Cowboys arrive from across the country for thrills, prize money and to carry on family traditions

With the early summer sun still relatively high in the sky, the sound of blaring brass horns easily cut through the din of chatting spectators at the St. Paul Rodeo arena Friday evening – the first night of the annual event.

The piercing horns set the mood instantly as speakers rang out the melody of the 1972 John Wayne classic "The Cowboys" that once spurred me to dream of being a cowboy as a child, and later with a prayer set to the more somber theme from "Dances with Wolves."GARY ALLEN - A saddle bronc rider does his best to stay atop the mount for the full eight seconds Friday and earn some of the thousands of dollars in purse money.

Having set aside such aspirations early on without thinking about what cowboys actually did or why, I set out to my first rodeo Friday looking to understand what keeps the rodeo and cowboy culture alive in the 21st century.

For the cowboys themselves – stoic and laconic as they can be – some said family tradition is a key factor.

Clint Nyegaard, a calf-roper from Cuero, Texas, is following in the footsteps of his father, who competed in the same sport until getting into a car crash that relegated him to just riding and breaking horses.

"I just kind of grew up doing it, raised working cows, riding horses all the time and that stuff," he said while standing in a crowd men and horses minutes before riding out into the arena. "Then when I turned 14 … I told my dad I wanted to start roping, so we built an arena and got some horses and stuff and started roping."

Asked why he came all the way from Texas to St. Paul for this competition, he unabashedly responded "it's the big money here."

That came as no surprise to Cindy Schonholtz, in her first year as the first general manager in the history of the rodeo.

She explained that the rodeo adds $28,050 to the prize money of each event on top of the entry fees, which she said draws top competitors looking for the extra cash and the possibility of earning a rank that will get them to the Wrangler National Finals Rodeo in December{

Beyond the money, she said the community's commitment to the rodeo and treatment of the competing cowboys is key to the event continuing to thrive after eight decades.

"We have an amazing group of volunteers and members that know how to put on a rodeo," Scholholtz said. "It's the biggest Fourth of July rodeo in the nation in a town of 400 people. It's phenomenal -- the history, the tradition."

Baylor Roche, a steer wrestler from Tremonton, Utah, said he also started because his family valued rodeo competition, and he thought he would do well in steer wrestling.

"We jump off of a horse onto a steer and just throw him down by his horns. There's no ropes," he explained. "Back in the day it was used to doctor cattle out in the pasture."

When asked about the inherent risks of jumping off of a galloping horse to throw down a running steer by the horns, he acknowledged having many "wrecks," but no broken bones so far. "Knock on wood," he added.

He said the thrill is what keeps him doing it.

"It's a rush when you get a good start, make a good run," Roche said. "Everything's clicking, the horses are cooking, you click, you have a good steer. It's a good feeling."

For Croc Dumdi — another steer wrestler raised in Junction City, but now living in Keenesburg, Colo. —– the adrenaline rush is a big factor, but he's here now to make sure he has no regrets.

Having started in 1980 or so as an 18-year-old, he took about 12 years off from the sport before deciding to come back.

"I was getting old and if I wanted to keep doing it, I better get after it – don't ever have any regrets," Dumdi said.

Earlier, the excitement for the upcoming night of competitions seemed apparent as hundreds of people gradually made their way through the midway on their way to food, games, rides, the Wild West Art Show or just wandering. The masses made a sea of plaid punctuated by countless cowboy hats poking out above the crowds.

Many waited in line for food throughout the midway area as the scents of roasted chicken served by the St. Paul Catholic Church joined smells of barbeque, buttery and salty roasted corn, fried onion rings and countless other foods to form a heady cocktail.

No one seemed to mind that the smell of manure would occasionally make its way into the mix as well.

Among the throngs of people looking for food was Nathan Gonzalez, a Newberg High School student who spoke about the event as well as the cowboys and cowgirls with uncommon reverence.

"The cowboys, especially the men, are getting on 2,000 pounds of flesh that's trying to kill them; I'm not even joking," he explained.

With admiration stemming back to his grandfather, a cowboy who died when Gonzalez was just 3, Gonzalez said he is doing his part to reignite that tradition in his family and the rodeo plays a key role in keeping that tradition alive while building community around it.

"I've been such a huge fan of the rodeo industry ever since I could walk; I used to cheer on all these bull riders and all the cowboys to win," he said. "It just not about winning … it's more about just being here and experiencing the experience … and that's what the cowboys and the rodeo industry is trying to carry on."

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