John Kent has carved his place in the rough and beautiful Ellicottville hills.
"Thirty years ago, I came here and plowed the ground for this myself," Kent said, while gesturing toward the large rodeo ring enclosed by what looks like a few miles of steel piping. "It has grown every year."
A tall, imposing man with a penetrating gaze, Kent is owner and architect of the Ellicottville Rodeo.
Before Thursday's main event, Kent graciously accepted the near-constant interruptions of rodeo fans as they entered the grounds, eager to get some face time with the event's creator, sample the preshow concessions in the concourse and claim their spot on the natural amphitheater formed around the rodeo ring by the rolling, verdant hills of outer Ellicottville.
"Everyone knows me around here," Kent said with a half-grin. "In fact, I even get stopped when I'm as far away as Nashville, by people who know me from the rodeo."
The rodeo – and the culture that surrounds it – offers an intense and interesting experience, balancing a family-friendly atmosphere against what many see as a spectacle celebrating animal cruelty, all of it wrapped in old-school patriotism exemplified by a preshow recorded reading of the Pledge of Allegiance – everyone in the place stood, with hand on heart – and an evening-capping fireworks display.
The emcee is part carnival barker, part square-dance caller, part leader of patriotic recitations – "How many of you love the constitution of the United States?" – and part straight man to the rodeo clown, whose job it is to entertain the crowd between competitions.
Bob Tallman has handled these emcee duties for Kent for several years, and he kept the proceedings moving at a relaxed but steady clip Thursday. Dusty Myers, a tenured rodeo funnyman from Mississippi, bounced his repartee off Tallman like a pro, and was a hit with the kids in the crowd.
The action itself was jarring, especially to a humble reporter who certainly felt conspicuous, with long hair, lack of a cowboy hat, and an ever-present notebook.
If you didn’t grow up around this kind of thing, it can be startling to hear the sounds of startled steers. (That said, I'd just finished mowing down a plate of barbecue chicken highly recommended by Kent, so I can reflect on my own hypocrisy.)
The "bulldoggers" – riders who chase down a steer on horseback, jump off the horse and onto the steer, wrestle it to the ground, and tie its legs together – were perhaps the biggest hit of the night with the rowdy and appreciative crowd.
It is also hard not to be taken aback at first by the violence with which the bucking broncos seek to throw their unwelcome riders from their backs. It is amazing a human spine can endure such abuse.
These riders need to hang on for dear life until the 10-second buzzer sounds, at which point the horses reveal no inclination of easing up, and a pair of skilled riders is required to help get the man off the horse safely, and the horse back into the pen, averting the more than obvious danger.
"I hire around 100 seasonal staff every year, all from Western New York," Kent said. "But the cowboys – they come from all over the world. Matter of fact, we've got a cowboy from Brazil here this year."
The Ellicottville Rodeo runs through Sunday, July 8. Information is available at EllicottvilleRodeo.com.
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