As the days grow longer, the Kansas wind gets warmer, and the school year draws to a close, the thoughts of ranchers and would-be cowboys in Chase County and the surrounding communities turn to rodeo, specifically the Flint Hills Rodeo. The oldest consecutive rodeo of June, the Flint Hills Rodeo draws thousands of spectators from near and far. This two-day event is an experience that is not easily forgotten.
The Flint Hills Rodeo is an important yearly event with roots deeply embedded in Chase County history. It is said that in the 1930s, the children of E.C. Roberts, including Cowgirl Hall of Fame inductee Marjorie Roberts and her brothers, rodeo stars Ken and Gerald, used to “play rodeo” on their ranch using their family’s livestock.
Gradually, local interest in these impromptu performances grew, and in 1937, Roberts, his son Ken, and his son-in-law Eddie Boysen staged what is widely considered to be the first professional rodeo in Chase County. At that time, no rodeo facilities existed, so Roberts offered the use of the big corral on his ranch located two miles west of Strong City. The event was such a rousing success, the Flint Hills Rodeo Association was formed the following year and plans were made to continue the Flint Hills Rodeo annually (“FlintRodeo,” 348).The early years were quite exciting, and the citizens of Chase County embraced the Flint Hills Rodeo. According to longtime resident Edith Edwards Kutz, it was community spirit and hard work that got the rodeo off the ground: “At the start, we all took cars and went around to towns throughout the state, putting up posters, honking horns and just letting people know we were having a rodeo” (“Collection” 24). During the weekend event, many residents of Strong City and the neighboring towns invited the cowboys, rodeo clowns, and wild west show performers into their homes. Mrs. Kutz remembers hosting Spike Bronson, a rodeo clown, and his wife, Connie: “After every ride, Connie and I spent our time washing those large Levis and trying to dry them in front of the oven” (24).
Despite the vast amount of work and volunteer effort required to maintain such a large endeavor, the Flint Hills Rodeo nevertheless quickly attracted local and national attention, and the crowds grew larger every year.The arena at Strong City on Highway 50 is a familiar landmark to the people of Chase County, yet the Flint Hills Rodeo started in much more humble surroundings. In 1938, a more permanent home was constructed at the Roberts’ ranch; the work was donated by men of the Chase County community, and the result was an arena that was used from 1938-1940. By 1941, new rodeo grounds were developed one mile west of Strong City. Improvements included a public address system and factory-made portable bleachers capable of accommodating the swelling crowds. However, in 1947, Highway 50 was relocated through part of Strong City, leading to yet another move for the Flint Hills Rodeo. Twenty acres adjacent to Highway 50 were purchased, and necessary structures such as a permanent arena, buckout chutes, catch pens, and concession stands were added and maintained, resulting in a well-built facility that is still used today (“Flint,” 348).From its inception, the Flint Hills Rodeo has been sanctioned by yprofessional rodeo organizations, and today it is recognized as an important competitive rodeo by the PRCA, the Professional Rodeo Cowboys’ Association.
It has consistently attracted well-known rodeo stars since its beginning. In 1939, when asked what big-name stars were expected at the rodeo, held that year on May 20th and 21st, Ken Roberts replied, “They’ll all be here because they’ll be on their way from the rodeo May 12-14 at Dodge City to the rodeo at Fort Smith, Ark, on May 27-29. The Strong City dates are in between and will provide another rodeo for the professional riders. Yes, they’ll all be here” (“Big”). More recently, well-known rodeo names such as “Tuff” Hedemann, Monty “Hawkeye” Henson, and local standout Jason Lahr have thrilled rodeo crowds as they participated in events such as roping, dogging, and riding broncs and bulls.The charm of the Flint Hills rodeo also lies in the many extra features that rodeo weekend offers.