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Windstorm damages Burwell’s rodeo grounds

By Ruth Nicolaus for Tri-State Livestock News

For nearly 100 years, the grandstands in Burwell, Nebraska, withstood all the weather Nebraska threw at them. But on May 12, along came a windstorm that was more than they could handle.

A strong windstorm blew through much of central and eastern Nebraska, damaging the rodeo grounds in Burwell, the home of Nebraska’s Big Rodeo.

Winds up to 110 mph damaged the historic north grandstand, ticket office, and multiple 4-H buildings.



Damage is estimated at a minimum of $1 million, said Jess Helgoth, chairman of the rodeo committee.

The north grandstands, which were built in July of 1922, have withstood numerous windstorms, including a bad one in 2007, and a tornado in the 1980s. After the 2007 windstorm, the far west end of the north grandstands were rebuilt with square metal tubing bolted to anchors in the ground. The wind pulled twelve of those anchors out of the ground and laid them on the bleachers, and pulled another four out of the ground and set them back in the same holes, Helgoth said.



“The National Weather Service representative was shocked” at the damage, he said.

The north grandstands, which were made of wood, are on the Nebraska Historical Register and, when replaced, need to be replaced with the same look as they had previously.

The committee plans to replace them so they look the same, but by doing so, “you open up that scenario that (windstorm damage) could happen again,” Helgoth said, due to the fact that summer windstorms are more likely to blow in from the south, into the face of the grandstands, and lift the roof. Helgoth said this winter, 70 mph north winds didn’t damage the grandstands, because they blew in onto the back of them.

“We really want to basically go back in there and make it look like it did, but with steel.”

The west grandstands, crow’s nest and sky boxes were not damaged, but the insurance company requires that a structural engineer look them over to make sure they were not compromised.

Because of the damage, the inaugural Bulls and Broncs event, scheduled for May 27-28, has been canceled, Helgoth said, as the structural engineers who were contacted couldn’t be there till June, he said. “We are forced to cancel it,” he said, “and that’s a bummer.”

Donations are being accepted through Pathway Bank in Burwell (817 H Street, Burwell, NE 68823) and Kinley Olson, 2021 Little Miss Burwell Rodeo and Rebel Sjeklocha, 2021 Miss Burwell Rodeo started a GoFundMe page (https://gofund.me/035bebfe) that has raised nearly $5,000 of a stated $1 million goal. The GoFundMe page states, “We all have memories and know that dreams do come true in this arena! As we approach our 101st annual rodeo in July, please consider making a donation and helping us make one more dream come true in our historic arena!” The Cowboy Channel has discussed starting a fundraiser as well, Helgoth said.

It’s defeating to see the damage and realize the amount of work ahead, he said. “I’m tired,” he said. “It was hard to see it. When you really care about something so much and have cared about it your entire life, it’s very sad.”

There was a silver lining to the timing of the windstorm. Five days prior, they hosted a high school rodeo, “and the grounds were full with pickups and trailers and kids and horses, and if this would have happened then, there would have been deaths and horse losses. It would have been more devastating. You have to thank God nobody got hurt.”

But no matter what, this year’s 101st annual Nebraska’s Big Rodeo will go on, Helgoth said.

“We will have a rodeo in July. We will make it happen. We’re going to rebuild this thing, and it’s going to be back to what it was, if not better.

“We are Nebraska and we are Burwell.”

The National Weather Service in North Platte surveyed the site and estimated that widespread straight line winds gusted from 70 to 110 mph, with resulting damage around the area, including numerous high tension power poles bent over at the base, the destruction of outbuildings, partial roof loss to residential homes, unoccupied campers that were rolled over, and a mature stand of ponderosa pines that were snapped in half.

This year’s Nebraska’s Big Rodeo is July 27-30. The rodeo is a 2022 inductee into the Pro Rodeo Hall of Fame.


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