If you close your eyes, you can almost see a calf being roped at about the 40-yard line.
For years, players of one kind or another have been kicking up dirt — along with spills and thrills — to cheering crowds in the open air at the south end of Prairie City.
Today, the town’s Panthers football team punts, kicks and throws pigskins on autumn Friday nights at the Prairie City Athletic Complex. Years ago amateur rodeo contestants bucked, rode and roped live animals on summer weekends in the same location.
For over 40 years, from about 1920 to at least 1963, Prairie City was home to its own annual amateur rodeo. The gala featured all the calf roping, bull riding, bronc bucking and horse racing action you’d expect from a top-notch rodeo, with contestants from Oregon and beyond vying for cash and prizes. Festivities also usually included children’s competitions, a main parade plus one for the kids, live music, lots of food, a dance and the pageantry of a royal court reigning over it all.
According to an Aug. 2, 1956, Eagle article, the first Prairie City Rodeo was held 37 years prior, and was produced by Ab Bradford of the Cowboy Stampede, longtime sponsors of the Prairie City event. In the early years, the rodeo was held on Indian Creek at the Muldrick Ranch, later owned by R.J. Stanbro.
For three years during World War II, there was no rodeo. However, when it resumed in 1947, riding on post-war enthusiasm, it flourished into a two-day event in mid-June.
The date fluctuated from year to year, but the rodeo was always a summer event. Through the 1940s and early 1950s it was usually held in mid-June. In 1954, there were even two rodeos — in June and September.
In 1955, it was moved to Labor Day weekend. The next year, organizers decided to bump the date back up a month, to early August, to allow more time between it and another major area event, the Grant County Fair.
The rodeo court usually hailed from all corners of Grant County. In 1949, Queen Patsy Galbraith of Prairie City was attended by princesses Kathryn Swearinger of Prairie City, Betty Cant of Dayville, Arlene Carson of John Day and Pauline Fanning of Long Creek.
Some years the rodeo had a theme. The 1953 two-day event was dubbed, “The Fastest Show in the West.” The 1960 rodeo, with the theme, “Something Old, Something New,” featured a Sunday afternoon chariot race.
Occasionally over the years, rodeo events were held at other locations in Prairie City. However, the main rodeo grounds was where today’s school football games and track meets are held — with contestants and spectators gathered, enjoying the same spectacular Strawberry Mountain backdrop.
So the next time you’re at a Panthers home football game, look beyond the goalposts, the new eight-lane track and those dazzling lights. You just might hear the echoing cheers and yells from rodeo days gone by.
And even spot a calf being roped at the 40-yard line.