On a recent sunny afternoon at the Gus Darien arena, just outside Carbondale, all was quiet and still with the exception of a few workers installing new lights high up on metal poles. Three horses stood stock still under the mid-day sun in one of the pens, tails swishing to create a breeze and keep bugs at bay. No steers or bulls jostled in the chutes. No cowboys or rodeo queens pranced around on horseback in the practice arena. The announcer’s seat in the crow’s nest was empty; the concession stand, shuttered.
But the whole place felt like it was in a state of expectancy, waiting for that first chute to clang open, for the rumble of hooves and the roar of the crowd. It won’t have to wait for long because the Carbondale Wild West Rodeo (CWWR) starts in one week.
“This is the 12th year,” said Mike Kennedy, president of the CWWR board of directors, who helped put the nonprofit CWWR together in 2005. The Gus Darien arena was home to a rodeo run by Roger Frahm from Fruita for two seasons before that. But when things didn’t work out with Frahm, Kennedy and his buddy Dave Weimer decided to take over the operation.
CWWR, however, is just another incarnation of a decades-long Carbondale tradition. “There were huge rodeos during Potato Days in the 1950s and ‘60s,” recalled Melanie Cardiff, CWWR volunteer coordinator and board secretary. “They went on for two or three days.” Cardiff is a Carbondale native and remembers when the rodeo was moved to the Gus Darien arena in the 1960s. “The old rodeo grounds were where [the Third Street Center] is now,” she said.
In the late ‘60s and early ‘70s, she added, the Mt. Sopris Riding Club hosted a junior rodeo, complete with a wild horse race, reminiscent of the mural that hangs in the Carbondale Post Office. “[Participants] would have to catch the horse, halter it, saddle it, and ride it [back to the finish line],” she said.
But rodeo eventually went dark in Carbondale, and the arena fell into disarray. A local roping club held on to the arena but couldn’t keep up with repairs or insurance costs. So, said Kennedy, it was deeded to the town of Carbondale in 1991. “The agreement was that it would be used primarily for equestrian events with a 4H priority.” The deed has long since expired, but the spirit of the agreement remains intact.
Since 2005, CWWR has breathed new life into the rodeo grounds. Funding from local sponsors and money from ticket sales support the weekly rodeos or go back into the facility. “What it looked like before and what it looks like now is a big difference,” said Kennedy.
CWWR added the practice arena, bleachers, the concession stand, and this year, new lighting. “We were getting complaints from people on Missouri Heights about the glare of the lights on the snow in winter,” explained Cardiff. (The arena does double duty as an ice rink when it’s too cold to rodeo.) So CWWR, with the help of Garfield County, invested $117,000 for a new system that’s supposed to light only the arena.
CWWR has an annual budget of about $175,000. The recent recession hit pretty hard, but both Kennedy and Cardiff agree that things have improved. “This tells us that the economy is a little better,” said Cardiff.
Events have also been added over the years, like break-away roping and steer riding for kids, and Cardiff’s favorites — the cowhide and rescue races. “We like to change things up,” she said. “[Most people] come back week after week, and we like to give them something different to watch.”
Junior bull riding (aka “junior bulls”) and ladies break-away roping will be added to the list of events this summer, mainly because the kids got too old to participate in the kids events. Junior bulls is open to young men and women. “There’s no set rule against a woman riding in a men’s event,” said Cardiff.
And it helps with the show. Take, for example, Rifle resident and 2013 CWWR Queen Attendant Tianna Davis, who won the CWWR belt buckle last year for steer riding and had the crowd on its feet during each ride.
But wowing the crowd isn’t the only reason rodeo is important for Carbondale. Both Kennedy and Cardiff have witnessed a lot of changes in the Roaring Fork Valley. They met each other while working at the Thompson Creek Mine in the 1970s. Kennedy was an engineer, and Cardiff worked in the office. “This community has forgotten about coal mining,” said Cardiff, who doesn’t want the same thing to happen to ranching. “It’s getting harder and harder to maintain [the ranching] lifestyle,” she said. “I’m adamant about keeping this part of our heritage in the valley.”
The 2014 Carbondale Wild West Rodeo season begins at 7 p.m. Thursday, June 5, (slack at 5:30 p.m.) at the Gus Darien arena near Carbondale. For more information or to volunteer, visit www.carbondalerodeo.com.