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THE LEGEND OF THE MANAWA RODEO CONTINUES
by Connie Klotzbuecher

On July 23, 1959, the front-page headlines of the Manawa Advocate read "Over 7,000 People Watch Rodeo." The article continues: "The largest crowd in Manawa's history, over 7,000 flocked here to watch the first Lions World Championship Rodeo Saturday and Sunday. Nearly 500 people were turned away Sunday afternoon while another 4,000 jammed into the grounds to see the first genuine rodeo in Central Wisconsin history."

The legend of the Manawa Rodeo began 59 years ago, when local business man Carl Dretzke was traveling in the western part of Wisconsin and saw a sign advertising a Bob Barnes Rodeo. Carl thought it might be a good fundraiser for the community, and brought the idea to the Manawa Lions Club. The Lions Club formed a rodeo committee and contacted Bob Barnes, a rodeo stock contractor, who in turn invited them to his ranch in Iowa to watch a rodeo. Casey Klemm, the local barber, and Carl made the trip to Iowa representing the Manawa Lions. They liked what they saw, and agreed that Manawa should host a Championship Rodeo.

Rodeo Chutes - 1960

Rodeo Bucking Chutes: 1960

The whole community pulled together that first year. 20 acres of land on the south side of town was leased from Farmway Co. for the grounds area. Local businesses, like Jones Farm Store, Sturms, and Farmway Co. provided the trucks used to haul rented portable wooden bleachers to and from Fond du Lac. Manawa Lions Club members, along with numerous local folk, provided the many hours of manpower that went into setting up and tearing down the bleachers and circus-type tents. Tickets were sold by Lions Club members, and publicity issues were handled by the rodeo secretary Lyle Spiegleberg, a position he held for over 30 years. The bucking stock was housed at Harold and Jean Schuelke’s farm south of the grounds. On rodeo day, when the 100 head of stock needed to be moved the 5 or 6 blocks to grounds, they were herded right down State Hwy 22/110 by 3 cowboys.

The R.C.A. (Rodeo Cowboys Association) Approved Rodeo was held July 18 & 19, and consisted of one show daily starting at 2 PM Spectators paid admission fees of $2 for adults and $1 for children to see world-class bucking animals provided by stock contractor Bob Barnes of Cherokee, Iowa. 27 cowboys paid $20 each to compete for a purse of $2,000 in events like Bareback Bronc Riding, Saddle Bronc Riding, Brahma Bull Riding, Calf Roping, and Steer Wrestling. Combined with the contestant events in each 2 1/2 hour show were the specialty acts of Donita Barnes on her White horses, a trick rope act by Larry Robeck, and an exhibition of Australian riding by Ken Perrett of Brisband, Australia. But the fellow who won the hearts of everyone, especially the youngsters, was the rodeo clown who had acts of his own and who had the job of drawing the animals from the fallen riders.

Rodeo Queen - 1959

1st Mid-Western Rodeo Queen: 1959

Another part of the Manawa Rodeo legend was born that Saturday morning. At least its planned arrival was for 11 AM, until a strong rainstorm rumbled through town and delayed the first Rodeo Parade until noon. Nearly 3,000 people lined the streets to see rodeo queens, marching bands, the contesting rodeo cowboys, trick riders, rodeo personnel, riding clubs, and floats make their way through town to the route’s end at the rodeo grounds. Two other rodeo traditions continue to this day: the daily chicken BBQ and the rodeo queen contest.

One year later, on July 29, 30 & 31, 1960, over 9,000 spectators attended the event, now named the Mid-Western Rodeo. In expectation of larger crowds, a Friday night show was added and the bleacher seating was increased to seat 5,000 spectators. The six cowboy contest events were held, with an addition of The Girl’s Cloverleaf Barrel Race.

In the years to follow, the dates for the rodeo were planned to fall on the 4th of July weekend. A land sale in 1962 caused the rodeo to move to its present site, south of the old grounds. Each Manawa Lions Club member put up 100 dollars to initiate the purchase of this land, and the construction of a permanent site began. That year improvements to the site included newly-built block bathrooms, new bucking chutes, an announcer’s stand, and a concrete pad to set the tent on. By 1964 over 55,000 people had witnessed the annual rodeo. The huge rodeo parade yearly had over 150 entries, 110 horses and riders, along with horse drawn units, floats, bands, drum and bugle corps, marching units, and antique cars.

Manawa Rodeo - 1959

1st Rodeo: 1959

The town of Manawa was known as Rodeo City. Six weeks prior to the event, Lions Club members were required to wear western hats, and faced a fine of 50 cents and endured the ridicule of their fellow Lions if they broke the rule. Local business people got into the act by dressing with a western flair, and running rodeo specials and ticket giveaways at their establishments. The little cowpokes looked forward to seeing horses in the parade and maybe a chance at some free candy. Every child in the rodeo audience dreamed that this might be the year they’d win the free pony given away at each performance.

Every year marked changes for the Mid-Western Rodeo. Changes in stock contractors from Barnes, to Rodeos Inc., and Sutton or Brasch to J Bar J to the current contractor: 3 Hills Rodeo. Each show featured different clowns, like Rick Young or Jerry Olsen, always ready to make a kid smile or hold his ears from some erratic explosion. A wide range of specialty acts wowed the crowds, from sheepdogs being guided by monkeys, to miniature Brahman bulls, even buffaloes walking up ramps to the top of trailers or Elaine Kramer’s 6-horse roman riding act. Prizes of pop up campers, saddles, money, and on the rodeo’s 10th anniversary, a 1969 Plymouth Barracuda, were given away to lucky ticket holders.

Over the past 55 years the Mid-Western Rodeo has meant over 1 million dollars in revenue to local businesses in Manawa. The Manawa Lions have donated over $500,000 to schools, the rescue squad, parks, high school scholarship fund, and other civic organizations. 15,000 people attend the rodeo each year to watch not 27 but the 350 entrants competing for not $2,000 but an $18,000 purse plus entry fees.

2017 marks the 59th year that Rodeo City will proudly pull together over the 4th of July weekend, as in the past, to bring Rodeo fans from all over the United States a family show that they won’t forget. And that is truly what legends are made of.

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