GERRY – In just a few days, the small village of Gerry, a few miles north of Jamestown, will become “Rodeo City,” home to the longest continuously running professional rodeo east of the Mississippi River.
The traditional events of bareback bronc riding, tie-down roping, saddle bronc riding, bullriding, barrel racing, team roping and steer wrestling are included on the four-day program, which opens Wednesday.
A rodeo clown and parade are also part of the show. But some people attend just for the beef barbecue.
The Gerry rodeo will be put together by a group of volunteers who have been hosting the rodeo for 69 years as a fundraising event to supplement their volunteer fire company.
Tom Atwell has been chairman of the rodeo for nine years, and planning takes him all year. A volunteer firefighter for the past 23 years, his work on the rodeo began even earlier.
“I started by helping with the silverware in the dining hall when I was 5 years old,” said Atwell, who has been a firefighter since he was 19 years old.
He said his grandparents and parents were all involved as volunteers for the rodeo. Through the years, he graduated through a variety of jobs and was the assistant chairman for a few years before being selected for the chairman’s job.
He has traveled to rodeo planning conventions and to bigger rodeo events in search of ways to improve the Gerry rodeo.
As he looked out over the rodeo field last week, Atwell started a list of things that need to be done and asked one of his sons to get a marker and work on the “to do” list.
Last minute jobs included inspecting the bleachers for loose boards and painting the buildings. The bleachers can hold about 4,000 spectators.
This year, the rodeo will have five shows. All of the shows are sanctioned by the Professional Rodeo Cowboys Association. Riders, ropers and other competitors from all over the country will number about 150, competing for more than $35,000 in prize money.
They also compete for points and a chance to be entered into the national competition.
This year’s opening rodeo is 8 p.m. Wednesday. Events continue through Saturday.
This year, children 8 and younger can compete in special events at 10:30 a.m. Saturday.
“We keep this a family-oriented event,” Atwell said. No alcohol is allowed on the grounds.
At 5 p.m. each evening, a traditional beef barbecue dinner is cooked and served by the community.
Paula and Bruce Gustafson take charge of the dinner. They are helped out by 40 to 50 volunteers each night. They expect to serve about 3,000 meals over four days.
The chefs cook about 4,500 pounds of beef on open wood-fire grills. Only aged maple wood is used for the fires, and the cook’s helper has to be sure the temperature stays hot enough to cook the beef and long enough to give it a smoky flavor.
A big pile of the wood stands near the grills ready for splitting and keeping the fires going. Home-cooked crispy potatoes, corn rolls and ice cream are served with the dinner.
The crew will make about 90 quarts of “special recipe” sauce and another 40 to 50 quarts of gravy for the beef.
“The gravy is made from the beef drippings, not from a package,” said Paul Cooley, one of the volunteers.
Additional vendors and booths sponsored by the Fire Department will also have other foods and treats.
The Gerry rodeo originated in 1945, when former rodeo rider Jack Cox moved to Gerry and convinced the firefighters that they could host one in their community. The first event was pulled together in just two months.
Now the event takes a whole year of planning.
Safety has to be a primary concern for riders and animals. There are emergency crews on the site at all times for the people and a veterinarian at every event for the animals. Atwell said the animals are watched closely for any injuries.
“We couldn’t do this without a lot of help from the community,” Atwell said.
He said he knows of many locals who use their vacation time from work to help out every day at the rodeo.
“It’s also like a reunion – I bet more than 1,000 people return home to Gerry for rodeo week,” he said.
The residents get behind the cause to help keep their fire department running and using good, up-to-date equipment including an ambulance, pumper trucks, utility trucks and even an ATV unit that can pull gurneys into wooded or off-road areas in the event of accidents. There are about 70 volunteer firefighters in the department.