Saddle up

The Reno Rodeo at 100

Mike Torvinen is the 2019 Reno Rodeo president.

Mike Torvinen is the 2019 Reno Rodeo president.

Learn more about the Reno Rodeo, running June 20-29, here:

The very first Reno Rodeo was advertised as the city’s “First Annual Carnival of the Range.” Behind it were many of that era’s prominent citizens, including George Wingfield—for whom Wingfield Park is named—and Charles Mapes, Sr., of the once famous Mapes Hotel (demolished in 2000). For the inaugural year, Mapes paid former convicted cattle rustler Will James—who went on to fame as a popular author and illustrator of many Westerns of his era—the princely sum of $20 to illustrate a poster to advertise the rodeo. That was 100 years ago.

In years since, posters commissioned for the Reno Rodeo have become something of a collector’s item. (Locals know the walls of the Gold ’n’ Silver Inn are lined with them.) This year’s poster depicts a man named A.H. “Hippy” Burmister, the bucking horse champion of that first 1919 rodeo. It’s one of the ways the Reno Rodeo Association—officially founded back in 1935—is marking the event’s centennial.

“We had a hundred horses in the Nevada Day Parade—a hundred riders for a hundred years,” said Mike Torvinen, the 2019 Reno Rodeo president. “That turned out very spectacular. I kept hearing that it was just something to see. I was at the front of the group, so I couldn’t really see what was going on. But I did turn around a few times, and we stretched out two or three blocks down there in Carson City.”

The “100 Years—100 Stories” project, produced by native Nevada photographer and filmmaker Jessie LeMay, is another way the association is commemorating the anniversary.

“She is very good at what she does,” Torvinen said. “She interviews people and gets them to tell their stories. And she videotapes that.”

The filmed stories have been shared on social media and during a series of live events and will be released on disc as a collection. They’ll join a large archive of already existing materials from the rodeo’s history—many of which have been collected over the years by Guy Clifton, who spent 22 years at the Reno Gazette Journal and is now a public information officer for Nevada’s state museums.

“I think, unofficially, he’s probably our official historian,” Torvinen said. “He did his book on the first 80 years [Reno Rodeo: A History—the First 80 Years]. I’ve used that extensively in my research. We have a newsletter, and I try to put a trivia question in there every month. I go to Guy’s book to find some little factoid about Reno Rodeo.”

Curating cowboys

“Reno Rodeo: 100 Years of the Wildest Richest Rodeo in the West” debuted on May 15 at the Nevada Historical Society, 1650 N. Virginia St., and will remain in place through August. Clifton is its curator and, with the help of NHS staff, has worked over the last year in his spare time to create the exhibit. It’s a pet project of sorts, dedicated to the event for which he provided some 19 years of RGJ reporting.

“It became my beat, and I wanted to do it as well as I could—so I just really got into it,” he said.

Former Miss Reno Rodeo Selena Ulch lent a dress, saddle and chaps to be used in Guy Clifton’s exhibit at the Nevada Historical Society.

With a book and two decades of reporting under his belt, Clifton’s challenge with the exhibit was not in gathering information but in parsing which information to share within the museum’s limited exhibition space.

“You know, you can’t tell a full 100-year story,” he said. “There’s just so much that has happened in that time. So, what you do is try to pick out little vignettes of people, places and things that have significance along the way.”

These vignettes are comprised of archival documents and photos from the historical society and artifacts Clifton and the staff there have gathered from past rodeo contestants and their families. One wall in the museum is dedicated to Nevadans who’ve won championship titles in different competitions at the rodeo like saddle bronc riding, steer wrestling and team roping.

“The rodeo has always attracted the top competitors from around the country, and it’s actually pretty rare that a Nevadan wins, because you’re going against the best in the world.”

On the opposite wall from this portion of the exhibit is a section covering the history of women’s participation in the rodeo, including in its affiliated pageant. Among the materials gathered here are a dress, saddle and chaps belonging to former Miss Reno Rodeo Selena Ulch.

“Selena’s the only woman who’s been Miss Reno Rodeo, Miss Rodeo Nevada and Miss Rodeo America,” Clifton said.

“I wanted to make sure that women were included as well because they’re such an integral part of the rodeo,” he said.

The exhibit seems not to have missed any of the rodeo’s crucial players, telling the stories of people who’ve filled roles ranging from benefactor to volunteer to bull wrestler—with an abundance of both historical and contemporary photos to accompany. Many of these photos were used by local artist Erik Burke in the creation of a mural commissioned by the rodeo association.

