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Nebraska’s Big Rodeo makes the Pro Rodeo Hall of Fame

By Ruth Nicolaus for Tri-State Livestock News

Nebraska’s Big Rodeo put Burwell on the map, and now in the Pro Rodeo Hall of Fame.

The rodeo, located in Burwell, Neb., is among eleven inductees for the 2022 class.

The rodeo, known now as simply, “Nebraska’s Big Rodeo,” got its start in 1921, when Homer C. Stokes, a man engaged in real estate in Burwell, visited a rodeo in Kansas. He came back with the idea that Burwell would be a logical spot for that type of western entertainment.



For the first rodeo, with no grandstands, the committee used two wagon loads of timber and a straw pile as a place to sit, and when the rodeo was over, there was $500 for the coffers, not a bad profit for a first-year event.

And they never looked back.



Since then, the rodeo has grown and changed, said Jess Helgoth, the man now at the helm of the committee. It was held in September, then moved to August, then to July, to make it easier for cowboys and cowgirls to come to Burwell from rodeos in Cheyenne, Wyo., Deadwood, S.D., and Wahoo and Gordon, Nebraska, if the dates fall just right.

The original grandstands were wooden with an arch and castle-like turrets over the entryway. The grandstand and archway, still in use today, are on the Nebraska Historical Register.

By 1929, the rodeo was so popular that the Lincoln (Neb.) Chamber of Commerce organized train trips from Lincoln to Burwell, bringing nearly 400 people, including the Nebraska governor at the time, Arthur J. Weaver, to the event.

Through the years, the rodeo has had a variety of entertainment.

In the early days, Native Americans would camp out along the cedar trees on the west side of the grounds and provide entertainment during the day. To celebrate the rodeo’s 100th anniversary last year, Ponca Indians danced on the midway. “They enjoyed it so much, they’re thinking about coming back this year,” Helgoth said.

Horse racing was also popular at the rodeo. Up till the 1970s, the rodeo included Quarter Horse racing, complete with a starting gate, finish line and betting.

The rodeo played host to country music stars like Tanya Tucker and Hank Williams Jr. in the 1960s, and hired legendary rodeo talent, like announcers Cy Taillon, Mel Lambert, Clem McSpadden and Hadley Barret; rodeo clowns and bullfighters like Wilbur Plaugher and Rex Dunn, and contestants of the caliber of Tad Lucas, Casey Tibbs, Jim Shoulders, Larry Mahan, Lane Frost and Trevor Brazile. The Roberts family, father E.C. and son Ken, brought their stock; the Beutler family has provided stock every year since 1956.

Nebraska’s Big Rodeo strives to entertain, not just with the rodeo but with other activities, too. “We put on a show,” Helgoth said, including chuckwagon races, the “famous Burwell wild horse race,” and the dinner bell derby. Canadians have been bringing the chuckwagons since the 1980s, and Neil Salmond and his crew “give up big money races in Canada just to spend a week in Burwell,” Helgoth said.

For the dinner bell derby, mares and foals are separated for several hours prior to the rodeo, then the mares are taken to one end of the race track in front of the grandstand while the colts are taken to the opposite end. “It’s a race to go to mama,” Helgoth said. To win, the colts have to cross the finish line. “People love that race.”

The Garfield County Fair goes on at the same time, with livestock shows, a county roping, vendors, food, dances with live music, beer gardens, and a carnival. “We try to keep people around,” Helgoth said. “There’s something to do all day long.”

It’s a family affair for Helgoth. After he joined the committee in 2008, he found out his and fellow board member Shane Hughes’ great-great-grandfather Donner was on the board. “A lot of dads and grandpas and now sons and grandsons have kept the tradition going.”

And the committee keeps growing, changing, and innovating. This year, they had planned to add an Xtreme Bulls and Broncs event on May 27-28 and a Diamond Rio concert on July 2. Due to wind storm damage, however, the Xtreme Bulls and Broncs event was canceled.

With Burwell’s population of 1,200, it takes everybody to produce a rodeo with upwards of 10,000 people in attendance over four days. The community backs the rodeo, Helgoth said. “If you were born and raised in Burwell, the rodeo means something to you,” he said. “Whether they live here or not, they support the rodeo in one way or another, by donations or buying a ticket or staying the weekend here with friends and family.”

The induction in Colorado Springs is ten days before this year’s rodeo, which is scheduled for July 27-30. It’ll be a busy time. “We’ll get out to Colorado Springs, have a little fun, come back and get to work,” Helgoth said.

He and the other board members are grateful and a bit incredulous about their induction.

“It means the world to us. I get goosebumps, talking about it. It’s unreal that a little town in Nebraska has a rodeo in the hall of fame.”

For “a little bitty old town in the middle of Nebraska, the rodeo means everything to the people. Burwell is a special place, and getting into the hall of fame is just another notch in our pistol,” Helgoth said.

