The California Rodeo
A Central Coast Tradition

by Burton Anderson
in cooperation with the Monterey County Historical Society

The word "rodeo" is derived from the Spanish word "rodear" meaning to roundup, and was the name used in the Spanish ranchero days when the semi-wild herds of cattle were gathered in the spring for branding, ear-marking and castration. In the fall another rodeo took place when cattle were slaughtered for their hides and tallow. (The cured hides became known as "California Bank Notes").

The custom of branding was as much part of range law in those days as it is today. Twice a year the vaqueros would ride into the wilds, with their remuda of horses, and gather as many cattle as they could find and herd them to a central location, usually a wide valley, where they could be separated by brands. (An interesting fact was noted by W.H. Brewer in 1862 when he witnessed women helping as vaqueros along with their husbands and daughters near Pacheco Pass during a roundup.) Often the number of cattle rounded up was so vast that the milling circle of vaqueros and cattle was a mile in diameter. In an effort to keep some semblance of order out of the chaos, a "Juez de Campo" was elected to rule on the inevitable arguments. It was no problem matching the calves to the cows since the calves went brawling after their mothers and each ranchero herded his livestock to a separate part of their rawhide reatas, or in a unique form of bulldogging, (called a "Coleado"), chased the cow or steer and by grabbing the tail were able to flip it off its feet and the animal landed flat on its side with a thud. (James E. Breen, one of the rodeo founders, whose father and grandfather were members of the Donner Party, performed this feat at the first Wild West Show in 1911.)

Jess Stahl, famous Black cowboy, about 1912.

The semi-annual roundup was the origin of the modern rodeo and it also served as a social gathering and celebration by the various families who lived on the enormous ranchos, some as large as 45,000 acres, where the nearest neighbors could be miles away. The rodeo could last a week or more and included BBQs, fandangoes, and competition among the vaqueros in roping and bronco riding; no doubt fueled by copious quantities of "Vino Colorado" and the fiery Aguardiente.

A history of the California Rodeo would not be complete without a mention of its predecessor, the Sausal Park Race Track. In 1872 the Monterey County Agricultural Association constructed a race track, grandstand, stables, bar and restaurant on 69.4 acres donated by Eugene Sherwood and Richard Hellman of San Francisco, to the City of Salinas, with the proviso that a fair and races be held at least every two years; otherwise the property would revert to the former owners. In 1875 the park hosted three days of horse racing and in that year the Monterey Fair Association was incorporated. In 1878 the name of the park was changed to Sherwood Park. The race track was also used by the Pacific Coast Trotting Horse Association for Futurity races. Among the association members were prominent citizens Eugene Sherwood and Jesse D. Carr.

By 1909 attendance at the races was declining and the future of the property was in jeopardy due to the provision that the gift was contingent on holding races at least every two years. A group of cattlemen who belonged to an informal club called the "Salinas Coyotes" mulled over ideas to revive interest. The principal activity of the club was to have a bull's-head BBQ aided by generous quantities of bourbon whiskey. One of the members, Iver "Red" Cornett, came up with the idea of having bucking horses fill in the time between races and he asked Frank J. Griffen, a livestock dealer, to arrange it. The first show was held in 1910 at a baseball park on West Market street on land owned by C.Z. Hebert, and the committee charged the enormous sum of 25 cents for admission. The show was enthusiastically received, and to have better facilities for the next year, the event was moved to the race track in Sherwood Park.

On August 1, 1911 the first rodeo was held at the race track grounds, however it was advertised as a Wild West Show. Since it ran for a whole week, "Red" Cornett called it "Big Week" and Frank Griffen wanted to call it "The California Rodeo." To this day both names are still used to refer to the rodeo. Among the pioneers of the Salinas Rodeo, in addition to the above, were H.E. Abbott, James E. Breen, Sam Matthews, Lawrence "Butch" Beevers, Arthur Hebbron, Julius Trescony, John Bryan, E.J. Redmond, Ed Bordieu, A.J. Zabala, P.E. Zabala and H.W. Lynch.

