East county celebrates 60 years of a small town rodeo
Almost any place in eastern Utah in mid-July can be sweltering hot whether it be the San Rafael desert or the red rock of the Canyonlands. But, there is an exception that few people are aware of.
There's a place on a July night that can get chilly enough to warrant a jacket or a blanket around your shoulders. It's a canyon that lies in the mouth of some of the most beautiful, majestic mountains you'll find any place in this versatile state. Few people know of the activities that draw a crowd to that location, but those that have discovered it continue to return to observe the same event they have attended in past years. That event is the Sunnyside rodeo.
In the 30's 40' and 50's small town rodeos were common. You could find one in almost every small country town. But, not unlike many of the traditions, small town rodeos gradually faded away, along with spending time with neighbors and having family dinners on Sunday. The past is the past. Today is a new world of cell phones, with families too busy to be families, and people that haven't a clue what a rodeo is.
But in the small mountain communities of East Carbon and Sunnyside there are a handfull of folks that refuse to let the memories of a small town rodeo fade away with Andy Griffith and drive- in movies. Year after year, 59 to be exact, they have continued to overcome whatever obstacles come their way to see that this annual event continues for their children, grandchildren and every generation thereafter.
As a spectator of the rodeo you can drive through our two small connecting communities, East Carbon and Sunnyside. As you approach the entrance of Whitmore Canyon before you get to the rodeo grounds, you'll get stopped by a couple cute little cow girls that cheerfully ask you for five bucks for admission to the rodeo. It may not always be cute young ones, we still have a few "seasoned gals" helping to make sure the girls can correctly count the change, and always give friendly customer service.
That is just the beginning for the spectator, but the end of a long process for those that put on the rodeo each year.
The planning starts early in the winter, long before anyone can imagine sitting on the bleachers on a hot July night. Planning involves finding enough people to pull the show together. The small Grassy Trail Riding club usually involves about 12 active members. Everyone knows they'll need to wear more than one hat to see that the "show will go on."
As soon as the winter snow melts and the canyon temperature is tolerable the men get together along with a six pack of beer or a cold soda, whatever their choice, and hit the arena to rebuild fences, upgrade the lighting system, repair chutes, get the ground tilled up so it will be just right for the hundreds of animals that will be using it come summer. They also make sure water is available. This is an absolute must to keep the dust tolerable for man and animal during the activities. They line up stock, bulls, bucking horses, sheep, pigs and chickens for the kid's events.
In addition to the stock, you absolutely must have clowns. Otherwise who would distract the crowd when a rider is down and things start to get serious? Yes, the crowd has to have a distraction.
The next big undertaking is the voice you hear from the beginning to end of the night. The announcer for the evening makes the job look easy. If you've ever tried anything even similar to this you know it can be a grueling, confusing task to undertake. In the middle of the constant chaos the crowd expects the MC to entertain them and make them laugh at his cowboy jokes. An announcer does whatever it takes to keep people happy and updated on the spectacular event they will witness for the next two and a half hours.
The participants come from near and far. Most have years of practice, disappointment and for the lucky ones some cash prizes or a big silver belt buckle, proving that someone came out the winner. They risk entry fees, travel and not always the most pleasant weather conditions and of course the possibility of injury just to participate.
But most important is the prize they get when gaining the respect of their competitors. It is the most important prize a cowboy can earn.
No one would dream of attending a rodeo without their share of the char broiled hamburgers cooking on the grill. The smell of those is in the air and a line of people often simply refuse to leave until they've had one. Candy for the kids, a cool drink or a hot cup of coffee all comes from the cook shack that is usually ran by the generosity of volunteers outside the club. Why do they do it?
They do it because we're still a small town that believes a community has to pull together and do whatever it takes to carry our traditions on. Various groups pull together and offer their elbow grease and time to assist whatever event is taking place. Everyone pitches in.
Numerous companies or individuals make donations to ensure we have the financial support needed to continue another year of the "Sunnyside Rodeo." The more modest anonymous volunteers lend a hand by getting up early to pick up garbage under the bleachers the morning after the night of excitement has faded. It takes every man woman and child's contribution to pull it off.
When the night finally arrives, we all hold our breath that enough people will come through the gate to assure us that we will make enough profit to do it all again next year. We never get ahead. We just make enough to make the next year's expenses with the never-ending increase in stock prices, food, and every thing else that inflation affects.
But there's something magical about that evening. It's chilly with your levi jacket around you, the mountains towering all around you as you hear the announcer say, "Ladies and gentlemen welcome to the Sunnyside Rodeo, here in Whitmore canyon in Sunnyside, Utah." You just know it's going to be special.
Sometimes the announcer will ask for a moment of silence for one of the old time members we might have lost during the past year. He acknowledges all of our older, very much respected founders of the original club that in years past were responsible for starting the rodeo. He introduces the beautiful queen and attendants that exhibit their exquisite horsemanship and beauty.
Then, as the announcer takes his hat off and asks the crowd to do the same in respect for old glory we watch a single cowboy carry the flag around the silenced arena while the star-spangled banner is sung by someone special and the flag waves from his horse. It's hard not to get a lump in your throat, or a tear in your eye, even from the toughest cowboy when you see the patriotic scene in front of you. He's the cowboy that puts his heart and soul into this life, family, friends and community. The cowboy that wouldn't let you down if their life depended on it, and the flag that says it all.
"We are one, we are one."
As long as there is a breath in his body, a horse to be ridden or a crowd that returns year after year, the rodeo will continue, not as a thing of the past, but something that will be shared with future generations of young cowgirls and cowboys.