Rodeos combine community celebration with the opportunity for Native Americans, cowboys, and ranch hands of both sexes to compete and to demonstrate their mastery of essential livestock management skills. Yakama Nation tribal people had gathered for hundreds of years on the Kittitas plains, and this gathering was a forerunner of the Ellensburg rodeo.
The Ellensburg rodeo had its modern origins in a local 1885 reunion of veterans of the Grand Army of the Republic. This event evolved over time into an annual street fair with exhibition rodeo events. A 1923 infusion of $10,000 from the state enabled organizers to mount Washington’s first official rodeo. Many of the rodeo’s original competitors had participated in bi-weekly “Sunday Rodeos” west of Ellensburg near the town of Thorp. These loosely organized competitions drew as many as 300 spectators. It was this interest as well as income potential and a desire to honor the already-waning romantic notion of the Old West that prompted local townspeople to sponsor the event.
The first Ellensburg Rodeo was widely attended and so successful that it became an annual event. Within the Pacific Northwest the Ellensburg Rodeo is second in size only to the Calgary Stampede in Calgary, British Columbia, and is considered to be one of America’s top 25 rodeos. The event continues to draw throngs of people to Ellensburg each Labor Day weekend.