Old faithful, Yellowstone Park's famed sulphuric spume, isn't Wyoming's only predictable eruption. The other one has popped the lid off the state capital during the last full week in July for the past 107 years. A rite of passage for cowboys, a golden goose to Wyoming's coffers and the ultimate celebration of the Old West to those who make the pilgrimage, Frontier Days in Cheyenne lives up to its billing in the rodeo world as "the daddy of 'em all."
Everything about Frontier Days is outsized. About 1,800 contestants are competing this year in nine performances that began last Saturday and run through July 27 at The Frontier Park, making Cheyenne the world's largest outdoor rodeo. The $1 million in total prize money is the biggest purse outside the National Finals Rodeo in Las Vegas. Every performance boasts 40 bull rides, 28 bareback rides, 28 saddle bronc rides, 15 rookie saddle bronc rides and a wild-horse race involving 16 three-man teams, guaranteeing the 11,000-plus fans each day more views of cowboys biting dust than The Outlaw Josey Wales.
"I don't know any other rodeo that has a rookie saddle bronc event," says Kirsten Void of the Harry Void Rodeo Company, which brings some 400 bucking horses and 250 bulls to Cheyenne. "The riders don't have their PRCA [ Professional Rodeo Cowboys Association] cards, and the broncs are 3-and 4-year-olds just off the range that have never even been saddled. That brings all the cowboys out to watch. You see some pretty good wrecks. Some of those young horses will buck themselves right off their feet. We put out as much livestock in one performance at Cheyenne as we do in four performances at other rodeos."
In the timed events every competitor draws a calf or steer that has never been roped or wrestled. "We give the animals more of an advantage than anywhere else," says Tom Hirsig, who heads the contestants' committee. "We rope bigger calves and steers. Other rodeos give an average 12-foot head start; we give the steers and calves 30 feet. And we've got the biggest arena. You could put three of most arenas in ours."
"It matters a bunch if a calf or a steer has never been touched," says 23-year-old Cash Myers, who was entered in calf roping and steer wrestling. He's been coming to Frontier Days with his father, Butch, a former world champion steer wrestler, since he was two. "Those fresh calves and steers make things wilder. It's also more dangerous, but it's worth the risk because the pay's better. Guys who only rodeo a few times a year always make it to Frontier Days, because of the prize money, plus they know they'll see all their old friends."
Sixty-four-year-old Cleo Hearn of Lancaster, Texas, has entered the calf roping in Cheyenne for 35 consecutive years. He has never won, but through Sunday he was third in the average. "The history, the atmosphere and the camaraderie are second to none," says Hearn. "And the hospitality of the townspeople is real."
Indeed, 2,500 volunteers help stage Frontier Days, which includes four parades, three free pancake breakfasts, an Indian Village, a replica frontier town, an aerial performance by the U.S. Air Force Thunderbirds, an art show and nightly entertainment by performers such as Willie Nelson, Toby Keith and Chris LeDoux. "Folks want to be entertained from the time they get up till the time they go to bed," says Dale Vonkrosigk, the event's general chairman. "That's what we try to do. Frontier Days is the third-biggest tourist attraction in Wyoming behind Yellowstone Park and the Tetons. The economic impact is huge. If Cheyenne does well, the whole state does well."
Wyoming, which doesn't have a state income tax, collects, on average, approximately $1.25 million per year in sales tax during Frontier Days, according to the Cheyenne Area Convention and Visitors Bureau. "It's like a second Christmas to Cheyenne," says Hirsig, whose great-great-uncle Charlie was one of the founders of Frontier Days in 1897, six years before the first World Series.
The event was the brainchild of a railroad man named Fred Angier, who wanted to sell tickets on a special excursion train out of Denver. If cowboys in and around Cheyenne put on a rodeo, the Union Pacific would deliver the spectators. That first year there was no arena—just a pasture and a grandstand—and spectators kept the livestock from running loose by encircling the grounds and raising their opened umbrellas to turn back runaway broncs.
The initial Frontier Days was such a success that a committee was formed to expand the franchise. In 1898 the committee invited Wild Bill Hickok's Wild West Show to ride through the streets on the day of the rodeo, which marked Frontier Days' first parade. Other famous names began to come to the otherwise nondescript cow town in Wyoming's high desert plains. Teddy Roosevelt attended Frontier Days in 1903 and '10, and in '04 Bill Pickett gave a demonstration of bulldogging—a technique that used to be part of steer wrestling.