On September 21, 1923, the first Sumas Roundup begins. The large rodeo will be held from 1923 to 1940 in the town of Sumas (Whatcom County). The two- or three-day event attracts tens of thousands of spectators during its zenith in the 1920s, and features horse races, bucking, bulldogging (steer wrestling), roping contests, and much more. Faux and genuine cowboys and cowgirls will come to compete each year from as many as 20 states and several Canadian provinces. The Roundup will be discontinued between 1930 and 1936 as a result of the Great Depression, but will return in 1937 on a somewhat smaller scale and will entertain thousands every year through 1940.
See ‘Em Buck
Sumas, like many towns of the early twentieth century, held a small fair every year, but in 1923 the fair building burned and the town found itself at a loss over what to do for its annual shindig. Just over the border in British Columbia, a few Canadian cowboys were returning from a bucking contest in Vancouver and offered to put on a rodeo in Sumas. It wasn’t cheap, but it turned out to be a wise investment. A few locals joined the two-day show, held in conjunction with the annual fair, and it was a breathtaking success. There were more than 5,000 paid admissions, and nearly as many unpaid admissions from folks who snuck in to watch.
In 1924 the fair was ditched and the Roundup became a stand-alone, three-day event, with its own slogan, “See ‘Em Buck,” and official colors, black and gold. The rodeo was moved from late September to Labor Day weekend, and leapt into prominence that year when more than 20,000 people streamed into Sumas for the event. But 1924’s tally paled in comparison to 1925, when about 35,000 people attended, more than 10,000 of them from Canada. Roundup participants that year included Lorena Trickey (1893-1961) and Mike Hastings (1891-1965), two particularly accomplished rodeo stars of their day.
The cowboys and cowgirls competing in the 1925 Roundup were lured by a total of $5,400 in prize money (more than $66,000 in 2009 dollars) for 21 main events, plus other special events with their own prizes. The main events included a chuck-wagon race, a chariot race, and several free-for-all races, and the more popular events (and with larger cash prizes) included the cowboys' bucking contest, the steer-roping contest, the thoroughbred relay race, the pony express (a three day race), and, probably the most popular during the entire history of the Sumas Roundup, the bulldogging contest.
Bulldogging and Comedy
Bulldogging was the term used for steer wrestling. A horse-mounted rider (“bulldogger”) and his “hazer” -- a second rider who kept the steer running straight and close to the first rider -- would give the steer a 20 or 30 foot head start and then race up on their horses alongside the steer. The bulldogger would then leap from his horse and tackle the steer; the steer had to be thrown to the ground and made to lie flat on its side in order to be considered tackled. The winner of the 1925 bulldogging contest, Paddy Ryan, successfully threw his steer in 14 and three-fifths seconds.
Although the various contests held at the Roundup were serious business, there was also a comedic side to the show. Most of the shows featured clowns performing antics on horses, steers, an “educated mule” (in 1927), and an “educated Brahma” (in 1939 and 1940). An attempt at the 1923 Roundup to have a trained bear ride a mule failed when the mule refused to cooperate, but the crowd loved it anyway. The 1937 Roundup featured a wild cow-milking contest on both days of the event, described as “hilarious” by the Sumas News.
Injuries were commonplace, but were considered to come with the territory. An article from the August 22, 1940, Sumas News illustrates this nonchalance:
"Plenty of spills and thrills marked the three-day show, but none of the boys was critically hurt. Dee Hinton of Texas broke his ankle Saturday night in the bulldogging event. Rock Parker, tough cowhand from Florida, was knocked out Sunday afternoon and was taken to the hospital, but came back for the night show and was again rendered unconscious when he leaped at his steer and missed. George Swartout also received medical attention Sunday night when a Brahma trampled on him, and broke several ribs."
All of the roundups were all well attended through the 1920s, attracting between 15,000 and 25,000 yearly between 1926 and 1929. Then the Great Depression intervened, resulting in the cancellation of the rodeo for much of the 1930s. In 1937 the Roundup returned with a two-day event the last weekend of September, but it did not get off to a good start. A lawsuit filed as the result of a mix-up in granting booth concessions, and another suit filed by the Whatcom County Humane Society in an attempt to stop the calf roping contest, threatened to undermine the festivities. The show went on as scheduled (and both suits were later dismissed), but then it rained during the entire event.
Another two-day rodeo was held over the Fourth of July weekend in 1938, but again was only modestly successful, and part of its receipts were used to pay obligations left over from the 1937 show. This caused payment to be postponed for some of the bills -- and prize money due to some of the contest winners -- from the 1938 show. The 1939 and 1940 roundups expanded to three days in August and were held under new management, and these shows were more successful. But attendance at each of the four rodeos between 1937 and 1940 ranged between 5,000 and 8,000, far smaller than the shows in the 1920s. All of the later roundups struggled financially, and the prizes were smaller; in 1940, the total amount of prize money distributed was about $1,000 ($15,000 in 2009 dollars).
And in 1940, a new wrinkle appeared. Canada was embroiled in World War II, and new border regulations prevented Canadians from attending the Roundup. This had a big impact on the rodeo, as Canadians had always been an integral part of it in the past. The increasing American mobilization for the war, which America would enter late the next year, made maintaining interest in and finding talent for the rodeo that much more difficult. Thus the 1940 show turned out to be the grand finale for the Sumas Roundup, but it left the town with its own special chapter in the lore of the West.