When the rodeo hits Omaha or Lincoln, it brings a little country to the city. Nebraska's Big Rodeo in Burwell brings spectators and competitors to the source. Burwell is the front door of the Nebraska Sand Hills, a geographical region marked by more than 19,000 square miles of grass-covered dunes. It's a land of unbroken prairie, shallow lakes, deep skies, hills, windmills, horses and cattle. People here don't wear cowboy hats as fashion accessories. They make a living raising cattle, and for generations they have tied their lives to the land.
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BURWELL, Neb. — The sun sets over the Sand Hills as a cowboy slips off his horse and onto the horns of a runaway steer, raising dust in the arena and applause in the stands.
Gerald Burns, one of several thousand fans who have made their way to Burwell for Nebraska's Big Rodeo, watches the action from under the brim of a cowboy hat. It's a view the retired school administrator from Atkinson has experienced for nearly all of his 70 summers.
His grandparents first brought him to the Burwell rodeo long before he could hook a boot into a stirrup. On this recent night, he and his wife, Sally, have brought a pair of grandchildren along.
For Burns and many others like him, the Burwell rodeo is as much about family tradition as riding, roping and rhinestones. There's never a discussion about whether they're going to attend.
“I can't remember when I missed it,” he said.
In Nebraska, rodeos are as commonplace as sweet corn stands. They take place in small corrals where youngsters hone their skills as well as in urban arenas with all the glitz and volume of a Toby Keith concert.
In Burwell, putting on the rodeo requires months of planning and help from dozens of volunteers. The July 24-27 event drew about 10,000 spectators and 425 competitors to the central Nebraska community of 1,210. It not only boosted the local economy, it showcased the town, brought people together and filled the stockade with pride to last until the next go-round.
“If we ever lose the rodeo, we'd lose our identity,” said Burwell Mayor Chuck Cone.
That's why the Burwell rodeo has outlived nearly anyone who would remember when it was first held in 1921.
It was born long before then, on cattle ranches in grass-covered hills that surround the town. Out there, ranchers, their children and their hired hands have long employed the skills that take center stage at the rodeo, whether roping a calf, staying on a bucking horse or controlling one well enough to pull a U-turn at full gallop.
The popularity of the Burwell rodeo grew rapidly in an era when maintaining a social network required a trip to town. Organizers ran it in conjuction with the Garfield County Fair, but it wasn't long before more people came to see bull riders than blue ribbons.
World War II put the event on hold for three years, but when it returned, so did the crowds. At its peak in the late 1940s and early 1950s, more than 75,000 people would pour into Burwell, said Jim Svoboda of Ord, a rodeo photographer who has co-written a history of the rodeo.
Svoboda, who travels 50,000 miles a year to photograph the best of the nation's 700 professional rodeos, said Burwell's attendance nowadays makes it a medium-size event. But its outdoor setting in true ranch country, for events such as chuck wagon races and wild horse races on a half-mile oval track, help Burwell stand out.
What's it like to ride in the wild horse race? Burwell native Dallas McCarville straps on a camera to show us how it's done.
“Carrying on the Wild West is what it's doing,” Svoboda said.
Another signature of Burwell is the Grand Entry, which kicked off the event each of its four nights.
At the July 26 performance, a color guard led the entry followed by a procession on horseback that included rodeo board members, sponsors and dignitaries, all in sharp Western shirts and cowboy hats. Miss Burwell Rodeo, Olivia Hunsperger, rode in with the American flag on a pole tight against her saddle. It was hats over hearts for the national anthem as her horse sprinted around the arena with the flag stretched out in full display.
Over the next two hours, competitors from Nebraska, Missouri, South Dakota, Kansas, Oklahoma and Texas worked to beat the clock or wait it out. Because the Burwell rodeo is sanctioned by the Professional Rodeo Cowboys Association, the event always draws top pros along with semi-pro riders looking to gain experience.
Rodeo organizers carefully orchestrate the evening so there is little down time between events.
“This is more than a rodeo, it's a show,” said Roger Mayhood of Phoenix, who wanted to experience a slice of Nebraska while visiting relatives.
Behind the show, however, is a lot of hard work and planning. A board of volunteers works just about year-round to pull it off, said Lee Jeffres, the board president. The rodeo also relies on help from about 70 additional volunteers.
“We're pretty proud of it,” he said. “The community comes together to put it on.”
Andy Burelle of Ardmore, Okla., travels across the country to work rodeos as a professional bullfighter. Some would call him a rodeo clown, but when you put yourself between a dazed cowboy and a 2,000-pound animal, you call yourself whatever you want.
Burelle called Nebraska's Big Rodeo a step back in time.
“It's a different feel,” he said. “This is one of the four or five in the country you really want to hit, because you get to see what rodeo was, and still is, especially in a small town.”