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The Rodeo of the Ozarks in Springdale (Washington County) was, in 2008, ranked in the top five of large outdoor rodeos in the United States. It is estimated to have a $6 to $7 million impact on northwest Arkansas.
The Rodeo of the Ozarks was founded in 1945. That year, a pair of construction workers from Oklahoma who also worked as rodeo promoters, Paul Bond and Bill Kelley, were working in Springdale and raised the idea of starting an event that summer. Eventually, this idea was passed along to Thurman “Shorty” Parsons and Dempsey Letsch, co-owners of a feed store. Under their leadership, the Rodeo of the Ozarks became a reality in 1945, with the dates July 1, 3, and 4 scheduled for the first rodeo performance. The Clarence E. Beely Post of the American Legion, longtime supporters of previous Independence Day celebrations, and the Chamber of Commerce stepped forward and rented the arena behind the sale barn on Emma Avenue for the event. In June, other citizens took a goodwill caravan through Arkansas, Oklahoma, and Missouri to advertise the coming rodeo. P. W. “Doc” Boone and his Skunk Hollow Hillbilly Band played bluegrass music and did a comedy review during each twenty-minute stop along the way. Despite two days of rain and a bleacher collapse on the last day, the 1945 rodeo was a moderate success.
In 1946, the show became professional when the Rodeo Cowboys Association recognized the event. That meant that prizes won at Springdale would count to determine national champion status. Chamber of Commerce manager Don Hoyt came on board that year and became a driving force behind the citizen participation. In 1947, Parsons agreed to sell the ground and the arena; in February 1947, the Springdale Benevolent Amusement Association (SBAA), a non-profit group, was organized and purchased the arena from Parsons. In March 1947, the first president of the SBAA, Harvey Jones, was elected. The second president elected was John Tyson. In 1950, the association asked Parsons, who had been working on the event every year, to be president. He accepted the position and remained Rodeo of the Ozarks president for thirty-eight years until his death in 1988.
Over time, the original wooden bleachers and hand-rigged bucking chutes built with raw oak timber were replaced with steel holding pens, specially designed chutes, and steel under-framed bleachers that can seat more than 10,000 people. American Legion members constructed box seats along the sides of the arena. Specialty acts were added to the event, such as 1993’s Bunky Boger with his Western Extravaganza, which featured a trained buffalo named Cody. Chamber of Commerce directors such as Hoyt and Lee Zachary, as well as other civic leaders, worked to draw bigger crowds and national recognition.
After Parsons’s death, his daughter, Patricia Parsons Hutter, joined the board in his seat and continued with the event, still held on the same days, July 1–4, and at the same location. In 1998, contestants from twenty-four states signed up for Springdale’s rodeo; nine were world champions, and purses totaled nearly $100,000.
The Rodeo of the Ozarks Board of Directors provides arena use at no charge to youth groups, including the Springdale Riding Club, the Ozarks Junior Rodeo Association, and Benton County 4-H Clubs. In addition to improving and maintaining Parsons Stadium, the SBAA has returned hundreds of thousands of dollars to northwest Arkansas to construct community buildings like the Shiloh Museum of Ozark History and sponsor a variety of educational events for schoolchildren. Each year, more than 2,000 first graders from throughout the district participate in hands-on activities at the arena in connection with livestock, horses, and other rodeo events. Future Farmers of America is one notable beneficiary from rodeo programs.
In 2008, the Wrangler ProRodeo Tour made its first stop in Springdale; possible winning purses were increased, another enticement to cowgirls and cowboys. Competitors win prize money and earn points in the Rodeo of the Ozarks toward a ten-day ride in the National Finals in Las Vegas, Nevada.
For additional information:Rodeo of the Ozarks. http://www.rodeooftheozarks.org (accessed November 21, 2008).
“Rodeo of the Ozarks Offers Family Entertainment July 1–4.” Beebe News. June 19, 2008, p. 1.
Scott, Kim Allen. “‘Let’s Rodeo!’: A Short History of the Rodeo of the Ozarks.” Unpublished research paper, 1995. Shiloh Museum of Ozark History, Springdale, Arkansas.
Jeanie HornMarshall, Arkansas
Last Updated 12/8/2011
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