By Larry Stalcup, Contributing Editor

Named after an American icon who once swayed both Hollywood and Washington, D.C., with his downhome, dry Oklahoma wit and charm, the Will Rogers Range Riders riding club will celebrate its 81st year with its July 4th weekend rodeo in Amarillo.

Range Riders is the nation’s oldest continuously operating riding club. The rodeo, still one of the country’s largest ranch rodeos, will draw some 300 ropers, riders and barrel racers to the Range Riders Arena. This year’s event is scheduled for July 4-6.

The arena and stables, located just south of Amarillo, serve as a year-round place where men and women of all ages can gather and enjoy their common interests, namely horses. That was the roundup club’s intent when it was formed in 1938, the year U.S. Route 66 opened across Amarillo.

The celebrated route was named the Will Rogers Memorial Highway to honor the popular movie star/politician/philosopher, who died in a 1935 plane crash. That also sounded like the perfect name for Range Riders.

Will’s skills as a horseman were legendary. And he could handle a rope with the best cowboys on the JA, Frying Pan or other ranches. He’d have made a perfect Range Rider. He loved horses, knew ranching and rural life, and more than once said, “I never met a man I didn’t like.”

Support for ‘real’ cowboys

True cowboys were already a dying breed in that era. Working cattle on horseback wasn’t for the drugstore type. The work was too hot, too cold, too dirty and too long. If cowboying wasn’t in your blood, in your soul, you were better off working in town.

Of course, the nation’s larger ranches still require men and women who live in the saddle. Four-wheelers help with some of the chores, but it’s often those on horseback who make ranches and feedyards work. Since the pay normally doesn’t approach many easier jobs in town, it’s the love of the life that keeps them on the payroll.

The Range Riders realized that. And in the early 1990s, the riding club’s members were at the heart of creating an event and, ultimately, a foundation that recognized, honored and helped ranch cowboys and their families. They helped spawn the Working Ranch Cowboy’s Association (WRCA) and WRCA World Championship Rodeo – an organization that remains the largest western-related event held in Amarillo.

Terry Rich, an Amarillo contractor, Range Rider and lifelong horse enthusiast, and Randy Whipple, an entrepreneur who for years ran an Old West Show at his family’s Creekwood Ranch, helped ramrod the inaugural rodeo.

“The early idea came from cowboy poet Waddie Mitchell,” says Rich, who was Range Riders rodeo president in the early ‘90s. “He wanted us to do something that would honor the working cowboy.”

“Waddie wanted something that would provide help for cowboys and their families during hard times,” adds Whipple, noting that WRCA’s goal is still to provide a hand up, not a handout. “Terry and I put our heads together.”

Rich explains how it happened during a special tourism/Old West-promoting cattle drive put on by country star Michael Martin Murphy. “It was the Col. Charles Goodnight Memorial Cattle Drive, and [it] attracted a lot of media coverage,” Rich says. “Murphy had invited Waddie, Red Steagall and other cowboy poets. We at Range Riders wanted Waddie to be part of our rodeo.”

The cattle drive was from the Currie Ranch to Creekwood Ranch about 15 miles south of Amarillo. The drive required plenty of gentle horses that greenhorns could handle. Range Riders provided most of them.

Rich and Whipple worked closely with Jerry Holt, then head of the Amarillo Convention and Visitors Council, and Chris Miller, then head of the Amarillo Civic Center (home to WRCA since 1995) to help publicize the event.

The convention and visitors council also brought Texas tourist council members to Creekwood Ranch. “They wanted a big shindig and we gave them one,” Whipple says. “Along with the campfire experience, we gave them a tour. It also helped us promote our cause.”

Rich and Waddie rode side by side. Rich points out that’s when Waddie uttered, “Pard, I hear your dream. Let me tell you mine.” He stated the need for a world championship ranch rodeo, one for true working cowboys. “By the time we got off our horses and walked down to the campfire, he had me hook, line and sinker,” Rich says. “I said Waddie, that needs to be in Amarillo.

“We later got together with the CVC and started putting together the dream for Amarillo as a whole. We formed the WRCA Board of Directors during a meeting in Amarillo at the American Quarter Horse Association Museum.”

They announced the formation of the WRCA and the planned championship rodeo. Amarillo was indeed selected over Abilene, Wichita Falls and other cities as WRCA headquarters. The job now was to solicit financial support.

It was easier said than done. A lot of wrangling and arm-twisting resulted. Some friendships were pressured. Negotiations eventually led to an agreement that made Anheuser-Busch the major rodeo sponsor.

