson, a rodeo clown, and his wife, Connie: “After every ride, Connie and I spent our time washing those large Levis and trying to dry them in front of the oven” (24). Despite the vast amount of work and volunteer effort required to maintain such a large endeavor, the Flint Hills Rodeo nevertheless quickly attracted local and national attention, and the crowds grew larger every year.
The arena at Strong City on Highway 50 is a familiar landmark to the people of Chase County, yet the Flint Hills Rodeo started in much more humble surroundings. In 1938, a more permanent home was constructed at the Roberts’ ranch; the work was donated by men of the Chase County community, and the result was an arena that was used from 1938-1940. By 1941, new rodeo grounds were developed one mile west of Strong City. Improvements included a public address system and factory-made portable bleachers capable of accommodating the swelling crowds.
However, in 1947, Highway 50 was relocated through part of Strong City, leading to yet another move for the Flint Hills Rodeo. Twenty acres adjacent to Highway 50 were purchased, and necessary structures such as a permanent arena, buckout chutes, catch pens, and concession stands were added and maintained, resulting in a well-built facility that is still used today (“Flint,” 348). From its inception, the Flint Hills Rodeo has been sanctioned by yprofessional rodeo organizations, and today it is recognized as an important competitive rodeo by the PRCA, the Professional Rodeo Cowboys’ Association.
It has consistently attracted well-known rodeo stars since its beginning. In 1939, when asked what big-name stars were expected at the rodeo, held that year on May 20th and 21st, Ken Roberts replied, “They’ll all be here because they’ll be on their way from the rodeo May 12-14 at Dodge City to the rodeo at Fort Smith, Ark, on May 27-29. The Strong City dates are in between and will provide another rodeo for the professional riders. Yes, they’ll all be here” (“Big”).
More recently, well-known rodeo names such as “Tuff” Hedemann, Monty “Hawkeye” Henson, and local standout Jason Lahr have thrilled rodeo crowds as they participated in events such as roping, dogging, and riding broncs and bulls. The charm of the Flint Hills rodeo also lies in the many extra features that rodeo weekend offers. One of the most popular events is the Saturday morning rodeo parade, a practice which dates back to the early years. On of the first recorded parades, if not the first, can be traced to the year 1939; however, it was strongly promoted in 1944 by The Chase County Leader with the following call to the community.
Get out that ten gallon hat, brush off those old chaps and shine your spurs and saddle up and be at the southwest corner of the C. C. C. H. S. grounds at 9:45 Saturday and get into the big parade opening the two days performance of the Flint Hills Rodeo. Or, if you are that old, get out the “Surrey With the Fringe on Top” because each rider or driver of a decorated vehicle will be given a ticket to the Saturday afternoon performance.
To be eligible for the ticket you must be at the assembly point and stay with the parade until it completes its course. FlintParade”) With such an enticing offer, it is a wonder that there were spectators at all that day. However, the parade in honor of the 50th anniversary drew huge crowds; it is estimated that 15,000 were on hand for that historic parade, including 103 year old Mabel Harris, a former resident of Cottonwood Falls who faithfully attended the Flint Hills Rodeo parade for many years (Birk and Harak). Another popular event of rodeo weekend is the annual dance, which had its beginning in the year 1941.
During that year, two dances were held; the first took place on Friday evening at the Civic Auditorium in nearby Emporia, and the second at the municipal building in Cottonwood Falls on Saturday night (“FlintEnlarged”). A more recent addition to the weekend event is the Flint Hills Rodeo Church Service, a Sunday morning tradition since 1972. Vicar Don A. Miller, a former rodeo contestant, delivered the first sermon; since that time, each minister has preached either while on horseback or from horse-drawn wagon.
This is definitely a community event, with the churches of the county traditionally uniting for this service (“50th Anniversary”). Additional features such as these have served throughout the years to heighten the rodeo experience for all involved. Behind the continued success of the Flint Hills Rodeo, there have been two important driving forces: the reputation of the Roberts family and the incredible amount of support of the larger Chase County family. The Roberts were instrumental in getting the rodeo off the ground and sustaining the interests of rodeo-goers from outside Chase County.
