THE LAST FRONTIER
The Northernmost Rodeo In America
History of Rodeo on the Last Frontier Prior to 1962, there were a few rodeos a year across the state, mostly a "play-day" type atmosphere, where local ranchers would bring a few head of roping stock, an ornery horse or two and sometimes a bull, mostly a bucking cow or two. These were held on the 4th of July at Happy Valley, near Homer, and at Palmer during Colony Days, and also the State Fair up on old Bailey Hill north of Palmer. Cowboys would enter up at the arena on rodeo day, judges usually would be picked from whomever was handy and not riding. No attention was paid to the equipment used and what rules were used were those in the mind of the judge, usually left over from some contact with professional rodeo Outside.
In 1962, the stock contractors operating were Mo-Ke-Bo out of Palmer. Two of these partners were Keith Hooks and Bob Swift. It was at one of those rodeos that three cowboys decided there had to be some organization, and the first rodeo association of cowboys, known as Alaska State Rodeo Cowboys Association, was formed. The three cowboys were Rick Ellis, Al Matney, and Jake Neves. The first two are still active in Alaska rodeo. This organization continued for six years or so until Mo-Ke-Bo sold out their stock.
For the season of 1968, the stock contractors were Rick and Lola Ellis. They bought out some of Mo-Ke-Bo stock and added rented livestock for that season. Having no area on which to keep the stock at their Chugiak home, it was back to the drawing board for the cowboys. What then transpired was a group of the cowboys with A.S.R.C.A. pooled their money. They raised enough money among themselves to buy 10 head of bucking horses and 10 head of cows with new calves at side. Rick Ellis was selected to go Outside and make the purchase of the horses. He bought them from Donn Davies of Dayton, Wyoming. This stock, which had been being used for college rodeos in Wyoming, was transported to Alaska by Lon Melton. Both cowboys donated their own time to do so. The stock then became the property of the rodeo association, which formed a Board of Directors, assigned Melton to take care of the stock on his ranch at Palmer and transport it to rodeos. Ordinarily a cowboy organization is a rules-making body, formed to tabulate a point system and discuss competition problems and solutions. Not so with this one. Everyone was assigned to a duty or took it upon themselves to help load the stock, feed, water, load the chutes, work behind the scenes, take tickets at the gate, run the concession stand, and clean up the grounds after the rodeo. In addition to the above, the rodeo association had looked for and found a 40 acre tract of land on the old Glenn Highway at Peters Creek, signed a 10 year lease with a 10 year option, and went to work with volunteer labor and materials to build a rodeo arena, chutes, working pens, concession stand, water and other buildings necessary to put on rodeos. All worked well for four years. The land selected for the rodeo site was needed for an elementary school. After some negotiation, the rodeo association gave up its lease at the end of the 4th year, with the promise of being offered a substitute plot of land as soon as it could be located. The association then sold its stock and rodeo lay in limbo for two years. Stock was brought in for a couple rodeos at that time by Joe Bardgett, out of Canada, and a rodeo was held at Fairbanks and one in the old Sports Arena on Firewood Lane.
In 1977, Greatland Rodeo Company entered the rodeo scene. Jinx Coster brought in stock and formed a company to produce rodeos. In anticipation of that, the cowboys still in the area, together with new people coming in, formed what is now called the Northern Lights Rodeo Association. Both rodeo and the cowboy organization have been growing steadily in the past several years.
In 1982, a second stock contracting firm entered the market. Four Cs, comprised of cowboys (thus the Cs) Pete Criner, Blocky Rutherford, Hunter Wells, and Tom Lanners set up a few rodeos. The cowboys were in the heights of their glory not only one rodeo a weekend, but sometimes two. It was hectic but the programs were set so that most everyone who wanted to could work both shows. It was a fantastic season because of the mixture. Both stock contractors worked beautifully together, and approximately 170 cowboys, the most ever to join the Alaska circuit, added their own assistance and cooperation, for what was a super rodeo summer. Another first for rodeo in Alaska was achieved, with more than 20 rodeos across the entire state in three months, added to that the fact that the association was being presided over by the first woman President in its history, Lola Ellis.
The 1983 season will see one stock contractor again, Jinx Coster. He was just returned from the Lower 48 with new stock and more of it. The Rodeo Association, led by Joe Sturdivant, had gone computerized for its entry and record keeping functions, allowing more use of information for the announcer and keeping better track of the overall picture. 1983 will see another couple of firsts for rodeo in Alaska. With the coming of the Sullivan Indoor Sports Arena, the season opened on May 29th with an indoor rodeo and ended the season on September 30, October 1st and 2nd with a Top Ten Finals Rodeo. It will see Professional Rodeo Cowboys Bobby Del Vecchio (2nd in the World in bull riding in 1982), Butch Kirby (1978 World Champion bull rider) as judges, and also Del Vecchios attempt to ride the black Yak Wipe-Out. Announcer was Bob Tallman, P.R.C.A.s Great American Cowboy series announcer. It should be the cream of the crop, open only to the Top Ten cowboys and cowgirls in each event, matched against the top stock in Alaska. Producing the Rodeo portion of that event was Rodeo, Inc., consisting of partners Rick Ellis and Nancy Hall, both of whom have won numerous State titles, as well as both having won All Around Cowboy and All Around Cowgirl several times. All in all, rodeo in Alaska is an up and coming sport, geared to family entertainment and family participation. When thinking of traditional Alaskan pastimes, rodeo isn’t often something that immediately comes to mind. In reality, Alaska has a rich and varied rodeo history. Moving along in the 80s, cowboys and cowgirls competed for awards under the banner of the Northern Lights Cowboys Association with Rick Palmer and Danny Daniels as their stock contractors.
In 1989 a new stock contractor, Circle R, emerged to take the reigns and remained the sole stock contractor for the next 7 years. In 1996 a split among contestants launched a new rodeo association, the Alaska Rodeo Association. Circle R functioned as the stock contractor for the Alaska Rodeo Association while the Northern Lights Cowboys Association continued on with Rockin U Rodeo Company, owned by Reggie Strout and Joe Anderson, as their stock contractors.
While Alaska is indeed the biggest state, unfortunately it wasn’t big enough to support 2 rodeo associations and both folded in 2000. Alaska rodeo may have taken a blow, but it was by no means done. After the collapse of the dual associations, Marvin Warbington and Guy Treat Sr. teamed up to form Big Sky Rodeo. Though Big Sky only lasted 2 years, they went out with a bang in 2004 by bringing the Alaska State Finals Rodeo back to the Sullivan Arena one last time.
AK State Fair
After 2004, several Alaskans kept a small part of rodeo alive and tried their hands at the contracting business by producing the Alaska State Fair Rodeo. Joe Anderson in 2003, Joel Hancock in 2004, and the joint partnership of Micah Robertson and Scooter Hackett in 2005. In 2006 Charlie and Nancy Willis took over producing the Alaska State Fair Rodeo and still continue to put on a great rodeo to delight fans every summer.
2006 also saw Micah Robertson going solo and forming Rafter RH Bucking Bulls. Thanks to Micah and his dedication to bringing his bulls to every event in the state, rodeo was finally making a comeback. Unfortunately, the only things for sure about producing rodeos in Alaska is that it is very difficult and very expensive, and Micah made the tough choice to sell his stock to his good friend Shirley Schollenburg in 2009. Shirley formed Bad Girls Bucking Bulls in 2010 and is committed to continuing the sport of rodeo in the Great State of Alaska.
Shirley has certainly had plenty of practice at it. She is part of a wonderful group of cowboys and cowgirls on the Kenai Peninsula that have kept rodeo alive even during the lean years. Their family friendly rodeos, full of kids events, have also helped to breed new generations of rodeo fans and competitors. Thanks to the Soldotna Equestrian Association, the Ninilchik Horse and Rodeo Community, and all the stock contractors that have paved the way, Alaskans have always had a place to swing a rope, hang a rigging, or watch a great bull ride. Most importantly, they have always had a place to bring their families and continue the great tradition of rodeo in Alaska.