Corn Palace Stampede Rodeo holds same core values after 50 years

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Jul. 13—South Dakota rancher and South Dakota State University men's basketball star Jim Sutton was drafted by the Minneapolis Lakers in the ninth round in the 1957 NBA draft. But after attending a preseason camp, he never showed up again. Instead, he returned home to his family ranching business with his father and grandfather.

His decision to return home "definitely impacted the rodeo world," Jim's 2020 ProRodeo Hall of Fame biography reads.

Jim launched the Sutton Rodeo Company in 1968 with his father, James Sutton, providing rodeos across South Dakota and the northwestern United States with stock from their Onida ranch.

Over the course of his career, Jim was known for the shows his rodeo put on. He is credited with the creation of Wrangler Bull Fights, the Bailey Bail-Off, World Championship Wild Horse Race, Bull Poker, and Teeter-Totter — all wildly successful (and now normal) aspects of a rodeo.

In the December 29, 1970, edition of the Mitchell Republic, the news was broken that the Sutton Rodeo Company had signed an agreement with rodeo committeemen and the Mitchell Area Chamber of Commerce to bring a professional rodeo to Mitchell. The event was slated for two nights in July 1971 at the Horseman's Sports Association property, featuring some of the nation's top 15 rodeo cowboys.

"This group of businesspeople, as the initial steering committee, wanted to have an event that helped the community and helped bring people to the community," said Jim Miskimins, current chairman of the Corn Palace Stampede Rodeo. "They decided to do it with a professional rodeo as the centerpiece."

Fifty editions of the rodeo in Mitchell later, the Corn Palace Stampede Rodeo is a summer staple for the community. It kicks off Thursday with a bull bash and three nights of traditional rodeo action from Friday through Sunday with performances starting at 8 p.m. each day.

A souvenir program from the first Corn Palace Stampede Rodeo, preserved by the Mitchell Area Historical Society, details the event's inaugural rodeo.

The program — which cost 50 cents — features an explanation of what rodeo is, a terminology sheet translating "rodeo jargon" and a list of the 126 contestants across 12 features events.

The rodeo featured an opening parade, clowns, a live organist, crowning of the rodeo queen and more.

"First Corn Palace Stampede Action Includes Thrills, Spills," reads a centerpiece headline of the July 19, 1971 Mitchell Daily Republic, detailing the excitement and scares of the first rodeo.

By the turn of the century, committeemen even successfully pushed for the rodeo to be entered into the Library of Congress archives.

"The Corn Palace Stampede Rodeo has served as a cultural icon in the state by blending traditional rodeo events with facets of contemporary life," then-Rep. John Thune wrote as part of a 2000 submission to the Library of Congress' Local Legacies project.

The archived file includes 29 photos and accompanying descriptions, a written report with sections on the history of the rodeo, the PRCA, a history of the Corn Palace Stampede Rodeo, its cowboys and events, a listing of the champions of each event from every year of the rodeo, rodeo announcers, clowns, barrelmen and bull fighters.

After 50 years, many of the same events are featured on the same dirt, but one core value remains unchanged.

"By the third weekend of July, people have had plenty of opportunities to do what they wanna do with their families, so they search out a way to get together with their friends again, and that's the rodeo," Miskimins said. "[Fans] don't know who is leading in the world standings and anything else, they come to be entertained. It's simply a social event."

Billie Sutton, former professional rodeo cowboy and current president of the Burke Stampede Rodeo, said as both a competitor and a fan at the Corn Palace Stampede Rodeo, the environment is what makes the event successful.

"The crowd is always really good and is really excited to be there. As a competitor it's always fun to perform in front of big crowds," Billie Sutton said. "Obviously 50 years is a long time to be putting on a rodeo, so they have a tradition of putting on a good rodeo and getting good crowds."

Miskimins made clear that the community support is a two-way street, and that one of the rodeo's core values is giving back to the community.

The Corn Palace Stampede Rodeo has been a registered nonprofit organization since 1972, so much of the money raised from the events is recycled into community organizations that either sponsor or donate work to the event.

"One of the things that we're very proud of is we've got a 30 or 35 year relationship with local boy scouts who help us by cleaning, so we help them raise money for summer camping activity," Miskimins said. They've also assisted the Abbott House and area school districts with their needs.

Miskimins has served on the rodeo's committee since 1990, and has worked on many projects to better the rodeo grounds. Some of these improvements include replacing fencing around the ring for safety and replacing wooden bleachers with metal bleachers for longevity. Concession stands were also remodeled and the crow's nest expanded for fan comfort.

The rodeo organization recognizes that the event wouldn't be successful without drawing out the crowd. Miskimins estimated the event pulls in 10,000 to 12,000 visitors each year, coming to Mitchell from all over the country for one of the busiest rodeo weekends of the year.

Miskmins estimated the first few weeks of July are extremely popular for professional rodeo, as the rodeo season enters its final stretch, ending in September.

Read more: Court rules that Corn Palace Stampede Rodeo can take place

"Even when it's mid-week a lot of places have one day rodeos. Our weekend, the third weekend in July, there's something like 22 pro rodeos across the country," Miskimins said. "I would have no way of estimating how many other rodeos are held that are not affiliated with a rodeo group."

The 50th Corn Palace Stampede Rodeo began Tuesday evening with the Community Kickoff at the rodeo grounds, featuring recognition of rodeo members — past and present — and recognizing the work of first responders and veterans.

In addition to the simple fact that it's been 50 years, its special to us," Miskimins said. "We're going to try to make the event as enjoyable as we can."

This year's schedule was shaken up a little, as the bull riding event that typically takes place at Dakotafest in August has been moved to rodeo week in an effort to draw larger crowds.

A full schedule of the rodeo can be found on the Corn Palace Stampede Rodeo's website.

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