One Hundred Years of Fortuna Rodeo Firsts


July 12th - 18th 2021

One Hundred Years of Fortuna Rodeo Firsts

By Susan J.P. O’Hara and Alex Service

During the long history of the Fortuna Rodeo, many “firsts” have marked new ideas and new ways of building community involvement. Some of these firsts became treasured annual events; others lasted only a few years. Some became Fortuna Rodeo lore, preserving the memory of past rodeo heroes and setting standards for present competitors to achieve or surpass.
Chief among all “Fortuna Rodeo firsts” is the first Fortuna Rodeo itself, held at the newly-created Rohner Park on August 27 and 28, 1921. It was sponsored by the Humboldt County Stockmen’s Association as entertainment for their annual picnic. Cowboys put on riding exhibitions to thrill the audience as well as some actual contests with local cowboys riding alongside Ty Stokes and Jesse Stahl, two well-known African American riders who were among the best rodeoers of the 1920s. Jesse Stahl was posthumously recognized for his abilities in 1979 when he was inducted into the Cowboy Hall of Fame, and he was the first of the many future Hall of Famers who rode at the Fortuna Rodeo.

By 1925, the local businessmen became involved in the rodeo, ensuring its position as one of Fortuna’s summer festivities. In 1927, the businessmen created the first Fortuna Rodeo parade, described at the time as a “historical pageant.” The parade featured an ox cart, a covered wagon and a stagecoach, with parade participants dressed as figures from California’s past such as padres and aristocrats from Spanish California, gold miners and pioneers. Members of the Hupa Tribe performed their White Deerskin Dance in what is believed to be the first time since 1879 that the dance was performed in public. Another first from 1927 was the first Fortuna Rodeo queen contest, won by Maxine Gould. 

The first rodeo sponsored solely by the Fortuna Businessmen’s Association was held in 1930. The stockmen felt they could no longer support the rodeo financially, due to the stock market crash of 1929. The Fortuna Rodeo made it through the first years of the Great Depression, but ultimately was cancelled due to the economic hard times in 1934 and 1935. However, the rodeo returned with renewed vigor in 1936. At this time the “penny scramble” became a feature of Rodeo Week. This event is now for children only, but when it began, it was open to everyone (thanks to the Depression, most people could use a bit of extra pocket money). Also in the late 1930s, the Fortuna Volunteer Fire Department became involved with the rodeo, sponsoring the traditional Saturday night dance. The rodeo returned to its preeminence on the Professional Rodeo circuit, with riders such as Hall of Famer and National Champion Johnnie Schneider riding and roping at the event. The year 1941 marked a Fortuna Rodeo high point when renowned rodeo photographer DeVere Helfrich attended and captured the action, his photographs chronicling national competitors as well as regional riders such as local favorite Clarence Bugenig.

In 1942, the Fortuna Businessmen decided to cancel the rodeo in order to focus on the war effort. However, that year a one-day amateur rodeo was sponsored by the Fortuna unit of the Women’s Ambulance and Defense Corps. The women used the money raised at this rodeo for purchasing an ambulance for local use during World War II. In 1943, the Armed Forces requested that the rodeo not be held, since if an emergency caused the highway to be closed, rodeo attendees would be stranded. Also, many of the local businessmen, as well as the cowboys themselves, were serving in the Armed Forces. With the end of the war, the rodeo resumed in 1946. Many favorite events returned, such as the penny scramble (which had now become a kids-only event), a carnival, dances and a large parade.
A major first for the Fortuna Rodeo came in 1951, when the Fortuna Rodeo Association was formed, with a board made up of equal numbers from the Fortuna Volunteer Fire Department and the Fortuna Chamber of Commerce. The by-laws developed by the Association, which are still followed today, state that once expenses are paid, all funds raised by the rodeo will be used to maintain and improve facilities at Rohner Park.
The 1953 rodeo was the official celebration of the City of Fortuna’s “Diamond Jubilee” 75th anniversary. This year may also have been the first to feature a grand marshal for the Fortuna Rodeo parade. In 1953 the parade’s marshal was Captain Leroy Gates, who served as an air force pilot in both WWII and the Korean War and was one of the founders of the Rohnerville Airport. A rodeo tradition begun in 1953 was a pancake breakfast during Rodeo Weekend. This event was first sponsored by the women’s service organization the Quota Club, then by the Business and Professional Women’s Association from 1959 onward, and then from 1997 by the Fortuna chapter of the Kiwanis Club.
In 1954, Clarence Bugenig won the local champion saddle. The year 1954 also saw the final professional rodeo held in Fortuna. In 1955, the Rodeo Association decided the Fortuna Rodeo would become an amateurs-only event. They hired Dick Hemsted to provide the stock animals, which Hemsted Rodeos continued to do into the 1990s. The 1950s also saw the return of the deep-pit rodeo barbecue and the queen contest. The first Fortuna Rodeos back in the 1920s had featured free barbecues, with stockmen donating the animals, but now the Rodeo Association charged a small admission fee for the ever-popular meal created by a team of volunteers led by “Super-Chef” Nat Evans, inventor of a secret blend of meat-seasoning spices. To this day, the beloved tradition of the Fortuna Rodeo barbecue continues, made possible by dedicated volunteers and featuring a closely-guarded secret recipe.

