The Ellensburg Rodeo: A Century of Western Tradition
The Ellensburg Rodeo, held annually in the picturesque town of Ellensburg, Washington, is one of the oldest and most celebrated rodeos in the United States. With a rich history dating back over a century, this event has become an iconic symbol of Western heritage, attracting thousands of visitors and participants from the Pacific Northwest and beyond. Started in 1923 with the same volunteer spirit that still “fuels the fire” of today’s volunteers, the rodeo has grown from a local competition among ranch hands to the Professional event of today with over 600 contestants and prize money in excess of $400,000!
The roots of the Ellensburg Rodeo can be traced back to the late 19th century, when the town’s residents sought to showcase the skills and traditions of the American cowboy. When cattle ranching and farming were booming industries in the Kittitas Valley of Central Washington where Ellensburg is located, cowboys, ranchers, and local horsemen regularly gathered for informal competitions to demonstrate their skills in roping, riding, and other expertise needed to work on the range. These unofficial events quickly grew in popularity, attracting spectators from neighboring communities, and laid the foundation for what would later become the Ellensburg Rodeo.
In 1923, the Ellensburg Rodeo officially came into existence when a group of local ranchers, cowboys, and businessmen formed the Kittitas County Fair Board and organized the first Ellensburg Rodeo as part of the county fair. The event was an immediate success, drawing large crowds and growing spectators as news of this event began to spread. Professional cowboys from across the nation were invited to participate, adding a competitive edge to the event and raising its profile in the rodeo circuit.
Over the next few years, the Ellensburg Rodeo continued to grow and evolve. In 1926, it became a founding member of the Cowboys’ Turtle Association, which later evolved into the Professional Rodeo Cowboys Association (PRCA). This affiliation solidified the Ellensburg Rodeo’s status as a premier rodeo in the PRCA circuit and allowed it to attract top-notch competitors from around the country. Today, the Ellensburg Rodeo is one of the top rodeos in the PRCA circuit and also hosts a stop on the PRCA’s Xtreme Bulls Tour! Click here to learn about the PRCA’s Xtreme Bulls event in Ellensburg!
The Great Depression in the 1930s presented significant challenges for the rodeo, as it did for many industries. Despite financial hardships, the rodeo persevered, thanks to the dedication of its organizers and the unwavering support of the community. Local businesses, ranchers, and individuals rallied behind the event, recognizing its cultural significance and economic importance to the region. The rodeo further faced challenges during World War II which brought another set of obstacles as many young cowboys and rodeo participants enlisted in the military. However, the spirit of the Ellensburg Rodeo remained intact, and after the war, it experienced a resurgence, attracting even larger crowds and growing in stature.
In the 1950s and 1960s, the rodeo underwent significant changes, embracing modernization while preserving its Western roots. Improvements to the rodeo grounds, the addition of grandstands, and enhanced facilities elevated the spectator experience. At the same time, the rodeo maintained its focus on traditional events such as bronc riding, bull riding, steer wrestling, barrel racing, and roping competitions. Click here for our 2023 Schedule of Events!
Throughout the decades, the Ellensburg Rodeo continued to foster and promote the Western way of life. It became a showcase of horsemanship, ranching skills, and the cowboy spirit. The “Kittitas County Fair and Ellensburg Rodeo” became an official title in 1976, reflecting the interconnectedness of the two events that have become integral to Ellensburg and it’s surrounding area’s identity.
This year, the Ellensburg Rodeo celebrates its centennial anniversary, marking 100 years of Western tradition and cowboy heritage. The milestone event is met with great enthusiasm and pride from the community, attracting record attendance and participation. Click here to see a list of our Centennial Events!
Today, the Ellensburg Rodeo remains a highly anticipated event on the national rodeo calendar. It continues to attract top-tier rodeo professionals and features a diverse range of activities, including a downtown hoedown, parades, rodeo queen competition, carnival rides, and live music performances. You can feel the excitement of the local community already, this August, as you can find local businesses embrace both the Western roots and art culture as they paint their storefront windows. The Annual Pancake Kickoff is scheduled in historic downtown August 19 and the rodeo events continue through September 4. Click here for all upcoming events!
While the rodeo has evolved over the years, it has stayed true to its roots, honoring the traditions of the American West and celebrating the hardworking men and women who embody the cowboy spirit. Today’s best riders, ropers, and wrestlers compete in what many consider to be the best rodeo arena in the nation. The Friday night opening event starts in the evening and ends under the stars. The Saturday and Sunday afternoon “perfs” feel electrically charged by the brilliant blue sky. It all leads up to the Labor Day Monday Championship Finals… The best of the best dueling in the dirt!
The history of the Ellensburg Rodeo is one of resilience, community support, and a dedication to preserving Western heritage. From its humble beginnings as informal cowboy gatherings to becoming a nationally recognized and respected rodeo, it has come a long way in a century. The Ellensburg Rodeo continues to be a beloved and cherished event, not just for the town of Ellensburg but for rodeo enthusiasts and Western aficionados across the country. As long as there are cowboys and cowgirls who carry on the traditions of the West, the Ellensburg Rodeo will remain an enduring symbol of the American frontier spirit.