The most famous bucking horse of that era was Steamboat, the first animal inducted into the Frontier Days Hall of Fame. Steamboat's renown was such that his likeness was put on Wyoming's license plate, where he is bucking still. During the Depression, when financial problems threatened to close down Frontier Days, a group of volunteers formed, calling themselves the Heels because, as one member said, "We'd be heels if we didn't help out." The Heels now number some 470, and an invitation to join their ranks is a civic honor second to none.
Frontier Days became much more than a rodeo. Decade after decade, through wars, hard economic times and the passing of generations, it put Cheyenne and Wyoming on the map. "When you say Cheyenne, everyone thinks of Frontier Days," says Hirsig, who won the steer roping event in 2002. "We have media contingents from Europe, Australia and Japan this year. We're the only rodeo that's known by name worldwide."
For years Frontier Days was also known for world-class hell-raising, a reputation the town has tried to play down recently. Ask any local about the old days, and you'll hear tales of fistfights, topless women (usually from Denver) dancing on tables, cowboys riding horses into the Mayflower Bar or someone getting thrown through a plate glass window. Always the tale is delivered with a nostalgic smile.
"That last Saturday night of Frontier Days, it was always a real rowdy and hard-drinking crowd," recalls John Powell, who was on the Cheyenne police force from 1981 through 2002, the last seven years as chief. "I remember being bent backward over my patrol car by a couple of guys, while a third was trying to steal my revolver from my holster. It was serious stuff. We had five transport cars to deal with the arrests, and court was held every night. But a few years ago we had some ordinances changed, and it's gone from 200 arrests on a Saturday night to one or two. It's shifted from being a big party to more of a family event."
Nevertheless, says Hirsig, "You can still see some pretty wild stuff." Like bikini bull-riding at the Cowboy Out South Saloon, where women in bikini tops and a pair of chaps compete on a mechanical bull for the chance to win $2,000. Or Rocky Mountain oysters—fried bull testicles—which are actually standard fare on the menu at most local restaurants. In late July the citizens of Cheyenne put on hats and boots and cowboy up, whether they can sit in a saddle or not. "Nearly every community in Wyoming has a rodeo during the year," says Governor Dave Freudenthal, who grew up on a farm in Thermopolis and this year rode in the Frontier Days parade as well as the ceremonial cattle drive through town that kicked off the festivities. "Rodeo's the one thing we have in common. It's part of a broader definition of who we, in Wyoming, are."