Remembering the early Rodeos and Harness Races

by Karl Davidson
(Centralia)

Having spent my childhood years at my grandmother's home bordering the Grays Harbor County Fairgrounds, many of my best memories are of the fun days spent at the fairgrounds. My grandmother, who raised us, owned 10 - 15 acres that are now covered by the Grays Harbor Speedway.


As Mr. Bailey points out in his narrative of Elma history, on this website, the Elma Rodeo began in 1945 and had a four-year run independent of the county fair. Those years coincided with my becoming old enough to enjoy the rodeos. Mr. Bailey points out that in 1949 the rodeo became scheduled to coincide with the fair. That is how I remember it.

I was the oldest and my two younger brothers and I never paid to attend the rodeo. In fact, with our best friends, the Murphy boys, Mike, Brooks, and Pat, we were regulars at nearly every performance. Their dad, Tab Murphy, was the rodeo announcer. We boys were allowed to have free roam of the rodeo area, without adult supervision. This included playing around the bucking chutes while the rodeo was in progress.

My most vivid memory of the rodeo occurred while we were watching the rodeo from atop the bucking chutes. Several feet above the chutes was a wide plank that ran the length of the chutes. We would perch on that plank and have a first-hand view of the cowboys getting on the horses and bulls, directly below us. On one occasion, I was sitting directly above a young cowboy who was getting on a bull. The bull began bucking in the chute. The cowboy fell under the bull and was trampled. The other cowboys opened the gate to let the bull out of the chute, and the ambulance arrived. There was always an ambulance present at all performances of the rodeo. The medics took the cowboy to the hospital in McCleary. Before the end of the rodeo, the word came back that the cowboy had died. What a tragedy. I never again looked at bull riding with such innocent eyes.

The wonder of it, as I look back from the vantage of time and modern child-rearing customs, is that no one ever told us little kids to get off those planks above the chutes. Or for that matter, to just clear the area. It was a different time.

Tab Murphy was a veteran rodeo announcer. On several occasions he took us along with his own boys to other area rodeos, such as at Lacey and Packwood. I can still hear his voice as he announced the next rider, or their time for the ride just completed.

Prior to the start of the afternoon's performance, the loudspeakers would play country and western songs such as "Bouquet of Roses" by the Sons of the Pioneers, or Eddy Arnold's latest hit.

Another favorite event at the fairs in the late 1940s was the horse races, both harness and regular style. My favorite was the harness races. The reason we lived next to the fairgrounds in the first place was that my grandfather was a professional harness horse racer and trainer all his life, until he died at the age of 80. He always had the family living near fairgrounds. I never got to see him race, as in later years he and my grandmother were living apart.

There is a beauty to the harness races that, to me, is not equaled by any other type of racing. The drivers in their bright colors, sitting in the sulkies behind the horse. The sound of the whips popping gently on the rear of the horses, the heavy panting of the horses, the clip clop, clip clop of the horses' hooves as they otherwise silently raced past the stands.

I remember one of the Shafer Brothers, of Shafer Logging, had a big black horse that was the horse to beat. Mr. Shafer sat so erect and wore bright red colors which contrasted nicely with the black horse.

The harness races apparently fell out of favor and were, on occasion, replaced by the standard parimutual type of horse racing.

Another aspect of some of the fairs was the Grays Harbor Sheriff's Posse mounted drill team. They were sometimes a part of the afternoon grandstand show. On occasion, there would be more than one mounted drill team in attendance. In fact, sometimes the fairgrounds was host to a great many of the drill teams who would gather for a competitive meet. I seem to remember as many as 20 different counties were at times represented by their teams for a state-wide meet independent from the fair. Some counties also had women's mounted drill teams.

Each county's team had a distinctive western uniform. One or more counties would even have all of their horses to match. Such as all palomino horses. The drill teams would perform many intricate maneuvers with their horses, such as "threading the needle". That was my favorite as the row of riders would cross each other's path from different directions, threading the needle so to speak.

I wish more fairs today would have a rodeo, horse racing, or mounted drill teams on their schedules.

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