A Rip Snortin’ Time

It was a good show the friends had helped put on over in old San Juan. Their efforts had pretty much consisted of riding, roping, bronc busting and other such common place things that they did all the time while raising cattle on area ranches (and competing with each other after the round-up.)

But this time, it was in front of a pretty good size audience. The Fiesta Rodeo de San Juan Bautista had drawn a large crowd and made a lot of money. Proceeds would be used for restoration of the historic Spanish mission in this small town that had been a hay and cattle dealing headquarters in the post gold rush era. Socializing at the Fiesta Rodeo had been pretty good too.

Now, in the stables behind the Abbott House hotel in Salinas, Edwin Breen (whose father was 13 when his family set out for California with the ill-fated Donner party) was tending his horse and talking with several friends. They were recounting the fun they’d just had in San Juan. It had been a real “rip snortin’ time” for these “modern day” cowboys – of 1908.

Photo Courtesy of the California Rodeo & Monterey County Historical Society

Photo Courtesy of the California Rodeo &
Monterey County Historical Society

They couldn’t get over what a wonderful time they’d had. Imagine! All that fun just doing the same riding and roping and other stuff they did at home anyway. And, it had all been a very good thing for the town of San Juan Bautista.

Soon, an idea began to emerge. “Why not do the same thing here in Salinas?” Why not, indeed! So they did. It was 1909. They called it “The Wild West Show;” and it was held just to the west of town at Hebert Park (in the area of today’s Central Park.) Crowds and Cowboys gathered in large numbers; and everyone had a real rip snortin’ time. So, next year, they did it again. And, it was successful again – only bigger!

Meanwhile, out north of town at “The Track” folks in the Trotting Horse Association were looking at lean times. Attendance was down! Something had to be done! But what? The Association was committed to racing. However, they were also committed to having an audience for it.

Nearly 40 years earlier, Eugene Sherwood and Richard Hellman had donated the land for a Race Track in Salinas. The track, stables and grandstands, and (of course) a bar were built. The facility – located in the area of today’s Salinas Sports Complex – was built to host horse races.

Sherwood was among the prominent citizens who belonged to the Pacific Coast Trotting Horse Association. Attending the trotting races had been a fashionable thing to do. But now, even the great Dan Patch was fading into memory; and jockeys were actually sitting right down on the horse.

Times were changing. Something was needed to “spice” up the show. The Wild West Show, while certainly being a far cry from “civilized” trotting horse racing, did have something that was very much needed at the race track. Spectators!

So, the Trotting Horse gentlemen asked the “Wild West” bunch if they wouldn’t come out and “do a few things” between races. They did! Folks came! So, they did it again! More folks came! And, as they say – “the rest is history.” The Wild West Show soon replaced the races as the main event.

In fact, the rip snortin’ time soon became a week long affair – aptly dubbed “Big Week!” An entire week of fun and parties surrounding the main event that came to be known as The California Rodeo. Folks literally rode in – starting from as far away as Parkfield way down in South Country’ with riders joining in from ranches all the way up the valley to Salinas. The Southern Pacific Railroad soon offered everyone free rides from King City – horses & cattle included!
Spectators came from far and wide. San Francisco Mayor “Sunny” Jim Rolph was the first “out of town dignitary.” (Rolph would soon defy John Muir and the Sierra Club by damming the Hetch Hetchy valley next to Yosemite; and creating a reservour that is still San Francisco’s water source.)

In the next decade, C.S. Howard, the Buick dealer in San Francisco (who also owned the famed race horse “Seabiscuit”) developed a passion for the California Rodeo. He befriended a rodeo clown with a gift of gab. Howard thought Abe Lefton was hilarious; and helped the clown become the California Rodeo announcer.

During the “Roaring 20’s”, one of Lefton’s famous lines was directed at a then famous (or “infamous”) visiting dignitary – New York’s Mayor Jimmy Walker. Lefton joked that Walker, whose administraftion was riddled with corruption, was on hand “to see how the real bull was thrown.” From megaphone to microphone – Lefton’s reign over the arena lasted nearly 30 years.

Through the years, the California Rodeo has become one of North America’s premier rodeo events. The Cheyene Roundup, Calgary Stampede, California Rodeo and the National Finals are top of the list.

Yep! Things have come a long way since the Wild West Show boys began “doing a few things” between races at The Track out north of town.
But the imprint of the old Racing Association will remain forever. The jockeys may sit down on the horse – but it IS horse racing. And, horse racing WILL be a part of every event! It’s In The Deed!!
Seems that when Sherwood and Hellman donated all that land, it was with the condition that horse races would ALWAYS be held on it.

That deed, dated August 19, 1875, provides that the land, to be known as Sherwood Park, will revert to Sherwood and Hellam or their heirs if racing is ever eliminated from annual activity on the property.
Very few Rodeos feature horse racing (other than the wild horse variety). The California Rodeo always has – and it always will!
‘Course, most folks attending the Rodeo don’t really much care obout such legalities. They’re far too busy just having a Rip Snortin’ Time!

Print Friendly, PDF & Email