The Farm Chronicles: Uncle Lou and the rodeo

The 1963 Great Western Tour took my Mom, Dad and me on many great adventures. One of the best legs of the trip was my Dad retracing part of a journey he took with his best buddies Earl and Al 24 years earlier to Ellensburg, Washington. It was there that I was introduced for the first time to Uncle Lou and Aunt Bertha Richards. In 1939, Dad, Earl and Al had drove from Ohio in time for the famous Ellensburg Rodeo, of which Uncle Lou was the head honcho. Now, Uncle Lou was a big deal. He was a true cowboy, local cattleman, and helped start that Rodeo when the West was still pretty much unsettled in 1923. He was a strong character, a showman, and the closest thing I ever saw to Buffalo Bill Cody in real life.

Uncle Lou was a no-nonsense man. You could sense that he was the type that meant what he said and said what he meant. In 1923, Uncle Lou organized hundreds of volunteers to build the Kittitas County Fair and Rodeo grounds that included an exhibit hall and a 5,000-seat grandstand, and a race track. The Ellensburg Rodeo Hall of Fame says he “helped to plan and coordinate the array of fast-moving and entertaining rodeo events, races, and contract acts that characterize the Ellensburg Rodeo to this day. In 1937, Richards led the Ellensburg Rodeo across the “picket line” of the Cowboy Turtles’ (precursor to today’s Professional Rodeo Cowboys Association), when the professional cowboys went out on strike. In ’38, he agreed to some of the Turtles’ demands and welcomed them, noting “It’s like a homecoming to see all the boys back.”

Uncle Lou didn’t say a lot. But he did have some stories about the rodeo and some of the famous cowboys that competed. We have many pictures of the rodeo, and the rodeo parade, which included some fierce-looking Native Americans in full regalia. The Ellensburg Daily Record says that Uncle Lou was involved with negotiations to have them participate in the rodeo festivities: “After attending treaty celebrations at White Swan, Lou Richards, arena director, for the Ellensburg Rodeo, was assured that there will be plenty of Indians attending the rodeo. Over 100 Indians in elaborate costumes and 100 horses will be involved in parades, opening ceremonies, dances, and other events.”

In my Dad’s August 21, 1939 letter to my Mom (they were not yet married), he wrote: “I haven’t made up my mind yet if I will ride at the rodeo on not. I think I will ride in the parade that will be three or four times, so that will be a lot of fun.” By 1963, the wild West in Ellensburg had tamed down quite a bit. Gone were the six guns and war chiefs. It was civilized compared to those days. But, for me, I was fascinated to sit at Uncle Lou’s feet and just listen to the stories of a time that I had only seen portrayed in the movies. Hearing it first hand from a living pioneer of the West was extra special. Ecclesiastes 7:10 says, “Do not say, “Why were the former days better than these?” For you do not inquire wisely concerning this.” But they were pretty good, and I would sure have a lot more questions for Uncle Lou today from what I know now than I did then.

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Bill Wilson