Springtime is Stampede Time in Chowchilla

The opening lyrics to the theme song from the television western series Rawhide say all that needs to be said: “Rollin, rollin, rollin.

59th Annual Chowchilla Western Stampede cattle drive.  Picture by Steve Newvine

The herd was rolling.  It was rolling down Robertson Boulevard in Chowchilla, California.

The herd of cattle was the highlight for day one of the annual Chowchilla Western Stampede.  About one-hundred young steer were led down the city’s main thoroughfare in the heavy rain on the traditional second Friday in March.  

The cattle drive is the kick-off to a weekend of rodeo-related roping activities and a tip of the western hat to the cattle raising heritage of this northern Madera County city of about nineteen thousand people.

The Stampede cattle drive brings out the area’s most dedicated cattle people.  Picture by Steve Newvine

Rodeos and related roping events are nothing new to the Central Valley, and certainly not new to Chowchilla.  2016 marked the fifty-ninth annual event.  

The cattle drive kicks off the weekend as the animals are led from the Chowchilla Fairgrounds, turning east on Robertson Drive, moving down the street until turning right at the intersection just before Highway 99, and then completing their drive right back to the Fairgrounds.  

Led by area horsemen and women, alongside cattlemen and young people on horses, with local law enforcement providing the parade security, the drive passes by in a matter of minutes.  

It is tradition that keeps the cattle drive going year after year.  After all, there is no practical reason why the cattle need to be moved in what amounts to a giant circle in the town’s original business section.  It’s done for the community and those who want to get some idea of what a western cattle drive looks like up close.  

It’s one of the few opportunities many people will get to see an actual herd of cattle moving down a paved roadway.

Chowchilla Western Stampede.  Photo by Steve Newvine

The Chowchilla Western Stampede gets an early start in January with an annual fundraising dinner.  Money raised from that dinner is used to award scholarships for agriculture-based education at Chowchilla High, Mariposa High and Yosemite High schools.

The highlight of the dinner is the naming of the Stampede Grand Marshall.  This year, local cattleman, former rodeo star, and area business owner Bob Ragsdale was named Grand Marshall.

I tried unsuccessfully to reach Bob to talk about his Grand Marshall honor as well as his rodeo career.  But outgoing chairman of the Stampede, Tom Martin told the Merced Sun Star that Bob was the ideal candidate to be Grand Marshall, “He’s a superstar of the rodeo arena, but more importantly, he’s a superstar of a man.”

More than six-hundred people attended the fundraising dinner when Bob was named Grand Marshall.

Bob Ragsdale was born in Montana and began taking part in rodeos while in high school. He qualified for the National Finals Rodeo every year from 1961 to 1975 for calf roping, steer wrestling and team roping.   

He was inducted into the St. Paul Rodeo Hall of Fame in Oregon, named to the Rodeo Hall of Fame at the National Cowboy and Western Heritage Museum in Oklahoma City, and was recently honored by the Montana Pro Rodeo Hall.

Steer from this year’s cattle drive make the turn to head back from where they started at the Chowchilla Fairgrounds.  Photo by Steve Newvine

The three-day Stampede event is usually held on the second weekend in March.

 It features such events as team roping barrel racing.  Top finishers are awarded cash and western oriented prizes.  

The cattle drive has been one of those things I’ve been meaning to do over the past few years.  Living in nearby Merced, it seemed like there was no reason to put it off any longer.  

So I made my way south to Chowchilla to take it all in.  I’m glad I did.

So rodeo season is off and galloping in the Central Valley.  

While the Chowchilla Western Stampede may not be the biggest event among the many communities who stage activities to celebrate their cattle raising heritage, it has a lot of heart with fifty-nine years of success.

In 2017 when the event reaches its’ sixtieth anniversary, we’ll once again hear the hooves clacking down Robertson Boulevard.

Rollin, rollin, rollin.

Steve Newvine lives in Merced





To read and hear the Merced Sun Star’s report on the Stampede dinner,  http://www.mercedsunstar.com/news/local/community/article54038230.html#storylink=cpy