Cattle first came to the area in the late 1860s and early 1870s, when vast Texas herds were moved north by cattle drivers like Charles Goodnight and Oliver Loving. Many of the cattle herds were used to feed miners in Leadville and Cripple Creek. Early ranchers found that much of Fremont County, especially the western portion, was good for raising cattle. There was plenty of good grass and most areas had ample water or Arkansas River access. Though the valleys protected the cattle from predators, they also made cattle rustling more difficult because cattle would often get stuck in the canyons. To roundup the cows from a canyon, cowboys had to have persistence and superb riding, roping, and branding skills.
Given Fremont County’s rich ranching history and long-held love of horses and cattle, it’s no wonder that rodeo is such a cherished tradition in these parts. The very first Royal Gorge area rodeo, called the Old Settlers Reunion, was such a success that locals staged follow-up events for years after. In 1937, when the Cañon City Rodeo Association was formed, the annual gathering became known as the Royal Gorge Rodeo. Regardless of its name, the rodeo has always been a community-at-heart affair, and visitors are welcomed with a sincere, “Howdy!”
As Colorado’s oldest continuously held rodeo, this event is sanctioned by the Colorado Professional Rodeo Association with cowboys and cowgirls coming from all over the country to compete for the grand prize in bull and bronc riding, calf roping, bull dogging, and barrel racing.
Today, the Royal Gorge Rodeo is held at the Cañon City Rodeo Grounds and coincides with the Music and Blossom Festival and Parade on the first weekend in May. Buckaroos and buckarettes are treated to the real wild and woolly deal, with all the danger and excitement of bull and bronc riding and all the fun and derring-do of rodeo clowns and young mutton busters.
As a competition, rodeo demands athletic ability unlike any other sport. Bull riders must possess not only strength and endurance but also timing and rhythm to earn points for their eight-second endeavor. Barrel racers strive to sync their physical skills with their horses’ maneuvers in the cloverleaf route around the barrels. Saddle and bareback bronc competitors need the flexibility and stamina of a superhero. Why, even mutton busting requires nerves of steel and a heart for winning.
For kids in the rodeo circuit, Fremont County hosts Little Britches, which involves youngsters ages 5 to 18 and holds events every year at the Crossroads Arena and Events Center in Penrose. Born in Colorado in the early 1950s, the Little Britches Rodeo was a success from the “git-go.” Originally just a single event, the rodeo expanded in 1961 and formed the national Little Britches Rodeo Association. There are currently some 2,000 youngsters from 21 states who take part in the events, and the non-profit organization continues to “build sound, healthy minds and bodies… [and develops] character, self-reliance and good sportsmanship” through rodeo. It also gives the world of pro rodeo some of its most outstanding athletes.
Western heritage is also illustrated through the Fremont County Fair, which is held in late July and early August. An outreach of the Fremont County Extension Service, the County Fair is a showcase for kids in 4-H Clubs throughout the county and for adults whose home-fashioned crafts and foods have become the stuff of legends. The Fremont County Fair originated in the early 1940’s with a livestock show held on Main Street in Cañon City. Except for several years during World War II, the annual fair has been a culmination of the hard work of 4-H members showing off their wares to the community. Today, 4-H members, ages 6-19, have projects in quilting, food preservation, leather craft, woodworking, electronics, beef, swine, sheep, goats, rabbits, and horsemanship (English and Western).
One of the biggest parts of the fair is the livestock sale held the last Sunday of the fair. Area businesses show their support for young 4-Hers that have worked hard to produce an animal worthy of their western heritage. The auction is an exciting time, with business and private supporters ensuring that the tradition will continue in years to come. The free event is held at the Fremont County Fair Grounds at the top of 9th Street in Cañon City and at Pathfinder Park near Florence.