Step Back in History With Oldest Outdoor Rodeo

There are few places left in America where what has come before us is as important as what lies ahead. Where the old is not made new, where the spirit of the past inspires the present.

And where history steps out of the museum ... to live and breathe.

That look back comes by way of the oldest outdoor rodeo in the country, which started in 1897 in Wyoming, to honor cowboys.

More than a century later, they still swagger across the state, and for 10 days every year, cowboys are the centerpiece of the Western celebration Cheyenne Frontier Days, which began July 18 and ends today.

This week and a half is about so much more than a rodeo and cowboys. This is about 112 years of tradition and a community that's determined to preserve a piece of our nation's history.


Investing of Themselves

For 10 days, 2,800 volunteers make it all happen for more than 300,000 visitors.

From trolley rides and an old-fashioned parade to a free pancake feast -- that's more than one 100,000 flapjacks being flipped -- these third- and fourth-generation volunteers become the heart and soul of Frontier Days.

Arlene Kensinger will celebrate her 50th year as a volunteer.

"I think we're just all so proud of Cheyenne Frontier Days that we want to see it continue," she said. "My husband was a volunteer at Frontier Days for 65 years, so I didn't know any different when I married him."


Arlene Kensinger is an icon in this Western town and understands how tradition grows in people's hearts.

Forty years ago, she started one herself: a high school girl's equestrian group called The Dandies. They promote Frontier Days around the country on horseback and act as ambassadors during the event. It is an honor to be selected to bear the name.

"I'd just run into just little girls, just the other day that say, 'Oh, I am going to be a Dandy.' So when you grow up with that in your blood, how can you say anything else? It's just there," Kensinger said.

It means a lot to Kensinger to hear little girls say they dream of being a part of the group she began nearly half a century ago. "It makes me almost want to cry," said a teary-eyed Kensinger. "I keep thinking I should quit, but I can't make myself."

That spirit is passed on from one generation to the next.

To young women like Kari Ward, Miss Frontier 2008, it's not a passing fancy. "It's in their blood I will tell you. It's branded in their hearts all across the grounds and once you come to Cheyenne, it's branded in your heart too," she said.

Ward and her "lady in waiting" represent the time-honored tradition of rodeo queens. She says the moments during these 10 days are unforgettable.

"I know the pounding of their hearts as they're getting into that box," Ward said. "It's us being underneath the chutes right before we enter the rodeo. It is the passion of everyone here."

A Palpable Passion

Reese Cates just climbed into the ranks of the top 45 professional bull riders in the world and is here to compete. "There's no other place like it. Whenever you show up here you can feel the energy. You can feel everything," he said. "The guys come to ride, the bulls come to buck and the fans come to cheer."

And they come from everywhere to walk the old Western streets.

"I think in everybody there is a cowgirl and cowboy, somewhere in 'em," said Diane Wooten, who traveled all the way from Oklahoma.

Rick Ammon is a fourth-generation Cheyenne resident who drives the trolley during Frontier Days. "They want to see the simplicity of what we had out here in those days," he said.

"We have James Butler, Wild Bill Hickok, Calamity Jane -- they used to love to come to Cheyenne. These people that you hear about and the stories -- [those who] walked these streets -- they were here. They were on the spot where we are right here, right now," as was President Teddy Roosevelt, who rode in for the earliest Frontier Days, passing these very same buildings, watching parades on these very same streets and looking on as cowboys tamed wild beasts and the Wild West.

Said bull rider Cates, "It's a very special place, and it has a lot of meaning and a lot of history for Wyoming and the whole country."