Painting the past

“The mural—that’s turned out to be, I think, one of the defining things we’ve done to commemorate our hundredth year,” said Torvinen. “It’s really turned out amazing.”

The mural is located on an east-facing wall of the rodeo grounds along Sutro Street, stretching for blocks from Wells Avenue to Eleventh Street.

Erik Burke and three assistants have been working on the Reno Rodeo mural on Sutro Street for more than two months now.

Work on the mural has been underway for more than two months now and will wrap up only a day or two before the rodeo begins.

“We began the painting process on April 7—and the design and research and all of that work began several months before that,” Burke said.

The challenge with this project, the largest mural Burke has ever painted, was in deciding how to share 100 years of history on just a single stretch of wall.

“Technology changes, so we’re trying to root this mural in a time period,” he said. “So, it goes through every decade, and each decade is delineated by a belt buckle. They break the wall into chapters. … Each one of those belt buckles is kind of in the style of that period. … In the mural itself, technology changes, so in the 2010 section there’s a hand holding a cell phone looking at a picture. … But back at the very beginning, it’s an actual photograph with a ripped edge or a big, fat white border with notes on it—kind of how people used to look at their old photographs.”

During the research phase of the project, Burke relied heavily on Clifton’s book about the rodeo’s first 80 years.

“Mike Mentaberry, who was a past president and co-wrote Guy Clifton’s book with him, he gave me a copy, and Guy Clifton signed it—oh, my God,” Burke said.

In order to get the massive mural done in time for the rodeo, Burke has recruited help from his brother, Mikey Burke, and two other people—Logan Needham and Edwin Martinez Escobar. Escobar, also a longtime muralist, explained that he was just headed down Sutro Street on a jog one day when he saw Burke working on the mural and asked if he could help.

“I’m very thankful for the people who’ve helped work on it—because it’s such an undertaking,” Burke said. “It’ll be 1,800 feet long, and the square footage on it is just ridiculous.”

When it’s finished, Burke said he’ll be headed to the rodeo himself—something he hasn’t done in a very long time.

“My whole family was involved in the rodeo,” Burke said. “And I believe it’s a great uncle of mine who was the past president, a long time ago. I think it was sometime in the ’40s. My grandmother’s brother, Kenny York, is really involved with the rodeo. But, no, I’ve said before that I feel really guilty sometimes painting this mural because the last time I went to the rodeo was 25 years ago. And I haven’t been back since, so this will be my first year of going back to it—and I might even have to wear cowboy boots.”

The mural commemorates the rodeo’s history, but, to Torvinen’s mind, it’s also a fitting first step in plans the association has for the rodeo in the coming years—including an overhaul of the 39-acre fairgrounds with an estimated price tag of more than $100 million.

Blazing the trail

“We’re just in our infancy,” said Torvinen of the overhaul project. “We’ve hired a group called Blueprint Collaborative to help us put together a fundraising plan and to talk about next steps. And we did receive some money from the state legislature.”

Senate Bill 501 allocated funding to several of the state’s museums and nonprofits, including the Reno Rodeo Association.

“So we got a million dollars for the planning,” Torvinen said. “And Reno Rodeo will probably spend at least that much, also, in partnership to develop the schematic design, site planning and … construction documents. We’re committed to fill in the gap, whatever it takes between a million and whatever that will take. We’re committed to making that happen.”

So far, the association has come up with a concept for the revamped fairgrounds that would include the addition of two new arenas—one larger and one smaller than the existing one—as well as a new, larger exhibit hall, a 100,000-square-foot vendors’ space and a parking garage.

According to Torvinen, the garage would provide a sorely needed 2,400 parking spaces on three levels with a fourth level on the bottom housing 1,600 covered horse stalls. These stalls—along with larger holding pens and additional shaded areas for steers and calves—are part of the planned improvements geared toward ensuring rodeo animals’ welfare.

Animal welfare at the rodeo is something that’s been called into question for years. Allegations of cruelty that surfaced in 2011 were accompanied by video footage released by an Illinois-based animal rights group called Showing Animals Respect and Kindness (SHARK). Some of the videos showed what appeared to be an electric cattle prod being used on horses in the arena chutes, which is against rules set by rodeo’s sanctioning body, the Professional Rodeo Cowboys Association. Torvinen acknowledged the seriousness of these allegations and said that use of these types of prods is forbidden in the chutes.

