St. Paul Rodeo delights thousands, invokes nostalgia among its visitors

As the sun rises each morning, people slowly begin to trickle in. The click clack of a horse’s hooves grows louder and more frequent, the fryers warm up filling the air with the aroma of oil, various genres of music — although country is the popular standout — form pods of entertainment on the midway. Even though the grounds seem empty each morning, come dinnertime 10,000 visitors overwhelm the small town of St. Paul. It’s been like this for 79 years with the annual rodeo, a tradition in the purest sense. by: GARY ALLEN/NEWBERG GRAPHIC - A bareback rider does his best to keep his spurs up, his head back and his hand high to garner points, and possibly purse money, during the Fourth of July installment of the St. Paul Rodeo.

Hundreds of the best cowboys flock to the town of 330 people for the five-day rodeo and with them brought 47,170 people by the event’s end. Yet, there’s something for everyone.

On the midway, lights flicker as visitors make their way through the rows and rows of vendors. Game operators call “Are you ready?” over and over, enticing passersby into a game of chance. Although often unsuccessful, a few bite and try their luck at one of many customary games: ring toss, basketball and water guns among the many.

Heading toward the arena, the senses are assaulted by temptation. Deep fried Oreos, curly fries, barbeque, nachos and, of course, the St. Paul Parish chicken, are just a few of the offerings. The resting place between activities, the midway brings all sorts of people together. Some debate what to eat first, others plan the next ride to try. Swinging a fabric zebra print belt over her head as she’s seen others do, a young girl proclaims her new profession. “Hello, I’m a cowgirl,” she says before rustling up a snow cone.

As night falls, the carnival lights grow brighter and cowboys take their place in the arena. Belt buckles glimmer among the dusty boots and clacking spurs. Bull and bareback riding, cattle roping, barrel racing represent just a handful of the contests that bring visitors from all over. Although for many, this is home.

“I grew up with the rodeo,” said Newberg resident Holly Corum. “My mom was a paramedic, so I grew up getting behind stage, (so there’s) some very fond memories.”

Now with two kids, she comes early for “slack,” the preliminary competition early in the day, and stays for the festival.

“It’s great, you get to see all the events and not have to pay for it,” Corum said, watching her children at the top of the Ferris wheel. “And the kids, especially my niece and nephew, are a little younger, so they can run up and down the stands and not bother anyone.”

It’s really a tight-knit community, despite its size. Visitors greet each other fondly in the arena, back pathways, at the Wild West Art Show, but the sense of community is even more evident within the contestants. As competitors there’s often a risk of injury, and the Justin Cowboy Crisis Fund is one way they help each other out. The second night of the rodeo was dedicated as a Beyond the Boots performance, donating to the fund that has assisted two local cowboys in recent years.

The family wouldn’t be complete without the St. Paul Rodeo Court, including three women who serve as rodeo ambassadors. This year, Princesses Whitney Richey and Kristina Bates served alongside Queen Angie Eichler, working behind the scenes and sharing their love of rodeo with the public.

As one of the few Fourth of July rodeos, there’s an added layer of delight for visitors to St. Paul.

“A big highlight is our fireworks display every night, not just on the Fourth of July,” said Bill Smith, one of the rodeo association’s board of directors.

Thousands gather under the stars, craning necks upward to view the bursts of light, crackles and booms that have become synonymous with the rodeo.

The list of activities, draws and traditions goes on and on. Another year passed, St. Paul will return to its small town, preparing for next year when they do it all over again. There’s something unique about the experience. It’s a true throwback to a time that seems more distant each year with each new technological advance, international conflict and reality TV show. But that’s what creates an irrefutable draw pulling people back year after year. There’s just nothing quite like it.

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