Ellensburg Rodeo Finale -queen

Ellensburg Rodeo Queen Julia Wickerath waves to the crowd during the Ellensburg Rodeo finale Sept. 2, 2019. The 2020 Ellensburg Rodeo has been cancelled due to COVID-19 restrictions. (Jacob Ford / Daily Record)

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The wind blew through the empty arena at the Ellensburg Rodeo grounds, stirring up little dust devils across the dirt where some of the greatest cowboys and cowgirls in the world come to compete on an annual basis.

It’s about this time of the year when people around the Kittitas Valley start to get excited about one of the top 10 rodeos in the nation.


But along came the COVID-19 pandemic and turned the world on its ear, including the rodeo world. For the first time in 76 years, the Ellensburg Rodeo, which was recently inducted into the ProRodeo Hall of Fame, will not take place.

Yep, it’s going to be a strange Labor Day weekend without the parade, the concert, Xtreme Bulls, and of course, the world-class rodeo people have come to enjoy. It means a lot to the town from a monetary standpoint, an estimated $4-5 million.

But at the end of the day, the safety of the community was the priority and the current risks associated with the COVID-19 contributed to the decision not to move forward, Ellensburg Rodeo board president Jerry Doolin said.

“I really haven’t envisioned Labor Day weekend without the Ellensburg Rodeo,” Doolin said. “For the past 25 years I’ve been going down to the arena for the rodeo. As volunteers, we all take our vacation, give the family a kiss on the cheek and say, ‘See ya in a week.’

“But we as a board will continue to meet and work to come back bigger and better next year. It’s a disappointment, but after all we considered it came down to keeping our community and families safe first and foremost.”


The board looked at every angle, said arena director Rick Cole, who has been on the board for the past 38 years. They gave thoughts to putting 50 people in each section, accepting financial assistance from the Professional Rodeo Cowboy Association, and countless other options. But deciding who could watch and who would be turned away is not what the Ellensburg Rodeo is all about, he said.

“The challenge was, were we going to be allowed to have half a crowd, a quarter of a crowd or any crowd. That’s what we were agonizing over was what phase were we going to be in come rodeo time,” Cole said. “When the governor announced there would be no Phase 4, that was the tipping point.”

“Fifty people in each section would give us 1,500, but that creates hard feelings on who can watch it and who can’t,” Cole said. “The PRCA was willing to help us. The county was willing to try and help us. But how do you take from people in town where they are fighting for their livelihood? So, that’s what it got down to.”


For the first time in 76 years — the World War II Era (1942-44) — the Ellensburg Rodeo Arena will be still, quiet to the sounds of animals and cowboys matching determination, wits and souls on an Ellensburg afternoon over Labor Day weekend.

“It just makes sense and I’m really proud of the board on how hard they worked to look at different ways to make it happen,” said former board member Joel Smith, who was instrumental in establishing the Xtreme Bulls. “It’s been a real challenge and it just became impossible.

“The decision was for the safety for the fans and community. We’re pretty fortunate in Kittitas County to be in Phase 3. We’re surrounded by Phase 1 and Phase 1 1/2. The health department has done a really good job in this county, so to do anything to jeopardize that doesn’t make sense.”

Daniel Beard of Daniel Beard Rodeo Co. has been running stock at the Ellensburg Rodeo for years. Like everybody else in the business, he appreciates the work and dedication the rodeo board put in trying to make it work.

“I would think they worked harder this year than any other time in history,” said Beard, who is still trying to make his Bares and Broncs event Sept. 18-19 work. “I’ve always loved the Ellensburg Rodeo. You just look at the quality of stock Ellensburg has had on Monday — national bull of the year; national horse of the year; that’s what Ellensburg is.

“The cancellation is heartbreaking, because I know how hard the board has worked and extra time they’ve put in exploring the different processes. When they say there is no way they can go forward with it, it’s not for lack of effort.”

It’s going to be way different this year long-time Ellensburg Rodeo volunteer Gary Forgey, who has been involved for 51 years as a volunteer and contestant.


“It’s really disappointing,” he said. “Labor Day is going to be different. It’s just been something that’s always been. I don’t know one person or friends that haven’t gone to the rodeo one year from the next. We’re just so used to it.

“It’s like your house caught on fire and you look at it the next day, like where am I going to go?”

Mike Allen grew up in the valley, having graduated from Ellensburg High School and Central Washington University. He’s a charter member of the Ellensburg Rodeo Hall of Fame board, which just had its soft opening at its new location on Pearl Street. He’s been involved in rodeo for years.

“The rodeo rates right there with Christmas and Fourth of July in this community. I really hope families continue to gather over Labor Day weekend to celebrate even though there won’t be a rodeo,” Allen said.

“As for the cancellation, I’m just sick about it. It’s really a punch in the gut to lose that. It’s just heartbreaking. But we support the rodeo board, and we understand they did everything they possibly could to make it happen.”


The Ellensburg Rodeo board of directors was notified by the ProRodeo Hall of Fame that the Class of 2020 induction scheduled to take place Aug. 1 in Colorado Springs, Colo., has been postponed until next summer. The Ellensburg Rodeo will take its place among 30 of the greatest rodeos in America, along with the world-class competitors, man, animal and cowgirls.

But in the midst of the pandemic that has taken close to 130,000 lives across America, the induction will have to take place next year.


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