This year’s rodeo is July 27-30.Nebraska’s Big Rodeo makes the Pro Rodeo Hall of Fame

Nebraska’s Big Rodeo put Burwell on the map, and now in the Pro Rodeo Hall of Fame.

The rodeo, located in Burwell, Neb., is among eleven inductees for the 2022 class.

The rodeo, known now as simply, “Nebraska’s Big Rodeo,” got its start in 1921, when Homer C. Stokes, a man engaged in real estate in Burwell, visited a rodeo in Kansas. He came back with the idea that Burwell would be a logical spot for that type of western entertainment.

For the first rodeo, with no grandstands, the committee used two wagon loads of timber and a straw pile as a place to sit, and when the rodeo was over, there was $500 for the coffers, not a bad profit for a first-year event.

And they never looked back.

Since then, the rodeo has grown and changed, said Jess Helgoth, the man now at the helm of the committee. It was held in September, then moved to August, then to July, to make it easier for cowboys and cowgirls to come to Burwell from rodeos in Cheyenne, Wyo., Deadwood, S.D., and Wahoo and Gordon, Nebraska, if the dates fall just right.

The original grandstands were wooden with an arch and castle-like turrets over the entryway. The grandstand and archway are on the Nebraska Historical Register. In a windstorm on May 12, the grandstands were severely damaged, but the arch and turrets were not. The committee is planning to build the grandstands back the way they were, with even more reinforcements to counter the wind.

By 1929, the rodeo was so popular that the Lincoln (Neb.) Chamber of Commerce organized train trips from Lincoln to Burwell, bringing nearly 400 people, including the Nebraska governor at the time, Arthur J. Weaver, to the event.

Through the years, the rodeo has had a variety of entertainment.

In the early days, Native Americans would camp out along the cedar trees on the west side of the grounds and provide entertainment during the day. To celebrate the rodeo’s 100th anniversary last year, Ponca Indians danced on the midway. “They enjoyed it so much, they’re thinking about coming back this year,” Helgoth said.

Horse racing was also popular at the rodeo. Up till the 1970s, the rodeo included Quarter Horse racing, complete with a starting gate, finish line and betting.

The rodeo played host to country music stars like Tanya Tucker and Hank Williams Jr. in the 1960s, and hired legendary rodeo talent, like announcers Cy Taillon, Mel Lambert, Clem McSpadden and Hadley Barret; rodeo clowns and bullfighters like Wilbur Plaugher and Rex Dunn, and contestants of the caliber of Tad Lucas, Casey Tibbs, Jim Shoulders, Larry Mahan, Lane Frost and Trevor Brazile. The Roberts family, father E.C. and son Ken, brought their stock; the Beutler family has provided stock every year since 1956.

Nebraska’s Big Rodeo strives to entertain, not just with the rodeo but with other activities, too. “We put on a show,” Helgoth said, including chuckwagon races, the “famous Burwell wild horse race,” and the dinner bell derby. Canadians have been bringing the chuckwagons since the 1980s, and Neil Salmond and his crew “give up big money races in Canada just to spend a week in Burwell,” Helgoth said.

For the dinner bell derby, mares and foals are separated for several hours prior to the rodeo, then the mares are taken to one end of the race track in front of the grandstand while the colts are taken to the opposite end. “It’s a race to go to mama,” Helgoth said. To win, the colts have to cross the finish line. “People love that race.”

The Garfield County Fair goes on at the same time, with livestock shows, a county roping, vendors, food, dances with live music, beer gardens, and a carnival. “We try to keep people around,” Helgoth said. “There’s something to do all day long.”

It’s a family affair for Helgoth. After he joined the committee in 2008, he found out his and fellow board member Shane Hughes’ great-great-grandfather Donner was on the board. “A lot of dads and grandpas and now sons and grandsons have kept the tradition going.”

And the committee keeps growing, changing, and innovating. This year, they had planned to add an Xtreme Bulls and Broncs event on May 27-28 and a Diamond Rio concert on July 2. Due to wind storm damage, however, the Xtreme Bulls and Broncs event was canceled.

With Burwell’s population of 1,200, it takes everybody to produce a rodeo with upwards of 10,000 people in attendance over four days. The community backs the rodeo, Helgoth said. “If you were born and raised in Burwell, the rodeo means something to you,” he said. “Whether they live here or not, they support the rodeo in one way or another, by donations or buying a ticket or staying the weekend here with friends and family.”

The induction in Colorado Springs is ten days before this year’s rodeo, which is scheduled for July 27-30. It’ll be a busy time. “We’ll get out to Colorado Springs, have a little fun, come back and get to work,” Helgoth said.

He and the other board members are grateful and a bit incredulous about their induction.

“It means the world to us. I get goosebumps, talking about it. It’s unreal that a little town in Nebraska has a rodeo in the hall of fame.”

For “a little bitty old town in the middle of Nebraska, the rodeo means everything to the people. Burwell is a special place, and getting into the hall of fame is just another notch in our pistol,” Helgoth said.

This year’s rodeo is July 27-30. Tickets are available online at NebraskasBigRodeo.com.


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