Life on the Dry Side: Helix Rodeo provides a taste of early day cowboy competitions

Life on the Dry Side: Helix Rodeo provides a taste of early day cowboy competitions

Years ago, wranglers who drove cattle from the wide open plains used to stop at the end of their long journey to celebrate and compete with their colleagues from other cow outfits in a sport that was then called "cowboy competitions."

According to the University of Oklahoma, "The sport of rodeo is the only American sporting event that grew out of an occupational activity: ranching."

Some of those early cowboys might be surprised to find that the friendly competition that evolved on the plains of Kansas has morphed into a full-scale commercial enterprise.

Somewhere along the way - probably about the time that barbed wire appeared and job opportunities for cowboys became limited - the sport began to change. Some of the best of those early cowboys found employment in "Wild West" shows that were popular around the turn of the last century. Others found they could supplement their modest earnings by competing in more localized productions that started to emerge along with paying customers.

The relationship between events which form a part of modern rodeo productions and the actual use of those skills in everyday ranching isn't unlike the relationship between what we have come to know as "Chinese food" and what people genuinely eat in China. The roots are perhaps similar but some level of aberration has been necessary for popular consumption.

Although I haven't personally been to China, former ambassador and current EO columnist Harriet Isom has, and she tells me that my assessment of the comparison is reasonably accurate.

Anyway, there are a number of events which still make up the sport that have a rather direct relationship, including things like tie-down roping, team roping, steer roping, riding unbroken horses, and even wild cow milking - although not a lot of ranchers try to extract milk on the open range, preferring instead to use some type of confinement.

Other events like bull riding and barrel racing are harder to identify as directly related to ranch work. That being said, they add to the production.

While rodeo has hit the big time in places like Las Vegas, there are still plenty of rodeos around in small communities where a few interested folks have come together to provide a modest local event.

The Helix Heart of the Country Rodeo is a good example.

A couple of weeks ago, supporters of the rodeo gathered at the Helix Pub to acknowledge those who make the event happen, make sure that those who help sponsor the rodeo are on board for another year, and enjoy a tri tip dinner cooked by John Olson.

Mervin Swearingen, who is currently serving as president of the rodeo, estimated that about 50 people came to the barbecue. It would have been 51, but I lost my invitation and didn't find it until after the event was over.

Like its larger cousins the Pendleton Round-Up, the Farm-City Pro Rodeo in Hermiston, and the Oregon Trail Pro Rodeo in Heppner, this event is almost entirely dependent on volunteers.

Swearingen is the fourth president of the rodeo and heads a board of 14 members. Dave Goodwin was the first president, followed by Tom Winn and Jeff Wilson.

Swearingen is also one of the original founders of the rodeo along with Goodwin, Milt Patterson and Bob Fowler. They first got together about 1999, and by 2000 they had themselves a rodeo.

The Helix Heart of the Country Rodeo, which will be held on May 24, is trying to add family flavor with stick horse races for the little ones. At the same time, they are proud of their saddle broncs, barebacks, bulls, barrel racing and the outstanding stock and riders who are essential to the success of the event.

Generally the one-day production draws about 800 to 1,000 people, which pretty well quintuples the population of that community.

Even at that, Swearingen says there's always room for more spectators.

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George Murdock is editor & publisher of the East Oregonian. He can be reached at 278-2671 or gmurdock@eastoregonian.com.

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