The year 1911 marked the beginning of the horse parade down Main Street, led by the grand old man of the California Rodeo, James R. Hebbron, who led every parade from 1911 to 1936 when he reached his 97th birthday. There was a 16 piece band and about 100 horses ridden into town by nearby ranchers. There was also an informal closing night parade by townsfolk who decorated what few automobiles there were, and this was led by Jim Bardin Sr. Due to the prominence of the Burbank potato in local agriculture at that time, he was dressed as "King Spud" and rode in a chariot pulled by six white horses.

In 1912 the Wild West Show was repeated and was even more successful than the first year. One of the highlights was the inclusion of cowgirls for the first time, competing in a cowgirls' bucking horse contest. That year also was the first time that out of town dignitaries and politicians were guests at the show, when "Sunny" Jim Rolph, Mayor of San Francisco, attended the performance. A spectacular ride by black cowboy, Jesse Stahl, on a previously unridden bucking horse called "Glass Eye" was one of the highlights of the show. He repeated his triumph by riding another notorious bucker, "Tar Baby," backwards. Jesse, a Tennessee cowboy, retired in 1929 and was probably the most famous black cowboy of all time. Another black cowboy, Ty Stokes, and Jesse Stahl rode a bucking horse seated back to back it was what was called "a suicide ride." The total attendance in 1912 was 4,000.

Betty Lewis, early rodeo star.

By 1913 the trotting races were gone and the eleven leaders of the Wild West show moved to legitimize the event and make it permanent. Frank Griffen was elected President and Rodeo Boss a position he held until 1934, and the program was expanded to include over 20 events. Also in this year the night parade was formalized as "El Colmado del Rodeo" and sometimes simply referred to as the "Colmo." The Colmo was eliminated from the rodeo activities after 1985 but was revived temporarily as part of the Saturday Horse Parade in 1987 and then was discontinued. At one time it was the largest night parade west of the Mississippi.

The next year, 1914, the horse parade was led by the Troop C National Guard Band and had 319 riders. That year the rodeo was incorporated under the name "California Rodeo." In 1915 the rodeo was canceled due to the Panama-Pacific International Exposition in San Francisco.

In the early days of the rodeo, Shorthorn range bulls were used in the bull riding competition that came from Wes Eade's ranch in San Lucas. The horses came from King City and all the stock used in the show were brought to Salinas by train and then driven from the depot to the rodeo grounds. The city council took up the matter of driving cattle through the city streets in 1915 but obviously some sort of settlement was reached.

The rodeo continued during the war years of 1917 and 1918 with much patriotic fanfare in the parades and the arena. Record crowds in 1919 welcomed the returning veterans. In 1921 the Colmado del Rodeo parade's theme was the newly enacted Prohibition Amendment, and I suspect it was the first ever "dry" parade. In 1923 the California Rodeo gave the City of Salinas $40,000 to obtain a Quit Claim Deed to Sherwood Park from the Sherwood heirs.

In 1924, with the title cleared, the rodeo was reincorporated as the "California Rodeo, Inc." and a municipal bond issue in the amount of $40,000 was passed. The money was used to build an 8,000 seat grandstand, construct a 1/2 mile racetrack, build two barns, fences and bucking chutes, the latter under the supervision of Ki Silacci, arena director. (Ki served as arena director for 40 years). The bond was paid off in 1944 out of revenue from the rodeo, and even though it was a municipal bond it didn't cost the City of Salinas a penny. Unfortunately the rodeo was canceled in 1924 due to an outbreak of Hoof and Mouth disease and the brand new stands sat empty.

The local service clubs sponsored a Queen of the Rodeo contest in 1926 and the title was won by Miss Bernice Donahue. Later, in 1929, the contest evolved into the "Sweetheart of the Rodeo" and was won by of Santa Clara County. During this period a former rodeo clown who began cavorting in the arena in 1922, became the official announcer of the California rodeo. His name was Abe Lefcowitz, which he shortened to Abe Lefton, and he served as the announcer from 1928 until 1950. He was a great comic and announcer, especially when he teamed up with a clown by the name of Homer Holcomb. Abe and Homer were without a doubt the greatest crowd-pleasers of all time at the California rodeo. A distinguished guest in 1928 was Mayor Jimmy Walker, of New York, who was the subject of an Able Lefton joke that reputed the Mayor was here to see how the real bull was thrown. Abe constantly poked fun at cowboys, dignitaries and politicians and the fans loved it.