“We even traveled to St. Louis and met with Auggie Busch III to try and secure their sponsorship, discuss possibly televising the event and of course to get the Budweiser Clydesdales to appear at the rodeo,” Rich says. “That was a real experience.”

The first WRCA Championship Rodeo was in November 1995, with the Clydesdales as a featured attraction. “We could have had George Strait to play the first rodeo, but he wanted to bring his ranch cowboy team,” Rich says. “That didn’t work because it was not a sanctioned team.”

Whipple, longtime WRCA treasurer, says the event has grown in participation over the years. “In the first rodeo, we had 13 ranches from across the nation which had won sanctioned ranch rodeos,” Whipple said. “Nearly 25 years later, we now have from 22-24 ranches that compete.”

The event was a blue-ribbon show from the beginning, with many members of the Range Riders serving as WRCA volunteers. Sell-outs for four rodeo performances were regular, although there was one year when Mother Nature showed her dark side.

“The third year we had 19 inches of snow,” Whipple says. “It liked to have killed us. We didn’t have any ticket sales. But Chris Miller at the civic center saved us. He was able to stretch us out a year so we could pay it back.”

WRCA’s Cowboy Trappings and Trade Show is nearly as popular as the rodeo. Hundreds of venders occupy every available exhibit space at the civic center. Everything from tack to every possible type of western wear is available. Ranch memorabilia is very popular. Equipment of all types is on the grounds. And, of course, the Clydesdales are always on hand for viewing.

Proceeds for WRCA activities go toward the Working Ranch Cowboys Foundation, which carries a strong mission – to provide financial and other assistance to working ranch cowboys and their families who are suffering significant hardship and who are not otherwise able to provide for their immediate needs.

“The money goes to those in need,” Whipple says. “It goes to cowboys who get sick or are hurt, and to family members if someone dies. It also goes to ranch kids in the form of scholarships.

“We currently have 32 kids on scholarship. If you receive one and keep your grades up, we will keep paying until you finish school, even if you’re going for a doctorate.”

Could Amarillo lose WRCA?

The WRCA Championship Rodeo is booked for Amarillo through 2020. But the size of the event venue has become an issue. Seating capacity is less than 5,000. The rodeo could likely sell twice the number of tickets if seats were there.

Amarillo has a brand new, ultramodern baseball stadium that hosts the widely popular Amarillo Sod Poodles (the name grows on you), a new AA farm team for the San Diego Padres. WRCA and many others are hoping a larger civic center is the next big downtown improvement.

If that doesn’t happen, then major cities like Fort Worth or even Las Vegas will likely bid to host the WRCA finals.

“We just don’t have enough room now to continue with the event we put on,” Whipple says. “If we don’t grow, we’re going to die. That’s our problem. We may have no choice but to move. Fortunately, Amarillo Mayor Ginger Nelson wants to help.”

Rich highly favors keeping WRCA “where it belongs” – in Amarillo.

“There are many people who promote our city’s strong Western heritage,” he says. “They want to keep WRCA here. Numerous members of the Range Riders, like our oldest member, Wayne “Okie” Snyder, have been instrumental is keeping that heritage alive.

“Chad Feemster, past Range Riders chairman, doesn’t want to see it go. Our city needs to step up and approve a plan to expand our civic center facilities. Our coliseum arena itself is larger than the Thomas & Mack Center in Las Vegas. We just need the seats to accommodate the thousands of WRCA rodeo fans who want to come here.”

Meanwhile, Feemster says the Range Riders Rodeo will continue in its tradition of promoting the cowboy way. History of the group illustrates how it is more than just a riding club.

When World War II broke out and young men were called to the armed forces, Range Riders filled in for law enforcement agencies. Each man was issued a 30-30 Winchester rifle. Although their services were not needed in that capacity, they were prepared.

Also, ranches were left shorthanded when young men were called to serve. Range Riders would help the ranchers work cattle and do other chores necessary for their operations.

Although club members no longer carry arms, they still assist area law enforcement officials periodically with search and rescue missions when horses are required in the more remote areas of the Panhandle.

Their July 4th rodeo celebration supports those efforts. For more information on the Will Rogers Range Riders Rodeo, call 806-622-2102. The arena is located at 313 W. Loop 385, Amarillo, Texas 79109, and is expected to continue to serve the area’s horse enthusiasts for generations to come.

And here’s hope that the WRCA Championship Rodeo also maintains its Amarillo address. If only Will Rogers himself was here to help rope the right people to make that happen.