As most of you probably know, I’m a big fan of rodeos. I have been since I was a little girl because of the 4th of July.
Every summer, the sleepy little town closest to our farm would burst to life for four days with the biggest event of the year – the 4th of July celebration. I can’t even tell you how old I was before I figured out the 4th of July was supposed to represent a single day, not a time of year, like the holidays.
Some towns might go all out for Christmas or Halloween, maybe even Easter. But our small town had the 4th of July.
I happened to find this vintage photo by Russell Lee of Vale’s 4th of July. See that sign on the left for “Drugs”? The town’s drugstore is still on that corner.
Apparently, going all out for Independence Day is something they’ve done for a long, long time.
The four days of fun generally included four nights of rodeo, games and activities in the park, and a parade. Fireworks generally took place the night of the 4th. There was also a Suicide Race, most often right before the second night of the rodeo.
Vale boasted a saddle shop owned by a wonderful, kind man who also tended to enjoy a good joke from time to time. When I was four, my dad took me to Leroy’s shop to get a new belt for the rodeo. I remember walking inside, holding tightly to Daddy’s hand as the rich scent of leather filled my nose.
While Dad and Leroy talked, I wandered around the store, looking at saddles and boots, running my little fingers over the smooth leather of bridles and the rough texture of new ropes. Then I spied the belts.
Dad let me pick the one I wanted – a floral stamped leather belt with a silver buckle. On the center of the buckle was a little gold saddle. I still have that belt today and whenever I look at it, I smile, recalling fond memories from both going to town with my dad and going to the rodeo.
Anyway, my family was big into the 4th of July celebration. We usually went to the rodeo at least once, sometimes twice. Quite often one or more of us would be in the parade. My oldest brother and some of his family often rode their horses or drove a wagon in the parade. My other brother frequently entered one of his antique cars. I remember one year Mom helped me make an early 1900s costume so I could ride with him. I played In the Good Old Summertime on the piano about fifty times in a row and recorded it on our tape player, then we blasted that from a boom box in the car as as we drove down the street (yep, that was back before you could loop songs on your smart phone!).
Back in those days, my oldest brother and one or more of my cousins would ride in the Suicide Race. If you’ve never seen or heard of one, in a nutshell, a group of riders with more courage than I could ever muster race down a harrowing trail to see who makes it to the bottom first. The Vale Suicide Race starts at the top of a butte with a blast of dynamite and ends in the rodeo arena across the river. It’s a 2-mile course down the hill, across the highway, through the river and into the arena. If a rider makes it off the butte, many of them end up taking a swim in the river.
Sometimes it was more entertaining to watch my mom than the race because she’d get so tense about my brother racing, we’d place bets on whether she might hyperventilate before he made it off the butte.
Eventually my brother stopped racing and his kids took over as competitors. My niece was the first girl to race, starting when she was just 16. She rode five years, and won it twice.
I found a couple of really fun videos from 2011 of the race on You Tube.
This one is from a rider’s perspective. Skip ahead two minutes (they are just waiting for the dynamite blast to signal the start).
This one is from a spectator. Having been a spectator many, many times, it can be hard to see with thousands of spectators lining the river and road, straining to get a glimpse of the riders. (You might want to mute this one – it gets kind of loud with the cheering.)
And one more from the riverbank from 2009…
As you can see from the videos, the race is right before the rodeo starts. Way back when, the rodeo was a PRCA sanctioned event and drew in some very talented competitors as well as awesome entertainment.
In fact, when I used to work for a daily newspaper, I always volunteered to cover the 4th of July celebration. However, I learned very quickly, you just don’t march behind the chutes before the rodeo to take photos. I made that mistake my first year and had two adolescent boys along as my sidekicks. They thought it was hilarious when we walked back there and found a few dozen men in various stages of undress getting ready to ride. It was one of those moments I wanted the ground to open up and swallow me whole. Since I tried to block the traumatic experience from my mind, all I recall is a sea of tidy whities and a bunch of surprised faces. After that, I stuck to taking photos from the front of chutes.
Up until we moved away, we never missed a 4th of July celebration. Admittedly, I kind of miss those days and all the excitement that went along with holiday.
Do you have any fond or fun memories of 4th of July celebrations from your childhood. Any traditions?
Now that I’ve worked myself into a fit of nostalgia, I’ll just wish you all a wonderful, safe, and very Happy 4th of July.