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(Condensed from Prickly Pear Junction East Helena’s Heritage “ East Helena’s Rodeo History” compiled & updated by Sheila Nordahl)

The first rodeo was held in East Helena in 1963 after Reed Palmer moved to East Helena in 1960, opened a barber shop, and joined the VFW. He was always thinking of ways to promote East Helena and, having been involved with the Augusta rodeo before moving, the idea came to mind. Reed presented the plan of building a rodeo grounds to the members of the VFW and they agreed it was a good way to bring people to the town. Shortly after, he met with Stan Lane of ASARCO and got permission to use their land for the rodeo grounds.

The VFW members went to work planning, building the arena, chute gates, and producing their first rodeo. LeRoy Johnson leveled the land for the first event and, over half a decade later, he is still an active member of the East Helena Valley Rodeo Association.

It was a rough start. For the first rodeo, George and Shirley Schiller led the Grand Entry. Unfortunately, upon entering the arena, their flags caught the electrical wires and ripped out the PA system. Bruce Cornell stepped up and summoned his voice, announcing to the crowd without a PA. Tragedy struck yet again in 1965 when a bull escaped and killed VFW member Rip Brydich. In the late 1960s, an organization of VFW members and non-members came together to form what is now the East Helena Valley Rodeo Association. In 1972, the EHVRA filed a Certificate of Incorporation with the office of the Secretary of State. Members redesigned and built a new arena to ensure smooth sailing throughout the events.

In the late 70’s and early 80’s the Association had some rough times, members became split over issues and the future of the rodeo was challenged. Some members left, some new members came in, and thankfully the Association survived. Once noted as more of a men’s group, the rodeo now has a larger majority of women attending the meetings, holding offices, working the events, and doing everything from selling tickets to manning the livestock stripping chute. (Continuously growing, 2012  held over 55 members.)

In 1992 the Lewis & Clark In-County Timed Event Rodeo was added, making it the biggest four-day event in East Helena. County residents now may compete for championship buckles in nine timed events with participation available for ages under 12 and up.

Reed Palmer passed away in 1998, honoring that year’s event as the “Reed Palmer Memorial Rodeo.” A special All Around Award was presented to bull rider Robert Bright, a local who grew up in the Helena Valley, in his honor.

The rodeo has been held in all types of weather. 100-degree temperatures, rain, hail, and wind so bad it tipped over the port-a-potties (luckily they were unoccupied). In the late 1980’s there was even a three-day rain-out. The Association borrowed money to pay the stock contractor and, when the contractor found out later what happened, he was upset but also pleased that the Association felt that strongly about meeting their obligations. Over the years, most of the profits from the rodeo have gone back into the upkeep of the rodeo grounds and making sure the programs run smoothly. In the spring of each year, Board members do a walk-through to see what needs to be repaired or upgraded and address any concerns from members. 

In 1993, 2000, and 2003, the EHVRA was named “Rodeo of the Year” by the Northern Rodeo Association which sanctions more than 40 rodeos annually. The NRA takes into consideration the safety and condition of the facility, prize money, number of contestants, and the overall promotion of the sport of rodeo. East Helena’s rodeo has been one of the largest NRA rodeos for many years, drawing contestants from all over Montana, Idaho, Wyoming, and Canada. Every event hosts 300 – 400 contestant rides or runs yearly.

During the four-day rodeo events, local area contestants participate in the Lewis & Clark In-County Timed Event Rodeo on Thursday evening. During the NRA rodeo performances, multiple events are featured, with sheep riding being a must-see. (Sheep riding was started by Reed Palmer in 1963 and has been featured ever since). Each day in pre-rodeo entertainment, steer riders and the Junior Barrel Racing contestants of the Lewis & Clark In-County Rodeo compete for championship buckles. The rodeo parade, under the leadership of the Reisbeck’s from Stack’s Clothing Co. and Antiques, marches through town, growing bigger every year. Hundreds of people from the young to old line the sidewalks of Main Street to enjoy the parade beginning at the VFW and heading east on Main Street. The Parade is always on Saturday at 1 PM.

Over 4,000 people have attended East Helena’s biggest four-day rodeo events. Individuals from all over the world plan their family reunions, vacations, or just a weekend away from home during this time to attend the biggest NRA Rodeo in the State of Montana. The rodeo events are filled with wholesome family fun for all ages and welcome people to explore the city and surroundings of East Helena. Now with the rodeo featuring over half a decade of history, the grounds are moving to what is planned to be an even bigger and better arena. We thank attendees and the community for all the support over the years, and cannot wait to share our time with you in this next venture!

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