“The cattle prods that are probably part of everyday life on a ranch … we do not allow any of that in the chute area—nothing,” Torvinen said. “They just can’t. … They may reach down and slap them on the head or push them out, or whatever they do. But they’re not allowed to use them in the chutes. In the back here, they can use them—but sparingly. … And it’s got to be a last resort in the back, too. And there’s lots of ways to manage the livestock. To be honest with you—the rodeo roughstock and livestock, they know the drill. They know what they’re supposed to do. If they open the gate from a truck, they know they’re supposed to come down the ramp and head down the chute.”

Torvinen said the rodeo has already taken steps in recent years to provide additional shade for the rodeo animals.

“We’ve cleaned out the bottom of grandstand one, and all of our calves go in there,” he said. “And they’re in the shade all day long, and we provide them lots of fresh water and feed. If you walk by during the rodeo, you’ll see a bunch of happy calves just kind of chilling in the shade. … There’s tents, shade structures, set up for the steers.”

Torvinen said the rodeo association takes animal welfare seriously—and that rodeo animals’ owners do, too.

Local country musician Jake Houston is launching his boot company, Houston Boot Company, at the 100th Reno Rodeo.

“The one thing a lot of people don’t realize is that these animals are peoples’ livelihoods, so there’s no incentive to abuse or mistreat them.”

And, he said, there’s no incentive for the rodeo association to allow mistreatment. It brings in big money from attendees of all kinds, including those who never set foot in the arena for rodeo events.

“In 2014, the university and the Convention Authority did a study,” Torvinen said. “That year, the economic impact was $57 million dollars of non-local spending. … We were just chatting with some folks at the Row, informally, last week. And as far as who puts heads in beds—they like to talk about ’putting heads in beds’—it’s probably Hot August Nights that brings the most, but we’re not a lightweight, for sure.”

This year, the rodeo association is expecting between 120,000 and 140,000 people to attend the 11-day event. And those people will spend money on more than just admission, including at the vendor booths—many of which will be run by local artisans. Among them for the first time will be local country musician Jake Houston, who’s launching a new bespoke bootmaking company.

Walking the line

Houston, who’s known about town for his country music singing and guitar playing, has been tooling leather for about four years now.

“A friend was teaching me,” he said. “I wanted him to make a guitar strap for me, and he said, ’Well, how ’bout I just teach you instead?’ So that was a new and interesting thing for me. I took that and started making belts and stuff for folks.”

Houston set up a small vending area inside the Golden Jackal and spent about six months selling belts before deciding he was ready to branch out.

“And I thought I could either make saddles or make cowboy boots,” he said. “And I have a lot of weird tastes in footwear. I wanted a pair of stingray boots.”

“I’ve worn cowboy boots my whole adult life, mostly as a child as well,” Houston said. “I grew up in Carson City and Dayton, so pretty rural areas—and we did rural kinds of activities.”

He figured he’d try making a pair.

“After trying my first pair and kind of getting stuck not really knowing what to do, I went to the Sole Emporium Shoe Repair by Trader Joe’s,” Houston recalled. “I introduced myself and told them I was a leather worker and wanted to learn how to make boots. They don’t make any footwear there. I was more interested in the idea that maybe by repairing them you could see how they’re made better. They let me come in, like, once a week for a few months.”

He ended up working for Sole Emporium for more than a year after that and purchasing a wealth of machines for making shoes from one of his coworkers. With it, and with advice solicited from bootmakers around the country, Houston learned the craft. Now, he’s launching Houston Boot Company at the 100th Reno Rodeo. At booth 684 in the rodeo’s South Exhibition Hall, he’ll be taking orders for his bespoke boots, which take a minimum of 40 to 50 hours per pair to make—and he’ll be running a special on pairs of custom brown or black boots with a simple, three-row stitched design for $775. He hopes that the rodeo will provide him with enough work to establish the company—and himself—as a purveyor of what he considers a Western art form.

“Especially in a city now that’s growing so much, with such a unique past, with rodeo and ranch work and the West—I think it’s important to keep Western culture and art alive,” he said.

The boots he makes are a bit of both.

“That’s probably what I like so much about it,” Houston said. “For me, it’s creative—and I can do things artistically that someone could wear out on a cattle drive every day and have it last and not fail. … And I love the American West. I think out of any era of history it is the most unique and coolest, to me. I love it. It’s important. It’s important to keep around, so I’m trying to do my part. … There’s something to be said for it. I think there’s always a place for it.”