Cowboys tab Stampede as region's top rodeo

It’s one of the best-kept secrets in our region, but the professional cowboys appreciate the hospitality and behind-the-scenes work that goes into making the annual Kitsap County Fair and Stampede one of the best rodeos in the country.

The Kitsap Stampede, for the second straight year, has been voted the top rodeo in the Columbia River Circuit, which covers Washington, Oregon and northern Idaho.

Rodeo director Gene Johnson, who heads a dedicated group of volunteers who spend countless hours preparing for an event that lasts just a few days, was presented the award at the Columbia River Pro-Rodeo Circuit Finals in Redmond, Ore. on Friday, Nov. 9.

“When you’ve got 35 other rodeos, including the Pendleton, (Ore.) Round-Up, St. Paul, (Ore.), Ellensburg and a lot of other big rodeos, it’s quite an accomplishment,” Johnson said. “At least we think so. And to do it two years in a row, I don’t think anybody’s done that.”

What makes the honor so special is that the cowboys do the voting themselves.

This year, those cowboys recognized the extraordinary efforts of the local volunteers.

An August downpour left Thunderbird Stadium in pretty good shape for a boat race, or a mud wrestling extravaganza, but not a rodeo.

The first two performances, in fact, were washed out. Nobody had ever heard of a rodeo getting rained out, and community members pulled together to make sure the Kitsap Stampede wasn’t going to be the first.

“It took a lot of work with a lot of volunteers,” Johnson said. “We graded all the soup and muck to one end of the arena, then hauled in something like 1,600 yards of sand. Bruce Christopherson of Ace Paving and Dale Oien of Oien Construction worked it over. They spent a lot of hours in there.

“The rain decided to quit on Friday and we finally got to where we could get some good footing.”

A lot of the cowboys stuck around, and many that left returned to compete as they held a day-long rodeo on Friday to make up for lost time.

“They had opportunities to go elsewhere, but they hung in there with it,” Johnson said. “They were coming around offering words of encouragement which makes you feel good. They appreciated all the work that was going on.”

Calf roper Brad Goodrich of Stanfield, Ore. put his thoughts into words after the rodeo. He wrote a letter, expressing his gratitude.

“I was born and raised in Everett and consider the Northwest my home and the finest people on earth,” Goodrich wrote. “The people at the Kitsap Rodeo prove me right. There wasn’t a single cowboy — from Texas to Georgia to Arkansas — who wasn’t overwhelmed by your generosity and concern for safety. There isn’t one single rodeo in the world that does for the cowboy what you did for us.”

High praise, indeed, considering there are 738 Professional Rodeo Cowboys Association-sanctioned rodeos in the country.

It’s the little things, many of them provided by the Kitsap Cowpokes, another volunteer group, that makes the Kitsap Stampede a special experience for the cowboys. The prize money — $89,000 last year, ranking fourth in the state and 65th in the country — is nice, but the Kitsap rodeo offers more.

There’s home-cooked meals, featuring barbeque salmon and oysters. There’s a chiropractor service and a laundry service.

“I don’t think any of the other (Columbia Circuit) rodeos offer the total package that we do,” Johnson said.

The food is a big hit with the cowboys, many of whom spend 11 months on the road.

“A lot of rodeos sponsor a cowboy breakfast or a courtesy booth with pop and chips,” Goodrich wrote. “You have the only rodeo in the country that offers three home-cooked meals a day. When you are on the road as much as we are, restaurant food gets boring pretty fast.”

If the cowboys find out who came up with the idea of getting their clothes cleaned and pressed, they might vote that person into the Cowboy Hall of Fame.

“That may seem small to the general public, but looms large to the competitor,” Goodrich wrote. “Having a cleaning service pick up our clothes at the rodeo grounds, then return them cleaned and pressed is fantastic. That alone makes you the best rodeo in the world to the cowboy.”

Johnson, as he was fighting the rain last August, overheard a conversation between a couple of cowboys who were standing nearby.

“He was really cold and the guy was asking him if he’d stay in Bremerton, and the guys said, ‘Yeah, they’ve got a shower and it worked.’ Those things are important,” Johnson said.

The contestants at the Columbia Circuit Finals stopped and gave the Kitsap Stampede a hearty ovation when the award was announced.

“It was a good feeling,” Johnson said. “I know they appreciate what we’re doing.”

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