Steeped In History
After 75 Years, Gerry Still Stands The Test Of Time
EDITOR’S NOTE: The following article, written by former Post-Journal reporter Allie Johnson, first appeared in the newspaper on Aug. 6, 1994, in celebration of the 50th anniversary of the Gerry Rodeo. With its 75th anniversary approaching next week on Route 60 five miles north of Jamestown, it was deemed appropriate to provide a history lesson for an event that has been part of our area’s summer activities since 1945.
GERRY– This will be the 50th summer the Gerry Rodeo has brought cowboys and clowns, broncs, bulls and barbecues to this little town way east of the Mississippi.
In 1945 — the rodeo’s first year — founder Jack Cox, a former working cowboy, had moved away from Montana’s big skies and open land to Gerry, New York. Coincidentally, the fairly new Gerry Volunteer Fire Department happened to be looking for a fund-raiser. Instead of weekly bingo or potluck suppers, Cox, missing the West, suggested the firemen hold a rodeo.
So, year after year, for about five days each summer, the small town was steeped in the culture of the cowboy. In those early years, the townspeople would mill around by the railroad tracks, waiting for the broncs and bulls to arrive by train to be herded down Route 60 to the rodeo grounds.
Little girls got starry-eyed anticipating the arrival of the cowboys — most from Texas, Oklahoma and Wyoming. Families prepared to give the cowboys lodging in their homes because, at the time, the only area hotels were in Jamestown.
Now, “Gerry” means “rodeo.”
In fact, a horse to be riden in this year’s event has been named “Gerry.”
After Cox planted the idea of a rodeo in the firefighters’ minds, he and several department members attended a JE Ranch Rodeo Showing in Cleveland. Here they met up with taciturn cowboy and former Oklahoman, Col. Jim Eskew of Waverly, New York.
Eskew owned JE Ranch Rodeo at the time. Shortly after this meeting, the first rodeo contract was signed in May 1945. The weathered and stately Eskew, rarely seen without 10-gallon hat and cowboy boots, became a familiar figure as arena director at the rodeo for the next 11 years.
The department bought an old farm to serve as rodeo grounds — the same grounds used today.
The first rodeo was a roaring success, with a grand total of 29,000 attending. Cox and a man named Walter “Big Pete” Peterson served the first barbecue dinner, which has since become famous as a part of the rodeo.
Before the first year, “I don’t think anybody even knew what a rodeo was,” said Vick Shepardson, one of three fire department-founding members still participating in the rodeo.
Over the years, the Gerry Rodeo — the oldest consecutive professional rodeo east of the Mississippi — has changed a little. Admission is now $10 instead of $1 plus tax, and prize money has increased considerably, but the rodeo still serves up good Western-style competition. It still brings in ranch-raised cowboys just trying to make a living.
The events — bull riding, bareback bronc riding, saddle broncs riding, steer wrestling and calf roping — have remained the same. The only event added since the first rodeo is barrel racing a women-only event.
COWBOYS AND COWGIRLS
Colonel Jim Eskew and his two sons, Tom and Jim Jr., along with Jim Jr.’s wife, Mary Louise, and their daughter, Madonna, were popular with rodeo fans during all the years of their involvement. Jim Jr. held the world trick and fancy roping title while he was at Gerry.
Tom served as superintendent of stock and also competed in the rodeo. Mary Louise and Madonna were known for their skillful trick riding. Blonde-haired Madonna performed a stunt called the “death drag.” Col. Jim died in the late 1960s in Oklahoma.
Aside from the Eskew family, other colorful characters have peppered the rodeo’s 50 years. An Alabama-born rodeo man known as Foghorn Clancy, who died in 1957, earned his name as an announcer in the Gerry Rode’s early years, bellowing introductions from his horse in the middle of the arena. He was christened Frederick Melton, but people insisted his deep voice sounded like a foghorn at sea. “I never had anybody complain they couldn’t hear me,” Clancy is rumored to have said many times.
Cowboys are the rule at the rodeo, but a few cowgirls have tried their hands at “rough stock” events in the rodeo’s history. Anne Greeley, an Oklahoma bronc buster, rode saddle bronc at the first Gerry rodeo, along with 90-pound cowgirl Mary Parks. Another female saddle bronc rider, Anna Belle, narrowly escaped injury in 1958 when she was thrown to the ground by the fierce bronc, Brown Bomber, who then somersaulted and rolled over her.
But she was up and back for barrel racing later that evening.
Another woman, the only Rodeo Cowboy’s Association-sanctioned female stock contractor at that time, Becky Dancey, made her mark on the Gerry Rodeo when she took over providing stock after the death of her husband, contractor Dave Dancey. The Pitcairn, Pennsylvania native, who met her husband at the rodeo in 1967, said in 1975 that Gerry was her favorite rodeo stop.
In the early rodeos, real teepees dotted the rodeo grounds. Those teepees belonged to the Native Americans brought in from the western states for “authentic” fight shows.
“There was a real covered wagon they’d set on fire and shoot at with arrows,” recalled Herb Best, who has been involved in the rodeo all his life.
Another popular rodeo act was the Shooting Mansfields, a father-daughter-son team who were “good with .22 rifles. Very good. I wouldn’t want them mad at me,” said Best.
Another year, movie stuntman Rex Rossy jumped over a fireman’s convertible with three horses. Dog and animal shows have always been featured at the rodeo, and in the early years, a trained donkey would climb a ladder and jump into a swimming pool. One year organizers made the world’s biggest cotton candy — a 6-foot confection.
SNORTING BULLS AND BUCKING BRONCS
The rodeo, whatever else it may be, is a pitting of wills between man and beast, and some pretty memorable beasts have become famous at Gerry.
Col. Jim Eskew’s 1,800-pound Brahma bull Big Red had such a reputation that Eskew offered “$1,000 to any local man who could top the explosive bunch of bouncing beef,” according to a 1948 Post-Journal article. Ten amateurs gave it a go, but all were promptly tossed off.
King Pin, one of the Dancey’s bucking bulls, also lived up to this name. In 1975, he had been out eight times, and no one even came near being able to ride him. He was a Gerry favorite and was used in the National Rodeo finals at Oklahoma City, where he bucked off a cowboy, Don Graham, ranked fifth nationally.
At the 1959 Gerry rodeo, two bulls in the same week decided to jump the fence and run into the crowd. “Nobody got hurt, but there were a lot of scared spectators,” Best said.
The rodeo that has become a tradition and began as a fund-raiser has served its purpose. When the Gerry Volunteer Fire Department was started in 1942, its first treasury report showed a sum of $2 to the department’s name. Its first piece of equipment was a Model-T Ford chassis mounted with two 40-gallon brass tanks filled with soda, sulfuric acid and water. The first rodeo reportedly produced a profit of $918.33.
Today, rodeo coordinators won’t give exact figures for their profits, but “it’s not as much as everyone thinks,” Ms. Atwell said. However, the department now has a modern fire hall, two pumpers, two tankers and a foam truck. The department still has its original piece of equipment — for memory’s sake.
“The rodeo gave us a Class-A fire department,” Shepardson said.