Modern Jackson Hole is multifaceted with the sophisticated and the sublime running parallel to the Tetons. Even so, certain elements carry as much weight today as they did decades ago when Jackson’s Hole was more rough and tumble than refined. In the continuum of western heritage, rodeo remains integral to our identity.
“We’d bet a pair of silver spurs that ‘rodeoing’ came to Jackson’s Hole on the day that the very first man trailed into the valley with all of his grub and worldly belongings diamond-hitched onto a packhorse,” waged a 1971 article in the Jackson Hole News.
Among those first Teton settlers was Sylvester Wilson. In 1890, he crested Teton Pass, leading a wagon train keen to raise families and cattle in the valley below. Fast forward 120 years and six generations: the Wilsons – for which the mountainside hamlet is named – continue to stoke the cowboy ethos by hosting the Jackson Hole Rodeo.
In these parts, rodeo was established years before the town was incorporated (in 1914). Then dubbed the Jackson’s Hole Frontier Rodeo, the annual event claimed the first three days of September. Longtime resident Fern Nelson described the early rodeos as informal, rowdy affairs: “buckers” – horses or steer bound for bronc riders – were blindfolded (by coat, sack or kerchief) and then saddled in the arena. The rider mounted, got settled then pulled off the blindfold. Certain bulls, like Old Spot, became famous for their feistiness. Clover Sturlin, inventor of the Shootout, starred as the rodeo clown.
The professionalism of the present-day rodeo belies its intrinsic wildness: At the heart of the sport are wild animals and wild cowboys. Like many JH founders, rodeo runs in the Wilson family. Three generations have competed as cowboys, starting with bronc rider Clark Wheeldon and carried on by his sons Chet and Chancy. In 1976, Chancy scored a spot to compete in the Super Bowl of rodeo – the NFR – as one of the top 15 saddle bronc riders in the world. The sporting spirit continues with future generations, with some following in the boot-steps of bronc riding while others took up the more dangerous bull riding and Wilson ladies medaled as barrel racers. Family members still compete in the team roping event.
The rodeo takes place, rain or shine, every Wednesday and Saturday nights throughout the summer. Come July, Fridays are being added to the mix. The entire event will take a brief hiatus from July 19 to July 29 and the finale is set for Saturday, Sept. 5.
Though the cowboys mount up at 8pm, the crowds start showing up as early as 7:15pm. Hop skip the lines by buying your tickets online. The rodeo winds down by 10pm.