In 1964, Al Cooper won the first of his four local champion saddles and in 1965, Charlie Rodriquez won the first of his five local championships. These two men would remain the competitors with the highest number of local champion wins at the Fortuna Rodeo until Casey Minton achieved an astounding nine local champion saddles in the early 2000s.  Popular Rodeo Week events in downtown Fortuna in the 1960s included street dances, a greased pole climbing contest, greased pig contest and an orange crate race, first sponsored by the Fortuna Junior Chamber of Commerce (the Jaycees) in 1966.

In the late 1960s, the tradition began of the Volunteer Fire Department hosting a Firemen’s Games event on Main Street during Rodeo Week. For three years in the 1970s, Rodeo Week festivities included a children’s parade. Youngsters from the Strehl and Ryles families were among the frequent winners of children’s parade awards for entries like their “Five Little Ducks” in the 1974 “Disneyland of the West” kiddies’ parade. In 1975, a horseshoe-pitching competition became part of the Rodeo Week lineup, and around this same time, bicycle races were added to the week’s activities. Also for the first time in 1975, a volunteer Fortuna Rodeo Band was created to take part in the rodeo parade, composed of students from the local schools along with other community members. In 1976, the year of the United States’ Bicentennial celebrations, the Jaycees sponsored their first Fortuna Rodeo Tennis Tournament, which would be part of the annual events until the early 1990s.