By 1929 the local cowboys began to be outnumbered by professional cowboys in the competition, even though the daily horse parade, comprising mostly local cowboys and cowgirls, was over a mile long. In that year the Rodeo Cowboys Association was formed. It later became the Cowboy Turtle Association in 1936 and finally evolved into the PCRA (the Professional Cowboys Rodeo Association). Beginning with the year 1994 all contestants at the California Rodeo had to be members of the PCRA.

In 1930 the Salinas Exchange Club sponsored and conducted the first Kiddie Kapers Parade as part of the Colmo on Saturday night. The next year the Kiddie Kapers Parade was moved to the night preceding the opening of the rodeo and has been in that time spot ever since. A unique feature of the parade was it was strictly for kids; no large animals, no motorized vehicles and no advertising. Every kid got a prize, the least of which was a dollar bill and two free rodeo tickets. Also in the early days, every kid got several free carnival ride tickets.

The 1930s were a time of ever increasing crowds at the rodeo and in 1935, with WPA help, the grandstand was enlarged to seat 14,000. A crowd of 50,000 witnessed the four-day event in 1938 and the horse parade counted nearly 1,000 horses and riders. In 1939 Brahman Bulls were used for the first time in the bull riding contest, which made the event even more exciting due to the size and unpredictable nature of these bulls. (I witnessed one of these bulls jumping the track fence like a deer and nearly getting into the grandstand.) Also in 1939 the 11th Cavalry and the 76th Field Artillery put on spectacular maneuvers in the arena that almost spelled disaster when two artillery caissons locked wheels while doing a figure-8 maneuver.

In the years between 1924 and 1942 the California Rodeo directors made many improvements to the grounds, including enlarging the stands, building new barns, corrals and other extensive capital improvements entirely financed with Rodeo funds. In 1947 the City and the Rodeo Corporation formalized the agreements with the signing of a 10 year lease. In that same year the Rodeo deeded to the City 30 acres of land east of the grounds that it had purchased from Mrs. Emma Stirling. The Municipal Ballpark now sits on part of this land. The lease was subsequently renewed several times, and in 1972 the Rodeo purchased 14.5 acres northeast of Sherwood Drive and deeded it to the City for additional recreation facilities. The building of the Community Center caused the Rodeo to demolish and replace two barns which were rebuilt entirely with Rodeo funds. With all transactions completed, the City and Rodeo signed a 25 year lease that expires June 30, 1999.

In order to preserve the history of the rodeo, the California Rodeo Historical Committee was formed in 1979 and was aided by a gift of an authentic Wells Fargo Stagecoach and a building in which to house the coach. Barbara Breen and Marge Behen were the first co-chairman of the museum, and aided by wives of committee men and directors they have accumulated a remarkable amount of historical memorabilia relative to the Rodeo. The museum is open to the public during the Rodeo and by special appointment at other times for research.

1996 was a milestone for the rodeo and the community. The old grandstand was demolished after the July show, along with most of the current infrastructure. In its place an 8.5 million dollar multi-use sport complex is planned, which will provide playing fields for the Peppers, softball, Little League, Babe Ruth League, soccer, football as well as the California Rodeo. In addition the new facility will be available for a circus each May and a 4th of July fireworks display. This will truly be a year-round sports complex for the people of Salinas and environs, and is going to be built with private donations.

The rodeo has been a continuing tradition for 85 years and owes its beginnings to an original Board of Directors that consisted of 11 men. Due to the size of the present day show the Board now consists of 52 men plus 13 Past Presidents and scores of men and women volunteers. These people are dedicated to keeping alive the traditions of early California and the American West.

A note on pronunciation: Most American rodeos pronounce the name ro' dee o, but the California Rodeo retains the original Spanish flavor with ro day' o.

Copyright 1997 by Burton Anderson

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