Tuolumne County Rodeo History

The rodeo company carries with it a bunch of bucking horses that are skyscrapers of the most vicious kind that could be found in the West – not a lot of broken-down cripples, but the real thing… The thrills are thicker than pickets on a fence.”
The Union Democrat, Sonora, CA circa 1905

Round-Ups have been part of Tuolumne County’s history since 1850. In fact, they were required under a California State Law enacted in 1851.

Early round-ups, however, were not for public amusement. They were a necessary part of ranching on open range. To a lonely cattleman, they meant an opportunity to visit with friends and neighbors. Cattle had to be gathered and branded each year. Inevitably, after all the hard work of the roundup was finished, an afternoon of eating, drinking, gambling and horse racing followed. With the advent of cheap, practical fencing, like barbed wire, came the extinction of the annual working roundup.

Mother Lode Round-Up Rodeo

The first annual Sonora Rodeo was held May 5-6, 1916 at the high school baseball field. It consisted of fourteen events. The 1919 rodeo, as well as several others, was filmed by a Hollywood cameraman. Regardless, the rodeos suffered financially in the years to come. Due to the war effort, a decline in good rodeo stock, and “fake” performers, attendance fell dramatically. Each year, the Sonora Rodeo had a different director, adding to its financial difficulties.

The 1928 rodeo saw the arrival of an investor. Mrs. Jonathan J. Crooks of San Rafael, heiress to the J.J. Case farm equipment fortune, attended the rodeo and, only days later, contacted Martin Liljedahl, purchasing from him the 50-acre racetrack where the rodeos were held.

It was in 1938 that Sonora began the practice of decorating Washington Street prior to the parade and rodeo. In 1941 the rodeo chairman was V.W. “Bill” West. That year marked the end of an era in local rodeo history. A “Kiddie parade” was added and the Days of Gold parade was led by “Montie Montana.” The final rodeo before World War II was held in 1942.

During World War II, from 1943-1945, no rodeos were held. In the post-World War II years, the rodeo became a part of the 29th District Agricultural Association. In 1946, through the fairs’ cooperation, two one-day rodeos were presented. The Eagles Lodge sponsored rodeos for the following two years.

Then, in 1949, the Sonora Rodeo again underwent a change in direction. The annual fair was held May 29 and 30 of that year. The rodeo was directed by the Fair Board. The Days of Gold parade was sponsored and directed by the Tuolumne County Sheriffs Posse, which had been formed the previous year. The posse began conducting the Sonora Rodeo in 1950 and, in 1958, the Tuolumne County Sheriffs Posse received permission to conduct a full-scale rodeo on the traditional Mother’s Day weekend (the weekend chosen by Mrs. Crooks when she became a benefactor).

This year’s event marks the 65th Annual Mother Lode Round-Up and Parade put on by the Tuolumne County Sheriff’s Posse.

Bucking horse and cowboy in rodeo
Photos Courtesy of Kathy Scutt Photography