The Cody Stampede Celebrates 100 Years

May 31, 2019

For the few days on and around the Fourth of July Cody hosts a parade and rodeo, known as the Cody Stampede. This year marks the 100th anniversary of the rodeo. In its history, the event has attracted the local community, professional rodeo riders and ropers, tourists and even Hollywood stars.

Jeri Gillett has been around the Cody Stampede her whole life.

"I grew up on a ranch, and we've always been around horses," said Gillett. "It was a big deal to come to the Stampede."

Every year, hundreds of spectators fill the Cody Stampede Area to see over 800 of some of the best professional rodeo riders and ropers compete for a $400,000 prize. Advertisements in the local paper encourage the town to dress up for the part: wear your cowboy boots and Stetson hat. Locals happily comply.

But for Gillett, the stampede is even more personal. Her son, Nick, was killed at another rodeo riding saddle broncs nine years ago.

"When I lost my son, we had the funeral out there and they turned the bucking horses lose and there was like 5,000 some people out there," recalled Gillett. "So, it was very special to me, and I just wanted to give back to the community."

For a hundred years, the Stampede has brought people like Gillett together with their community to create something for Cody. It all started back in 1913, when the Prince of Monaco visited Cody. The town transformed the county fair to an event that was meant to share the culture of the West.

"Buffalo Bill brought in Johnny Baker and some performers from the Buffalo Bill Wild West Show," said Jeremy Johnston, the curator of the Buffalo Bill Museum. "And they changed the park county fair into a Wild West show/rodeo."

Johnston said Cody, at the time, was mostly a farming town. But with the influence of Buffalo Bill, the community started to strongly identify with the myth of the West.

"As time developed, Cody become more and more focused on the rodeo. And the beginning of the Cody stampede begins in 1919, when Clarence Williams decides to organize a rodeo for the opening of the park. Something that would entertain visitors traveling through Cody, Wyoming to Yellowstone," said Johnston.

In the early days, the rodeo was more diverse than it is now, said Mary Robinson, the director of the McCracken Research Library.

"The pattern was set by Buffalo Bill's Wild West, if you think about it," she said. "Because Buffalo Bill's Wild West first brought bucking horses into an arena and made them a spectacle, but they also brought women."

Women competed in all sorts of competitions, and there were events that don't exist today that were pretty popular said Robinson. One example: the Roman Standing Race.

"The rider actually stood on one foot, on each of two horses that were galloping along the race track, and that was a race," said Robinson.

But as rodeos grew in popularity nationally, standards were imposed as rodeos became organized, Robinson said.

"They had to do that, in order to fight back against managers who would run rodeos and then not pay out."

But even though the events became more standardized, the allure of an adrenaline rush still attracts spectators and aspiring riders and ropers. And so, the Cody Stampede has continued to grow.

Jeri Gillett and her son are a part of that legacy. And this past year, she became the first woman to be on the Cody Stampede Board since Caroline Lockhart, who served as the first director of the board a hundred years ago.

Gillett said the community has always been there for her and all the locals. She said, ultimately, the Cody Stampede is an important staple to creating a supportive, friendly place to live.

"I see so many young kids that put their life into rodeo, instead of drugs or drinking. To me, it is important maybe just because I grew up on a ranch farm life," said Gillett.

And Gillett is just one of many. For the month of June, the town is gearing up to celebrate and inform visitors why the stampede is so special to them.

The Center of The West is commemorating the hundred year anniversary of the Stampede with a special exhibition that opens June 7.