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DIFFERENCE MAKER: Gerry Rodeo to celebrate 75th event this summer

The Gerry Rodeo has been named one of the OBSERVER’s Difference Makers in Community Service.

GERRY — The Gerry Rodeo is marking its 75th edition of bucking broncs and barbecue beef this year.

Billing itself as “The Oldest Consecutive Rodeo East of the Mississippi,” the event is the Gerry Volunteer Fire Department’s only fundraiser and will be from July 31 to Aug. 3 this summer. It will again feature bareback, saddle bronc and bull riding, steer wrestling, and tie-down and team roping, as well as girls’ barrel racing.

“For our 75th, we are planning fireworks; we are bringing in a nationally-recognized rodeo clown,” said Tom Atwell, the rodeo’s chairman. “We’re just hoping to have a bigger and better show.”

If anyone wants a break from the rodeo action, they can head to the midway. Its attractions make it feel like a mini-county fair.

All the fun makes people hungry, and they swarm over the rodeo’s famous barbecue beef dinners. According to the Gerry Rodeo website, “Over a thousand pounds of beef is cooked daily in our pits over wood fires outside the dining hall. The wood must be one-year-old maple in order to create the proper cooking standards.”

Also, “the dinners also feature everyone’s favorite — crisp browned potatoes done outdoors in large iron kettles. The dinners also include gravy, corn, tossed salad, cottage cheese, ice cream, and a beverage.”

Atwell said the dinners “are something we take pride in.”

The website states that the event “got its start in 1945 when a former working cowboy named Jack Cox moved from the West to Gerry and suggested a rodeo as a way of raising money for the newly formed fire department.” Department members and other volunteers turned four acres of swamp into an arena and parking lot in 70 days, with borrowed bleachers and rented lights. Now the arena features permanent seating for 4,000, brand-new lighting and a refurbished and air-conditioned dining hall for those tasty beef dinners.

Gerry’s rodeo has been sanctioned by the Professional Rodeo Cowboys’ Association since the beginning, and the money participants earn there counts toward qualification for the national rodeo final. Approximately 200 professional cowboys and cowgirls participate in the event.

Atwell said “volunteerism” is the big reason the event has lasted since the mid-1940s. “People who grew up in the community come home on vacation to work the rodeo. They know that it is the fire department’s only fundraiser,” he said.

There’s another reason the rodeo is still going strong: For planners, participants and spectators alike, “it’s our way of keeping Western heritage alive,” Atwell said.

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