Cheyenne Frontier Days ropes in the crowds with the country’s biggest outdoor rodeo and Western celebration.
Is there any better name for a town? This is where the buffalo roamed, where the Union Pacific laid tracks on the virgin plains in 1867 and the U.S. Army established a fort to protect that railroad, and where, in 1876, cavalry troops rode off to punish the Sioux who had whipped Custer. Cheyenne was a destination for the vast herds of cattle driven up from Texas and the prestigious address of the cattle barons who made their fortunes raising and selling that beef.
And it was 110 years ago that this legendary place gave rise to Cheyenne Frontier Days, the nation's biggest outdoor rodeo and Western celebration. The sprawling event, which begins this year on July 21 and runs for 10 days, isn't just big. Nearly everyone swears it's the best.
"It's better than the National Finals Rodeo," says Dan Evans, an avowed rodeo fan making his third visit from the West coast. "You don't have the casinos and the gamblers and all that stuff you have in Vegas. And they don't look at you sideways when you walk around dressed like this." Western, he means. It seems like the whole city of 58,000 is wearing Stetsons, Wranglers, and Tony Lamas. The same goes for most of the 550,000 visitors who roam the streets and crowd the arena.
"I compare it to going to Yankee Stadium," says Troy Ellerman, commissioner of the Professional Rodeo Cowboys Association. "It gives you that feeling of, hey, this is how rodeo's supposed to be." Nearly a dozen competitions feature everything from tie–down roping to steer wrestling.
"That's why they call it the daddy of 'em all," says 82–year–old Harry Vold, a livestock contractor who has worked for the rodeo since 1976. He supplies the 1,800 competitors with nearly 2,000 animals, including some 400 horses, 200 bulls, and hundreds of calves and steers.
"Most rodeos put up 50 steers for 100 guys, so you might see one steer go three or four times," says steer wrestler K.C. Jones. "Here, they're all fresh." The well–primed animals are tough adversaries, humbling to the riders and dangerous, too. Take the Wild Horse Race, held since the event's early days. Teams of cowboys have to saddle a horse that has never been ridden, get a rider on its back, and loop the arena. The horse often wins. "That was wild!" says Chuck Thomas, a fan from California watching from the stands. "Looked like a couple of guys were going to the emergency room."
"Oh, it's for real," says T.J. Baird, a bullfighter, or rodeo clown, who's working hurt after separating his shoulder earlier in the week. "Our opponent's an 1,800–pound bull. He don't speak our language, we don't speak his." But the cowboys climb on anyway. "You want to come to Cheyenne and really hit a lick, because you can really jump up in the standings," says steer wrestler Jones. Not to mention grab a fistful of dollars: The rodeo offers $1 million in cash and prizes. The action goes on day and night.
Each evening, when the sun sets on the arena, the lights go up on the concert stage. Headliners for the 2006 shows include country heroes Keith Urban and Martina McBride, plus Carrie Underwood, the American Idol heartthrob whose debut CD sold 3 million copies, and the Steve Miller Band, famed for the hit "Space Cowboy" and other rock classics.
Visitors who stray from the stands have plenty of options. The Cheyenne Frontier Days Old West Museum puts on a show of paintings, sculptures, carvings, and weavings by contemporary artists. Sales on opening night in 2005 topped $500,000.
Art aficionados can also find crafts such as jewelry and clothing for sale in the popular Indian Village. Shoshone and Arapaho people live in tepees through–out the event and perform dances in full regalia. "Sharing our culture means a lot to me," says Lydell Whiteplume. "My grandpa used to tell me they'd travel down here by wagons, camp outside of town in tepees, and come to the rodeo."
Now warplanes roar over the same grounds. F.E. Warren Air Force Base, near Cheyenne, holds an open house on the first weekend. On Wednesday, the Air Force Thunderbirds stun spectators at Laramie County Community College with their swoops and dives, as they have each year for the past half century. The air base evolved from the 1867 U.S. Cavalry garrison. "The city was established at the same time, so we've grown up together," says Colonel Barry Kistler. Hundreds of men and women stationed at the base now serve among the thousands of volunteers who make the celebration happen.
"I'm amazed at how hard the citizens of Cheyenne work to make the people who come here feel at home," says Connecticut resident Michael Weinshel, standing outside the Plains Hotel, which looks brand–new after a multimillion–dollar renovation. It's one of the few hotels in town with elevators too small to admit a rowdy cowboy on his horse. "And the staircase has very sharp turns," says manager Pat Tyre. "So you can't ride a horse upstairs either."
Bays, buckskins, and pintos still clop past the hotel during Frontier Days' four pa–rades. There's also a carnival, a chuck wagon cook–off, a pancake breakfast, a "behind the chutes" tour, and well–stocked saloons for those who like to keep the West wild after sundown.
"In the old days, this was a hopping, moving, wheeling–and–dealing place," says Jim Osterfoss, owner of the 1888 Nagle Warren Mansion, now a posh bed–and–breakfast. And these days? It still is.
Photography courtesy Cheyenne Frontier Days
This article was first published in July 2006. Some facts may have aged gracelessly. Please call ahead to verify information.
Pick up AAA's Colorado & Wyoming map as well as the Idaho, Montana, & Wyoming TourBook. For information on Cheyenne Frontier Days call (800) 227-6336 or go to www.cfdrodeo.com . Area code is 307 unless noted; prices are Frontier Days rates.
TO DO AND SEE
Cheyenne Botanic Gardens 710 S. Lions Park Dr., 637-6458, www.botanic.org . Cheyenne Depot Museum 121 W. 15th St., 632-3905, www.cheyennedepotmuseum.org . Cheyenne Frontier Days Old West Museum 4610 Carey Ave., 778-7290, www.oldwestmuseum.org . Cheyenne Street Railway 121 W. 15th St., 778-3133, www.cheyenne.org . Terry Bison Ranch 51 I-25 Service Rd. E., 634-4171, www.terrybisonranch.com . Wyoming State Capitol 200 W. 24th St., 777-7220, www.wyomingtourism.org . Wyoming State Museum 2301 Central Ave., 777-7022, wyomuseum.state.wy.us .
Albany Restaurant, Bar & Liquormart A downtown favorite run by the same family since 1942, known for its reasonably priced steaks and prime rib. 638-3507. Cheyenne Cattle Company (in Best Western Hitching Post Inn). Steaks are a specialty, along with buffalo, lamb, and seafood. 775-4303. Luxury Diner This fine restored trolley is a great spot for breakfast, served all day. 638-8971. Sanford's Grub & Pub A giant sports bar offering 100 sandwiches and 99 bottled beers, plus 50 on tap. 634-3381.
Best Western Hitching Post Inn $180–$600. Two restaurants and a lounge, 176 rooms, three swimming pools. 638-3301. Little America Hotel & Resort $169–$229. Two restaurants, 188 rooms, swimming pool. 775-8400, www.littleamerica.com/cheyenne . Nagle Warren Mansion Bed & Breakfast $288. Built in 1888 on Cattle Baron's Row, aka 17th Street, now a B&B with 12 rooms, gourmet breakfast, and a hot tub. High tea in the afternoon. (800) 811-2610, www.naglewarrenmansion.com . Plains Hotel $169–$229. Restaurant and coffee shop, 131 rooms. 638-3311, theplainshotel.com .