The Fortuna Rodeo had its beginnings way back in 1921 when the Cattlemen's Association of Humboldt County planned a picnic. It was to be an afternoon and evening affair, with "Rodeo Stunts" after the barbecue and a dance in the evening with the intention of making it the biggest and jolliest picnic of the year!
Charles W. Moore of Ferndale was general chairman, with Frank Rolley as superintendent of the barbecue. On the general committee were H. W. McWhorter, W. N. Russ, E. N. Tooby and Fred D. Smith, with volunteer help from others. Ben Snodgrass was director of judges with William Graham of Bridgeville, Joe Russ of Ferndale and Buff Robinson assisting. The first event had a 25-piece band, a grand ball and a chicken supper. There was a gratifying response with 3,000 people attending.
That was the beginning . . .
A great tradition began in Fortuna; the Redwood Fortuna Rodeo. Humboldt County has been an agricultural center for California, as its first settlers were ranchers. It's a little wonder that Fortuna lays claim to the oldest and longest running annual rodeo on the North Coast. Because of that, the rodeo has a long-standing history of attracting some of the top livestock and rodeo cowboys on the West Coast.
By 1926, the event had turned into a rip-roaring three-day whirlwind of thrills and excitement. Doug Prior of Blocksburg was the chairman, and W. F. Robinson was committeeman in charge of the stock and the grounds. Ready were three carloads of bucking horses and 60 head of wild range cattle, secured by E. B. Lytle and Charles Moore.
Crowds came, enjoyed the Maverick ball and the Sombrero ball on both Saturday and Sunday evenings.
In 1930 there were more changes — now came riders from Humboldt, Del Norte, Trinity and Mendocino instead of professional riders. Putting on the show were G. E. Peterson, Charles Wescott, Art Chandler, George Graves, Cecil Evers, Paul Friedenbach, Jack Benson, Louis Gist, H. W. McWhorter, Fred Krieg, Frank Brelle, Paul Mudgett, L. L. Bryan, L. S. East, P. A. Hugo and others.
One year the rodeo went "long hair," when Frederick Jagel of the Metropolitan Grand Opera Company sang every afternoon.
By 1939, the rodeo had simmered down to a two-day event, but packed with just as much dynamite as the longer celebrations had been because the citizens continued to make everyday preceding it a build up for the real thing. About 10,000 people attended the show in 1939 and though the new grandstand was not yet completed the show was bigger and better than ever.
In 1941 the rodeo joined the National Rodeo Association of America and at the time became known as one of the best and biggest rodeos in Northern California. The blight of the war fell that year, and with it fell the Fortuna Rodeo, for the next five years. But in 1946 it rose again to newer and greater proportions. Bill Clark rode in the 1946 rodeo at the age of 80.
In 1948 Stella James of Willits was chosen as the Rodeo Queen, with Pat Barnwell of Bridgeville and Naomi Pries of Ferndale as her attendants. The 1948 rodeo events grew to include a parade downtown, penny scramble, street dancing and vigilantes jailing local men who chose not to grow a beard for the event.
Since its beginning, new faces and new hands guide the destiny of the Fortuna Rodeo while keeping alive the old traditions. That tradition continues today in Fortuna, every third weekend in July.
For more on the history of the Fortuna Rodeo visit the Depot Museum in Rohern Park: