TUCSON’S LA FIESTA DE LOS VAQUEROS BEGAN WITH A BANG
Headline in the Arizona Daily Star in 1925 reads:
“Cowboys are asked not to shoot up the town”
Tucson in 1925 was a frontier town:
The first Tucson Rodeo was held in the middle of Prohibition. With so many visitors expected, decisions were made to clean up the town. Arizona State Prohibition Director Frank Pool led a force of federal officials to town two weeks prior to the rodeo. The Arizona Daily Star reported that 25 stills were captured and an estimated 3000 gallons of moonshine destroyed.
Taxi fare from downtown to the rodeo grounds was set at 25 cents for a party of four.
Prizes at the 1925 Rodeo Parade included a 750-lb. block of ice, 100 lbs. of potatoes and a “Big Cactus” ham.
Leighton Kramer conceived the idea of La Fiesta de los Vaqueros to draw visitors to Tucson during the mid-winter season. Kramer was a winter visitor himself, and president of the Arizona Polo Association.
In 1925, Kramer and the Arizona Polo Association created La Fiesta de los Vaqueros and the Tucson Mid-Winter Rodeo and Parade. The event would give visitors a taste of cowboy range work and glamorize Tucson’s Wild West notoriety.
From Kramer’s official welcome in the 1925 event program:
Not so many years ago the first pony express came to a sudden halt on our Main Street, carrying civilization southwestward. Not so many years ago the first railroad whistled in. Gone is the past. The hitching post has been removed. A new civilization has put steel and concrete and built a mighty city where only yesterday horses grazed within the memory of living man. The Pioneer Spirit lives. Heroic memories never die. The Old Frontier will be revived-at Tucson, February 21, 22 and 23, 1925—as a community revival. We are proud to offer this attraction to the people of American as a glorious reminder of yesterday.
Tourists, cowboys and cowgirls, local society members and Navajo Indians enjoyed a rip-roaring time at the Rodeo Dance at the Santa Rita Hotel the night before the first Tucson Rodeo. Wayne Hamilton and the 10th Calvary Band provided music. The next morning, thousands of spectators crowded the Downtown parade route and 300 people participated in the first Rodeo Parade.
One of the most striking costumes in the parade was worn by Lone Wolf, a Native American artist, in full regalia and flowing headdress, that of a Blackfoot Indian Chieftain. Local ranches were represented on horseback, mounted polo players wore their white helmets and bright silk shirts, and the 10th Cavalry and 25th Infantry bands from Fort Huachuca provided rousing music. The city leaders and the University of Arizona declared February 21, 1925 a city holiday.
The first Tucson Rodeo was held at Kramer Field, now a neighborhood called Catalina Vista, east of Campbell Boulevard between Grant and Elm Streets. The rodeo featured four events -- steer wrestling, steer tying, calf roping, and saddle bronc riding. The purse was a fabulous $6,650. Special events included a wild horse race, lady bronc rider Tad Lucas, and Jack Brown who bulldogged a steer from a Packard automobile.
In Progressive Arizona 1925, Kramer observed:
“The City of Tucson excelled itself on the day of its first Rodeo Parade, the morning of the first day of its La Fiesta de los Vaqueros, a name destined to be as famous in the annuals of the Sunshine City as the Mardi Gras of New Orleans, the Beauty Pageant of Atlantic City, or the Flower Show at Pasadena.”
As a result of rapid growth, a larger La Fiesta de los Vaqueros moved to the abandoned municipal airport field at South 6th Avenue and Irvington Road. The 1932 Tucson Rodeo opened the grounds, with seating for 3,000 and parking for 59 cars. The arena at the Tucson Rodeo Grounds now seats 11,000 spectators.
The Tucson Rodeo Committee expanded the Tucson Rodeo to five performance days in 1993 and included an annual Women’s Championship Rodeo in the 2000-2003 events. In 2004 through 2006, the event added a PRCA sanctioned Bull Riding competition. The Committee added a sixth rodeo performance to replace the Bull Riding event beginning in 2007.
The Tucson Rodeo has featured many types of western entertainers. Old time trick riders Buff Brady and Dick Griffith amazed the crowds in the early days. Acclaimed trick roper Montie Montana appeared in a number of performances from 1936 to 1974. Wilcox, Arizona native Rex Allen was featured in 1956 and 1957. In 1965, Leon Adams exhibited “Roman trick riding from the days of Ben Hur on performing Brahma bulls.”
Due to a great climate and full grandstands, Hollywood found the Tucson Rodeo an ideal winter location when a scene called for rodeo action. Robert Mitchum tested broncs in Tucson in the 1952 classic “The Lusty Men”. In 1954, the Tucson Rodeo served as a backdrop for the movie “Arena”. The 1994 rodeo was featured in scenes for “8 Seconds”, the motion picture depicting the life of late bull rider Lane Frost. You can see action from the 1996 rodeo in the Showtime movie “Ruby Jean and Joe” starring Tom Selleck. The rodeo was broadcast coast-to-coast in 1962 on ABC’s Wide World of Sports.
The Tucson Rodeo is one of the top 25 professional rodeo events in North America, with prize monies exceeding $320,000. The ProRodeo Hall of Fame in Colorado Springs, Colo. inducted the Tucson Rodeo Committee in August of 2008 for their notable achievements and contributions to professional rodeo. The Committee was also inducted into the Pima County Sports Hall of Fame in 2006.
Leighton Kramer’s vision of creating an event to attract more tourists to Tucson has certainly been realized. But the residents of Tucson adopted La Fiesta de los Vaqueros as an honored tradition from the very beginning. Area schools still close on Thursday and Friday of Rodeo Week, local citizens are thrown in the hoosegow (in fun of course) for not observing western dress, businesses advertise rodeo specials and over 200 organizations participate in the Rodeo Parade, now viewed by over 200,000 spectators.
February 1967, the Tucson Daily Citizen reported:
“…41 House members have joined in introducing a bill which would make the bolo tie ‘the official state neckwear’… replacing the neckties worn by eastern dudes”.
February 2007, the Arizona Daily Star touted:
“Two Sports Greats in Town this Week”
“BEST IN THE BIZ Golf’s No. 1 Tiger Woods Rodeo’s No. 1 Trevor Brazile” “Trevor’s rope is Tiger’s wedge. Trevor’s goal is to win eight All-Around titles, one more than Ty Murray. Tiger’s goal is to win 19 majors, one more than the great Jack Nicklaus. We are doubly blessed. Both will continue work toward those goals this week in Tucson. Someday you can tell your grandkids about it.”
La Fiesta de los Vaqueros is planned and operated by the Tucson Rodeo Committee, Inc. and the Tucson Rodeo Parade Committee, Inc. Both are nonprofit corporations with volunteer board members committed to preserving the western traditions and heritage of Tucson.