How do you eat an elephant? One bite at a time.
How do you tell the story of one hundred years of Reno Rodeo?
One interview, one photo, one story at a time.
At the end of 2016, I stood red faced, sweaty, and nervous as hell in front of a room of cowboy hats and starched shirts. In a quaking voice, I pitched to them my method to tell “100 Stories for 100 Years of Reno Rodeo.” My concept for Reno Rodeo 100 was a really a replicate of my existing and ongoing project The Folk & The Lore: use a mix of photography, video, audio, and live storytelling, to weave together a bigger story. Collective stories not only help to define identity in relation to a location (like being a resident of Reno), but also identity in relation to traditions and history. I built The Folk & The Lore on a few core beliefs – when you know your neighbor’s story, you are more connected to your community, and those stories will become your own lore – but I realized I needed to expand these values to include what legacy also can do for the collective identity of a community.
And so, with the permission of the executive committee, in January of 2017, I launched into the nearly overwhelming task of creating ten events where I would I curate a mixture of live storytellers and visual storytelling. Each event highlighting the oral histories of Reno’s longest running special event, combined with the portraits and visual poetry that is rodeo. It was a huge undertaking, but I moved forward with the mantra, “One story at a time.”
You can’t tell the story of Reno Rodeo, without telling the story of Reno, Nevada.
Before Reno was a gambling town, Reno was a cowboy town. Reno Rodeo is a yearly reminder of our roots; of traditions forged in the American West.
Historic, aerial photographs of Truckee Meadows shows a valley filled with farms and ranches. Caughlin Ranch, Double Diamond Ranch, and Bartley Ranch weren’t always housing developments and parking lots. If you have lived here for more than a decade, you too will remember wide swaths of pasture in the city limits, filled with grazing cattle. This sight has become quite rare. Office parks and houses fill what was once open land. The deeper into this project I dove, the more I understood it is imperative that I record the stories of who we were as well as who we are. This project’s aim was as narrow as each individual story, and as wide as the collective history of an association and a community. A community that seems to be in a sort of perpetual identity crisis. You can’t know who you are if you don’t know where you came from. I quickly learned that Reno would not be Reno without Reno Rodeo, and that collecting these stories is as important to the association as it is to The Biggest Little City.
This is the story of traditions, old and new.
It is remarkable how little rodeo itself has changed over one hundred years. With that being said, Reno Rodeo has seen some traditions come and go. Gladys Hicks told me about how in the 1940’s her family would set out on a two day journey, via horseback and wagon , winding from the East side of Pyramid Lake through what is now Spanish Springs, and finally arriving in Reno. Native tribe members from across Nevada would participate by bringing up the rear of the parade. Attendees would stand ten rows deep on either side of the street, and wait until the very end, to see tribal members on horseback in full regalia. After the parade, Gladys and her family would camp on the edge of the Rodeo grounds with other tribal members. The final event of the three-day rodeo, was the The Wild Horse Race: a crazy, unpredictable, and popular competition that many tribal men would compete in. These days, the wild horse races are no longer part of the line up, and a 45 minute drive by car has replaced the two day journey via horseback.
For some, just uttering the words “Black Mariah” is enough to put a twinkle in their eye, and fill them with warm memories of getting thrown in the back of the paddy wagon. Their crime? Not wearing a hat or boots during Rodeo week. A donation would be enough to “bail” you out of the klink and be on your way – hopefully to buy a hat from Parker’s Western Wear.
While some traditions have been relegated to memories, there are new traditions to take their place. Two years ago, I interviewed Regina Kay Brush on the Reno Rodeo Cattle Drive. This septuagenarian and poet has been a volunteer for the “Drive” for 13 years. While sitting in a simple canvas tent on her bedroll, she told me hilarious stories about rowdy guests, muddy rides, and the serious labor it takes to put the cattle drive on. And although this tradition was inspired by the movie “City Slickers” and is only a few decades old, it has become a mainstay of Reno Rodeo’s yearly event lineup.
This isn’t just a story of 100 years of cowboys, this is a story about volunteers.
The thing that I find the most incredible about Reno Rodeo is how many volunteers it takes to put this event on. Members across all cultures, income levels, political and religious backgrounds, check their clout and status at the door, roll up their shirt sleeves, and make sure this rodeo happens. One might call this the purest definition of community.
If Reno Rodeo’s value lies in the quality of its members, who are these members?
Bill Richards, one of my first interviewees, and a long time Reno Rodeo member, told me a story that is still one of my favorites. As a young man of 14 years old, he slept for a spell in the tack room on the rodeo grounds, back when it was also a race track. He earned a dollar or two a day exercising the race horses. When Bill would get cold, he would warm up at the cabin inhabited by Frank the care-taker, who would tell Bill about his days riding stage coach up to Virginia City. In those days, the Rodeo lasted a few days and took place around July 4. Today, Reno Rodeo has become a family tradition for Bill. His daughter, Violet, (a surf loving, world traveling, wild child) carries the torch. She serves as Assistant Chair for Kid’s Day, and serves on RRT, Team 355, Special Kids, and Reading Roundup committees.
Randy Bell and his wife Terry not only are mainstays on the Cattle Drive, but rarely miss a performance. Their daughter Sarah, as a teenage flag team member, would jockey for a position that landed her and her horse at the gate her Grandpa worked. So, as she proudly displayed the flag of one of the sponsors, she could also chit-chat with her Pops. Today, the Bells (from grandparents to grandchildren), rarely miss a performance, and are integral to the event’s success. Rodeo is as important a tradition to the Bells as Thanksgiving.
Rodeo is Family.
It was not uncommon for this phrase to come up while I was interviewing individuals for this project. I have heard stories of babies nearly being born on the Rodeo grounds, and this year during the Cattle Drive, a memorial took place in honor of a beloved attendee, followed by her ashes being spread in the Nevada desert. Births and deaths, and those moments in between are the little stories that make up the bigger story of this association. Reno Rodeo isn’t just the saddle bronc or bull riding, the barrel racing or tie down roping, or even the parade or the cattle drive. Reno Rodeo is the sum of the people that make sure these events take place. Reno Rodeo is the collective stories of family, friends, and community. It has been the pleasure of a lifetime to work on this project. I could not be more grateful, because Rodeo has become part of my family and my collection of stories.
**A huge thank you to everyone at Reno Rodeo, but an extra special thank you to the 100 Committee, and an extra-extra-special thank you to Marjie Swiatek, Bill Price, Clara Andriola and Clint Wells who went to bat for project and really made it special.
***Thank you to all of the storytellers and to The Governor’s Mansion, Hidden Valley Country Club, Elks Lodge, Nevada Museum of Art, and Dolan Auto Group for making sure very event went perfect. And thank you to City of Reno Arts and Culture Commission, Nevada Historical Society, and Reno Rodeo Foundation for supporting this project.