In rodeo circles, June and July are known as "Cowboy Christmas," the time of year when professional riders and ropers earn most of their income. The Greeley Independence Stampede, now in its 131st year, comes right in the middle of the high-income season, beginning in late June and culminating in a Fourth of July bash that brings people from around the world for a taste of true Americana.
"Our timing contributes to the atmosphere of the Stampede," according to Bill Todd, vice president of marketing for the event. "There are about sixty or seventy rodeos held over the Fourth of July. The competitors can enter events at the beginning of Stampede, travel somewhere else, then come back and make some more money here. The PRCA [Professional Rodeo Cowboys Association] rates the Greeley Stampede as one of the top ten events in the nation."
The Stampede runs for fourteen days this year, from June 22 through July 4, which even Todd admits might be a tad long, even though there are plenty of activities and entertainment to more than fill the bill. There are eight PRCA-sanctioned rodeos and one all-woman PWRA rodeo, and seven concerts with acts ranging from Travis Tritt to the Monkees. Tonic and Smash Mouth play a double bill, as do Chris Daniels & the Kings and the Beach Boys. As in years past, Kenny Rogers closes the Stampede with a solo concert on July 4.
"Our draw is about equal parts music and rodeo," Todd estimates. "Northern Colorado has seen such an influx of new people, many of whom are not rodeo- or country-based. They come for the music and then get a taste of the sport."
The Stampede moved out of programming strictly country acts about ten or fifteen years ago, according to Todd, and not just because the Garth Brooks phenomenon turned so many country fans into crossover listeners.
"What we found was that the Stampede was turning into a full-fledged festival, not just a rodeo with music," he explains. "With its setting in the beautiful regional park, it's clearly a family event now."
It's not all concerts and cowboys, either. The Demolition Derby on Sunday, June 24, is always a smash hit. This year, the Stampede Troupe presents Diamond Studs in the dinner theater June 22-29 and July2 and 3. Then there are the ever-popular Bill Hames Carnival Midway, fireworks, flapjack feeds, a free watermelon feed, Western art exhibit/sale, a food court, free entertainment in the tent, and a daily parade led by a herd of Texas longhorns that will also be at the front of the Independence Day Parade to be televised on Channel 9. Sunday, July 1, is Stampede Family Day, featuring multicultural entertainment, Mass in the park and a cowboy church service in the arena featuring songs of praise by Susie Luchsinger, Reba McEntire's sister. There's a Kids' Rodeo on July 2, and all rodeos are preceded by a thirty-minute show including skydivers, chuckwagon races, precision drill riders and a mini-concert.
In the past twelve years, attendance at the Stampede has grown 740 percent to a projected attendance of 425,000 this year. That surpasses attendance at Cheyenne Frontier Days, the "Daddy of 'em All," which takes place July 20-29 this year, in part because the Stampede runs nearly twice as long. The Stampede and Frontier Days are ranked as the top two largest events/conventions by the Northern Colorado Business report's 2001 Book of Lists, but Frontier Days keeps its focus squarely on the country-Western side of the event. It offers the largest purse in professional rodeo -- $750,000 -- and the largest rodeo arena in the West. Its concert lineup is heavily countrified, with Chris LeDoux, Toby Keith and Lonestar appearing during the week, and Brooks & Dunn and LeeAnn Womack the featured closers.
"After Cheyenne, the cowboys kind of kick back," Todd says. "They stay in town and relax since it's the end of July."
The Stampede is gaining national and international recognition these days. Last year TV crews from the BBC and Japan covered the Stampede, and this year the German media are coming; the Fourth of July rodeo has also been broadcast on ESPN in years past. There's huge attendance by folks in Colorado, Kansas, Nebraska and Wyoming, plus regulars from the East Coast and international tour groups that grow every year. The Library of Congress recently named the Greeley Independence Stampede one of the Bicentennial Local Legacies after it was nominated for the honor by Senator Ben Nighthorse Campbell.
The Stampede, with a paid full-time staff of only eight, also receives a great deal of community support, with 3,000 volunteers helping put on the event through their dues-paying membership in Wranglers Inc. Civic organizations also help with fundraising throughout the year.
"We've won some awards in the past few years, and we're thought well of in the industry, but what keeps us successful is our volunteers, including our directors, who are a working board of twelve," says Todd. "They keep us alive and different, and they're willing to try new ideas to keep us successful."
Todd points out that at the time, adding "non-cowboy stuff" to the entertainment was a risk, because nobody else was doing it. But it has proved to be a risk worth taking.
"People have come to expect the Stampede to be a little bit different," he adds. "People are happy with the traditional events, but we try to tweak them along the way so it's not just the same old thing."
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