The Rodeo Association declared that 1979’s event would be the 50th anniversary rodeo, although later re-calculation led to the conclusion that this milestone was actually a few years off. (Matters were complicated by the several years without a Fortuna Rodeo during the Great Depression and World War II, and by disagreement about which events had been official Fortuna Rodeos.) As part of the official celebrations of the rodeo’s first 50 years, a Friday night fireworks display became part of Rodeo Week, remaining a highlight of the festivities until 1986.
In 1980, for the first time, Outhouse Races were added to the Rodeo Week fun. This rip-roaring event continued until 1985 and later was re-introduced for several more years in the early 2000s. Early in the 1980s, the merchants of the new Redwood Village Mall began sponsoring Rodeo Week entertainments, and during this decade, Redwood Village would become the location for the kids’ activities on the Tuesday of Rodeo Week.
A major milestone took place in 1984: for the first time, the winner of the local all-around champion saddle was a woman. Suzi Fusi captured the honor only one year after riding in her first rodeo (at the Fortuna Rodeo in 1983). Fusi also won the Pro Rodeo California Cowboys Association’s 1984 award for Rookie of the Year. In the first 100 years of the Fortuna Rodeo, two other competitors have joined Suzi Fusi in the ranks of women who have been Fortuna’s local all-around champions: Sherry Luman in 1988 and Jennifer Renner in 2019.
Foot races through town had joined the Rodeo Week lineup in or around 1980, and by 1984, the annual Fortuna Rodeo Fun Run was sponsored by the Six Rivers Running Club. Two beloved Fortuna Rodeo traditions came into being in 1986: the “kidnapped tourists” trial and the chili cook-off. The first tourists to be “kidnapped” and treated to a free weekend of rodeo-themed hospitality were Al and Raylene Key, a honeymooning couple from Vermont. Tourists continued to be “kidnapped” as part of the Rodeo Week shindigs until the final abduction of a vacationing family during the rodeo celebrations in 2016. The first chili cook-off took place in the parking lot of Del’s Liquors and Deli on Fortuna Boulevard; in later years the event would move to its current downtown location on Main Street. A major difference between the early chili cook-offs and the event we know today was a lack of beans: the “Fortuna Rodeo Chili Society” declared that “true chili” consists of “any kind of meat, or combinations of meats, cooked with chili peppers, various other spices and other ingredients, with the exception of items such as beans or spaghetti which are strictly forbidden.” Also in 1986, the Rodeo Association unveiled the first annual Country Music Showdown at the rodeo grounds. For several years, the showdown would be a highlight of Friday night’s events.
An “ugly dog contest” was introduced in Rodeo Week 1988, and took place for several years. Cyrus Comer’s Dalmatian/English bulldog mix Jeremiah was the first pooch to be proclaimed Fortuna’s ugliest dog; in subsequent years Charlie Washburn’s scruffy little canine Rambo would be Jeremiah’s biggest rival for the title. 
The biggest Fortuna Rodeo first of the 1990s was the creation in 1994 of a junior rodeo, the Fortuna Junior Round-Up. The event would grow to become one of the biggest and most popular junior rodeos in the northwest. In the late 1990s, Fortuna’s own West Coast Rodeo Co. inherited the mantle of the Hemsted Rodeo Company, becoming the stock contractor for the Fortuna Rodeo.
In the year 2000, the Rodeo Association decided to change the way past rodeos were counted. Things had gotten confusing over the years, with disagreements about the number of years in which no Fortuna Rodeo took place. From 2000 onward, the rodeos have been reckoned by the number of years since 1921’s first Fortuna Rodeo. This change created what might seem to be a case of time travel: 1999’s Fortuna Rodeo was advertised as the 70th annual rodeo, and 2000’s was the 79th. In 2002, the Association introduced “Family Night” at the rodeo grounds as a highlight of Rodeo Week’s Friday, with kid-focused activities such as piñatas and an “animal scramble.” Over the next few years, Friday’s activities morphed into the wild competition known as the Quadiators, and Friday became Motorsports Night at the Fortuna Rodeo.
The year 2006 brought another Fortuna first: the tradition of commissioning an original artwork each year to illustrate the rodeo’s posters and program. Don Brown, who was then the Rodeo Association member in charge of advertising, brought the idea to Fortuna. The first Fortuna Rodeo painting, by Arcata artist Forest Stearns, shows Ben McWhorter bullriding, with Roy Curless and Tom McWhorter among the spectators.
In 2013, a new event joined Saturday night’s lineup: Bands, Bulls and Brews (another b-word, Broncs, would later be added to the title). That first Bands, Bulls and Brews also featured a game of “cowboy poker,” pitting card-players in the arena against a bull: the last player to leave the table, after the bull had chased all the other players away, was the winner. Among the most recent Fortuna Rodeo firsts, in 2017, the elite bullfighting cadre Bullfighters Only, based in San Antonio, Texas, became the central attraction during Friday night’s festivities.

Some Fortuna Rodeo firsts are far less welcome than others. In 2020, due to the worldwide COVID-19 pandemic, what would have been the 99th anniversary Fortuna Rodeo instead became the first Fortuna Rodeo to be cancelled since the end of World War II.
Since almost the very beginnings of the Fortuna Rodeo, it has been traditional for rodeo organizers to declare that the next year’s rodeo will be “bigger and better” than the one before. In 2021, for the 100th anniversary rodeo, a bigger and better rodeo again takes its rightful place as one of the greatest annual celebrations of life in the Friendly City of Fortuna.

Historians Susan J.P. O’Hara and Alex Service are the authors of In and Around the Arena: The 100 Year History of the Fortuna Rodeo. The book, featuring over 800 photographs from the collections of local community members and museums, will be published later in 2021. Be sure to stop by the authors’ table at the rodeo this year, for more information on the book and to add your name to the pre-order list for In and Around the Arena.