The rodeo takes center ring, but don’t miss the historic vehicles.
For more than 120 years, cowboys and cowboy lovers have kicked up their bootheels at Cheyenne Frontier Days in Wyoming’s capital. Nothing thereabouts compares with that classic rodeo each July, but should you land in Cheyenne another time, get a taste of the spirited action at Cheyenne Frontier Days Old West Museum, which has celebrated the rodeo and the region for more than 30 years.
In the 19th century, cowboys with downtime often turned to whiskey, cards and women. But such “distractions” were not always readily available. Recreational activities closer to home included friendly roping and bronc-busting contests—a natural and enjoyable extension of work. In time these events were formalized and grew in scope. It was on September 23, 1897, that Cheyenne businessmen, in conjunction with the Union Pacific Railroad, harnessed the cowboys’ competitive fire by presenting the first Cheyenne Frontier Days. Special excursion trains brought in spectators to watch bronc riding, roping, staged dramatic performances and parades. The event that came to be known as “The Daddy of ’em All” was born, alive and kicking.
In the formative years, ranch owners sponsored their cowboys and often made wagers. By 1905 rodeo officials had defined rules for each competition, and judges determined winners based on a scoring system. Cheyenne Frontier Days expanded over time into a weeklong happening—with more rodeo events, bigger parades, splashier musical performances and dazzling Indian dances—and eventually moved to the last full week in July. And the crowds kept growing. It became a family event, but that didn’t mean an end to the inherent danger.
Among the broncs who had their day in the Cheyenne sun was Steamboat, a shiny black horse unequaled in power or bucking fury. For nearly a decade, Steamboat defied virtually all comers. His last appearance was in 1912 and, legend has it, when he died two years later, his owner buried Steamboat on the grounds of Frontier Park. Whatever the truth, his legend lives on there, as does his profile on Wyoming license plates and the state quarter. Steamboat, of course, gets his just due at the museum, which has welcomed visitors to the park grounds since 1978.
The museum’s standout exhibit is “Cheyenne Frontier Days: A Legend Walking Tall,” which relates the history of what is now considered the world’s largest outdoor rodeo through artifacts, photographs and memorabilia. Part of the exhibit tracks the legacy of rodeo women, particularly those who made their mark at Cheyenne Frontier Days. The first Miss Frontier (chosen by a Frontier Days committee) was Jean Nimmo Dubois in 1931. Five years later the honor went to Mary Helen Warren Welborn, who—inspired by a Frontier Days performance by fan dancer Sally Rand—appeared in a white leather divided skirt and vest trimmed in fringe and silver conchos. “White bucks” have been the traditional Miss Frontier outfit for 75 years.
In the early years, clowns performed for laughs between events. Cheyenne Frontier Days’ iconic clowns John Dixon “Red” Sublett and “Tin Horn Hank” Keenan set the bar not only in their routines but also in their daring attempts to divert angry animals. The rodeo clown became an essential diversion in the arena by 1932, when bull riding made its debut. By the 1960s, the rodeo had brought professional bullfighters into the mix. The exhibit “Bullfighters: The Risky Road to Glory” explores that ring of the rodeo. “It is a great complementary exhibit to the history of Cheyenne Frontier Days,” says Kristin Custis, public relations and marketing director.
The museum hosts the annual induction ceremonies of the Cheyenne Frontier Days Hall of Fame and showcases inductees’ awards, buckles, saddles, hats and autographed photos. It also houses 150 horse-drawn vehicles, among the nation’s largest such collections. Some of the wagons and carriages see use on parade during Cheyenne Frontier Days. That summer event has long been a must for lovers of rodeo and cowboy fun, but only the museum is open year-round. Call 307-778-7290 or visit oldwestmuseum.org.
Originally published in the June 2010 issue of Wild West. To subscribe, click here.