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Ellensburg Rodeo: A Western Tradition, 100 Years in the Making

September 1, 2023

The Ellensburg Rodeo is one of the oldest and most celebrated rodeos in the United States. With a rich history dating back over a century, this event has become an iconic symbol of Western heritage, attracting thousands of visitors and participants from all over the Pacific Northwest and beyond. The rodeo has grown from a local competition among ranch hands to the Professional event of today with over 600 contestants and prize money in excess of $400,000!

The origins of the Ellensburg Rodeo can be traced back to the late 19th century, when the town’s residents sought to showcase the skills and traditions of the American cowboy. When cattle ranching and farming were booming industries in the Kittitas Valley of Central Washington, cowboys, ranchers, and local horsemen regularly gathered for informal competitions to demonstrate their skills in roping, riding, and other expertise needed to work on the range. What began as friendly community competition, quickly grew in popularity, attracting spectators from neighboring communities, and laid the foundation for what would later become the Ellensburg Rodeo.

In 1923, the Ellensburg Rodeo officially came into existence when a group of local ranchers, cowboys, and businessmen formed the Kittitas County Fair Board and organized the first Ellensburg Rodeo as part of the county fair. The event was an immediate success, drawing large crowds and growing spectators as news of this event began to spread. Professional cowboys from across the nation were invited to participate, adding a competitive edge to the event and raising its profile in the rodeo circuit.

Over the next few years, the Ellensburg Rodeo continued to grow and evolve. In 1926, it became a founding member of the Cowboys’ Turtle Association, which later evolved into the Professional Rodeo Cowboys Association (PRCA). This affiliation solidified the Ellensburg Rodeo’s status as a premier rodeo in the PRCA circuit and allowed it to attract top-notch competitors from around the country. Today, the Ellensburg Rodeo is one of the top rodeos in the PRCA circuit and also hosts a stop on the PRCA’s Xtreme Bulls Tour! Click here to learn about the PRCA’s Xtreme Bulls event in Ellensburg!

In the 1950s and 1960s, the rodeo underwent significant changes, embracing modernization while preserving its Western roots. Improvements to the rodeo grounds, the addition of grandstands, and enhanced facilities elevated the spectator experience. At the same time, the rodeo maintained its focus on traditional events such as bronc riding, bull riding, steer wrestling, barrel racing, and roping competitions.

Throughout the decades, the Ellensburg Rodeo continued to foster and promote the Western way of life that is so strongly rooted in Central Washington. It became a showcase of horsemanship, ranching skills, and the cowboy spirit. The “Kittitas County Fair and Ellensburg Rodeo” became an official title in 1976, reflecting the interconnectedness of the two events that have become integral to Kittitas County’s identity.

This year, the Ellensburg Rodeo celebrates its Centennial Anniversary, marking 100 years of Western tradition and cowboy heritage. The Ellensburg Rodeo remains a highly anticipated event on the national rodeo calendar. It continues to attract top-tier rodeo professionals and features a diverse range of activities. From a Hoedown in the streets of Historic Downtown Ellensburg, to parades, a rodeo queen competition, carnival rides, and their infamous “Behind the Chutes” live music performances. You can feel the excitement of the local community already, this August, as you watch local businesses embrace both the Western roots and art cultures of Central Washington as they paint their storefront windows. The Annual Pancake Kickoff is scheduled in Historic Downtown Ellensburg, August 19 and the rodeo events continue through September 4.

The history of the Ellensburg Rodeo is one of perseverance, community support, and a dedication to preserving Western heritage. From its humble beginnings as informal cowboy gatherings to becoming a nationally recognized and respected rodeo, there is no denying a century of tradition and success. The Ellensburg Rodeo continues to be a beloved and cherished event, not just for the town of Ellensburg but for Central Washington, rodeo enthusiasts, and Western aficionados across the country.  

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