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When July in Bluffton was rodeo time

Show & tell at the July 10, 2024 meeting of the Bluffton Historical Society included Seth Zink's framed copy of a 1950s Bluffton News ad for the Rodeo at Harmon Field. Here's a first hand account of these events, from the Bluffton Icon in July 2022.


By Bill Herr Bluffton Icon columnist


Growing up in the 1940s and early ’50s, I was always excited when July 4th rolled around because of the Bluffton rodeo. It was considered by some to be the largest event in northwestern Ohio. The first rodeo was held in 1944 and it became an annual event.

The 11th rodeo was held on July 5 (my birthday) in 1954. That was because the 4th was on a Sunday. The rodeo was always preceded by a parade on Main Street. As many as 120 horses and riders came each year to the rodeo. Huge crowds lined the street to see them along with floats, bands and other parade participants. The rider most people looked forward to seeing was a lady named Wanda Breeda. She always wore a classy western outfit and her horse, which I remember as a palomino, also looked classy with a lot of silver tack on its bridle and saddle.





The Herr brothers⎯my uncles Forrest, Woodrow (Woody), Millard and my dad Edgar—were the originators of the rodeo. They built heavy oak chutes to hold the bucking horses and bulls. Until the 4th, the wooden gates were stored in Myron Matter's barn, located on his farm right across South Main from what is now the Bluffton Dari Freeze. They also purchased fence to completely surround the rectangular Harmon Field.


This was not a dude rodeo. Professional bronc riders and bull riders came each year, mostly from Ohio, Michigan and Indiana, to ride the bucking horses and bulls. The first four that placed in any event got money and a ribbon. One of the professional riders borrowed our quarter horse, Tony, and won the calf-roping event. My dad trucked Tony in from Texas, where he had been trained for calf roping. My brother, Don Herr, was ten years older and he got to ride our horse in most all the events. My brother and my uncles were excellent horsemen. My brother won many colored ribbons. In 1949 he was the overall rodeo champion, scoring the most points and he received a nice golden statue of a horse with saddle for his prize.


The rodeo started at 7:30 p.m. and ended around 11:00. Then there were spectacular fireworks at the end of Harmon Field near the Riley. The stadium was still packed with spectators and others stood around the fence, enjoying the show.


There was always an ambulance nearby to transport injured riders to the hospital. I remember one bucking horse, after not throwing off the rider, galloped at full speed toward the end of Harmon Field, made a sharp right turn and the rider flew off into the fence. The bucking horses and bulls were world class and were transported to Bluffton for the rodeo. One bull named Yo-Yo was nationally known, and no one came close to staying on him for the full 8 seconds required for a qualified ride. There were rodeo clowns to keep the riders safe from the bulls after their ride.


I couldn't believe my ears when the announcer said that a local rider, Don Herr, would ride the next bull. Then I couldn't believe my eyes as my brother stayed on the bull for eight seconds and took third place in the bull riding. Those points helped him to become the overall champion of the rodeo. He always said the brown colored bull was gentle and didn't buck much, but I knew different. It is amazing that my brother successfully rode a bull on the field that, two years before, he had scored two touchdowns on to help the Bluffton Pirates defeat Ada, 14 to 13, giving the Bulldogs their first loss of the season.


Perhaps the most memorable rodeo was the 1949 Old-Time Forty-Niner Gold Rush rodeo. This was the year my brother won the overall. All the contestants wore pioneer garb. Bluffton male residents raised "bristling beards." Non-local rodeo contestants wore false beards. For the parade my uncles rented an authentic prairie schooner and imported two light brown oxen from Tennessee to pull the schooner. I got to ride up front with the driver, my uncle Forrest. My uncle John Manahan walked a mule and dressed like a gold prospector. There were floats by business organizations, baton twirling girls, bands, a circuit-riding preacher, and other entries in the parade. To me, the best part of the parade were all the riders on horseback. What a sight on Main Street!


In 1949 local men on the rodeo committee helped run the rodeo. Al Ingall was general chairman. Art Swank was vice-chairman. Ralph Reichenbach was the secretary, Jim West the treasurer, Roy Rogers (not the famous cowboy of the same name) was ringmaster, Art Swank the timer, Ed Badertscher the parade marshal. Clyde Warren was the announcer, Forrest Herr the program and entry chairman, and Emerson De Troy from Defiance was the judge. My dad, Edgar Herr, was the point-keeper for the rodeo. Fifty or more ribbons were handed out, and cash prizes between two and three hundred dollars. In later years the pot grew to over five hundred dollars.


These were some of the events for contestants: Bad Lands Bronc Riding, Great Plains Pony Class, Wild Steer Riding, Western Musical Keg, Stake Bend Race, Homesteader Obstacle Race, Western Gal Pleasure Horses, Golden Balloon Mill, Open Prairie Calf Roping, and Frontiersman Western Stock Horse Event.


Everyone had a story about the rodeo. Here are three. Years later when I was chaplain at Mennonite Memorial Home, a resident told me he always brought his white horse to the rodeo and the first thing he did was go to the concession stand and buy his horse three hot dogs. He said his horse looked forward to that.


My friend, Bob Daft, recently told me that he rode his mare, Bell, about ten miles to the rodeo. He lived halfway between Bluffton and Ada. He remembered contesting in the Golden Balloon Mill, where balloons were tied to the back of the saddle and riders would try to bust the balloons of others. He said that when the rodeo ended around midnight he would ride home. It took him about an hour. "My mare knew where her home was. I wrapped the reins around the saddle horn. She was a walker—she would step it off."


Being young, my role the day before the rodeo was to help load the wooden chutes from the Motter barn and help set them up in front of the goal post at the end of Harmon Field where the concession building is now. On the 4th I got to ride Tony three miles from our home farm to Bluffton. I rode him to Schmidt Field. Gene Schmidt used to store all his old and new machinery there. It was located where Community Market and Leiber's Garage are now. There were no buildings there, only a grassy field along the Riley when the parade participants assembled there. I was too young to remember, but Roger Edwards believes the first rodeo was held on that field.


One time I was sitting on Tony there, and, unknown to me, my brother ran up behind Tony and was able to leap frog up behind me. Startled, Tony reared up and I fell on my back under him. When I looked up, his hoof was about a foot above my head. Fortunately, he kept his hoof up a moment and I moved out of the way.


When my brother was drafted into the army, my chance to ride in the rodeo had finally come. I was excited. The first event I entered was the musical keg. Riders walked their horses around the kegs placed in a large circle. Music played, and when it stopped, the riders would dismount and quickly sit on a keg. There was always one more rider than the number of kegs. When the music stopped, I trotted Tony up to a keg, got off the saddle and just when I was about to sit on the keg, a girl beat me to it. I was the first person eliminated. I didn't win any ribbons that day, but I had a lot of fun.


That was the year 1954 and I believe it was the last Bluffton rodeo on Harmon Field. The Bluffton school board made the decision that Harmon Field should be used only by the high school and Bluffton College football teams for home games, and not to be a field for over 100 horses to be ridden on. That decision was not appreciated by many folks in the area, and especially not by members of the Saddle Club. The Saddle Club was composed of members in the Bluffton, Cory and Rawson area that had horses and volunteered to help with the rodeo. They enjoyed the annual Saddle Club picnic in the woods on my uncles' farm.


For those of us that experienced the Bluffton 4th of July rodeo, the transformation on Harmon Field from players in football gear to riders on horseback, bucking horses and bulls, was memorable. It was a fun-filled historical event.


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