GERRY - When Aug. 4 rolls around this year, the tiny hamlet of Gerry just north of Jamestown will celebrate the opening night of its 67th consecutive annual rodeo, the site of the longest running PRCA rodeo east of the Mississippi. For five days this quiet little village becomes "The Rodeo Capital of the East" as approximately 130 cowboys and cowgirls roll into town and pay their entry fees to vie for more than $25,000 in prize money in four performances.
The event, sponsored by the Gerry Volunteer Fire Department, got its start in 1945 when a former working cowboy named Jack Cox moved from the West to Gerry and suggested a rodeo as a way of raising money for the newly formed fire department. Many doubted that the idea would work, but his dream became a reality as members of the department and other volunteers in 70 days turned four acres of swampland into an arena and parking lot in time for the arrival of the renowned Colonel Jim Eskew and the livestock that first year. Bleachers were borrowed from area schools and portable lights were rented.
In those early days the stock arrived by train in the middle of the hamlet, traffic was stopped, and the animals were herded down the middle of Route 60 to the rodeo grounds by volunteers, making for some exciting moments. Today the stock arrives by modern semi trucks, but the excitement of rodeo time still fills the air. Several hundred volunteers of all ages pitch in to make the event possible each year, filling jobs from painting fences to washing dishes. Many residents take their vacation just to volunteer, and others who have moved away return to help.
The Gerry Fire Department felt from the beginning that their rodeo should be "top-notch" so they have always contracted for a rodeo sanctioned by the Professional Rodeo Cowboys' Association. Participants pay an entry fee and points earned in Gerry count toward qualification to the annual National Finals Rodeo in Las Vegas in December. The present stock contractor is Bob Barnes of Petersen, Iowa, who has been producing rodeos all across the country for more than 55 years, and he was recently inducted into the PRCA Hall of Fame in Colorado Springs. This year he will bring more than 150 head of stock for the event. He holds the distinction of having had stock chosen every year for the National Finals rodeo in Las Vegas since that event began 52 years ago.
Over the years constant improvements have been made to the rodeo facilities. Additional land has been acquired, a large midway houses booths and displays of all sorts, permanent bleachers have been installed in an arena seating 4000, new lighting turns night to day, and the old dining hall has just been enlarged, refurbished, and air-conditioned to accommodate the thousands who come each year just to enjoy the world-famous beef barbecue dinners. Over a thousand pounds of beef is cooked daily in pits over wood fires outside the dining hall. The wood must be one-year-old maple in order to create the proper cooking standards. Perhaps one of the best kept secrets is the recipe for the homemade barbecue sauce. The dinners also feature everyone's favorite - fried potatoes done outdoors in large iron kettles.
The concession stands offer snow cones, taffy, ice cream, French fries, soft drinks, hot dogs, hamburgs, and the famous barbecue beef sandwiches. The rodeo has always been promoted as family entertainment and is therefore alcohol free.
Today the rodeo consists of the same competitive events it did 67 years ago: bareback bronc riding, tie-down roping, saddle bronc riding, bull riding, steer wrestling, team roping, and cowgirls' barrel racing, with all the entrants competing for cash prizes and points. In addition there are specialty acts such as trick riding, animal acts, and clowns. A recently added feature allows young spectators to enter the arena to compete for prizes as they ride sheep or chase ribbons tied to calves' tails.
The profits from the rodeos over the years has enabled the Fire Department to purchase modern fire and rescue equipment for the protection of the residents of the town. Today the Department has two pumpers, two tankers, a utility truck, and a recently purchased state-of-the-art ambulance, and they answer more than 350 calls per year.
A replica of the Department's first fire truck, a Model T Ford outfitted with the original fire fighting equipment, is on display at each rodeo. The Department's first pumper was built during World War II in the 1940's by members of the Department who traveled to Buffalo by bus to work on the truck weekends since the factory was being used weekdays to build war equipment.
Several changes have been made for this year's event as the number of performances has been cut from six to four with the festivities beginning on Thursday rather than on the traditional Wednesday opening. The Saturday afternoon matinee has also been eliminated. According to rodeo chairman Tom Atwell, this move was made to save money and to provide a better quality show for the fans. The nightly performances begin at 8 p.m. Thursday through Saturday with an afternoon show at 2 o'clock on Sunday in the arena located five miles north of Jamestown on Route 60. Barbecue dinners are served each evening at 5 o'clock and at noon on Sunday. Additional information is available by phone at 985-4847 or 1-888-985-4847 or on-line at www.gerryrodeo.org. The Barnes Rodeo Company website is a "must" for any true rodeo fan (www.barnesprcarodeo.com).