In fact, three of E. C. Roberts’ six children were themselves rodeo stars. Marjorie Roberts, the oldest, joined the Clyde Miller Circus as a trick rider in the early 1930s; she also competed in various rodeo events such as calf-roping, steer-wrestling, and saddle and bareback bronc events. She regularly competed in bull-riding as well. In 1941, Marjorie won the women’s bronc riding contest at the 1941 Cheyenne Frontier Days, equivalent to a world championship today. More often than not, she would compete against her brothers, Ken and Gerald, for prize money, prompting Gerald to remark that she was his toughest competition.
As rodeo became more regulated and women were forced out of competition, Marjorie was still a popular presence in the rodeo arena as a trick rider and performer in wild west shows (Birk, “Marjorie”). Marjorie’s brothers, Ken and Gerald, followed her into the rodeo business and quickly established themselves as excellent contenders on the rodeo circuit. Ken held the title of World Champion Bull Rider for three consecutive years, beginning in 1943. He was also the runner-up for the World Title in Saddle Bronc Riding in 1945.
Gerald captured the title of World All-Around Cowboy in both 1942 and 1948. All three Roberts children learned the business from their father while growing up working the family ranch. Although E. C. Roberts never competed professionally in rodeo, he nevertheless made a name for himself on the rodeo circuit. Named “Mr. Rodeo” in 1977 in honor of his contribution to the sport as a pickup man, livestock supplier, and rodeo producer, he never missed a single Flint Hills Rodeo held during his lifetime.
As he climbed into his nineties, he was a fixture in the rodeo parade and could often be seen standing in the announcers’ stand on rodeo days surveying his legacy” (“Mr. Rodeo,” 1). At the Flint Hills Rodeo the year following his death, his presence was reflected in numerous ways, including a tribute in Saturday’s parade and by a riderless horse led around the rodeo arena prior to each day’s events (Chase). The popularity of the Roberts family on the rodeo circuit may have jump-started the Flint Hills Rodeo in its early years, but it has been sustained largely by the dedicated efforts of the Chase County community.
This support and dedication was evident from the beginning; businessmen joined ranchers in promoting an event that was sure to reflect well on the county as a whole. In fact, the first president of the Flint Hills Rodeo Association, Carroll Holmberg, and its first secretary, Ray Gordon, were not ranchers or cowboys; they were area businessmen. A quick uninformed look at the photograph [of Holmberg and Gordon in suits and cowboy hats] may indicate two ranchers gussied up for a special occasion. But this is not the case.
Holmberg’s job in the community was at the depot in Strong City, serving as the railway express agent. Gordon worked as the local mail carrier. . . . Many of the rodeo association board members were local business folk and community members who wanted to stand behind the rodeo and see it be a success. (Hanson) Connie Roberts, Holmberg’s daughter, remembers her father’s passion for the Flint Hills Rodeo: “He never was a farmer or a cowboy. He never did anything like that but he just loved this rodeo.
He and Ray just thoroughly enjoyed it! ” (qtd. in Hanson). Evidence of this passion by people who are not daily involved in ranching or rodeo activities is still found today in and around Chase County. Much has changed throughout the history of the Flint Hills Rodeo. Inflation has greatly raised the original ticket price, which was only fifty cents for adults and twenty cents for children under fifteen. Increased regulation by the PRCA also slowly choke out regular appearances by trick riders and wild west shows.
E. C. Roberts even pointed out that the cowboys had changed; today, there are more city boys who pay to learn how to rope a steer and ride a bull than there are real cowboys on a ranch (Birk, “Rodeo,”). However, despite the number of changes, the Flint Hill Rodeo endures, a surprise even to Roberts before his death. “‘Why I didn’t figure it’d last at all,’ he said with a grin. ‘It just all started out playing'” (“Mr. Rodeo”). Let’s hope the Flint Hills Rodeo will be around for many years so future generations will have the chance to “play rodeo. “