Want a cure for those down-and-dirty recession blues?
Then you’re in luck, because this weekend’s Mother Lode Roundup will do the job. A huge Saturday parade, two days of rodeo, a dance, and a fairgrounds breakfast on Mother’s Day should make you forget bailouts, stimulus plans and a bucking Dow Jones index that may have already thrown you to the dirt.
Not only that, but the Tuolumne County Sheriff’s Posse’s big Western weekend offers a trip into the Mother Lode’s colorful past, when cattle was king and the folks who walked down Washington Street in boots and Stetsons were the real deal.
Rodeos here date back a century and a half. In the mid-1850s, open-range roundups were held annually, so ranchers could reclaim unfenced cattle and cowhands could test riding and roping skills against counterparts from around the foothills.
In late May of 1912 Sonora hosted its first commercial rodeo, a two-day affair at the Sonora baseball field that featured “bronco busting, rifle and pistol shooting and fancy roping.”
Three years later, in 1915, the first Mother’s Day rodeo was held. But the so-called Sonora Rodeo later moved to late May and, after a few years, was canceled.
With the 1929 advent of the Mother Lode Rodeo at Mrs. Jonathan Crooks’ rodeo arena, off today’s Racetrack Road, the Mother’s Day tradition returned. Throughout the Great Depression it continued.
“All Ready for Bucking, Riding and Barbecue,” announced a story in the the May 6, 1932, Union Democrat.
“And now comes the Rodeo! Whoopee!” it began, encouraging locals to bring their own horses for the Arena Parade. “Doll up your pony — let’s see what he looks like. Your private horse is your best friend — give him a chance.”
Rodeo admission, 50 cents, included a barbecue dinner.
Sharing the front page with that 1932 rodeo piece were stories on local “unemployment camps” closing and on distribution of two truckloads of Southern California oranges to the needy. So rodeos and hard times are no strangers.
Through the 1930s, Sonorans were urged to wear “the colorful garb of the cowboy” during rodeo week. “Kangaroo courts” were set up downtown to punish those who didn’t.
A Days of Gold parade on Sonora’s Washington Street was added in 1934, and California Gov. Frank Merriam led the premiere procession.
Rodeo attendance mushroomed from 2,500 in 1932 to nearly 15,000 in 1938, and the Roundup tradition had taken firm root.
Then World War II did what the Depression could not do: It put an end to the Mother Lode Rodeo, whose last edition came in 1941.
After the war, Sonora’s tradition was slow to pick up steam: The Days of Gold Parade hung on for a year or two before fading. The rodeo moved to August and became part of the county fair for a time. The professional cowboys abandoned Sonora and the crowds dwindled.
Enter the Sheriff’s Posse, a newly formed squad of ranchers and horsemen determined not to let Tuolumne County forget its heritage. Joining with Sonora’s merchants, the posse on May 10 and 11, 1958, rolled out its first Mother Lode Roundup.
More than a half century and maybe a half-million parade and rodeo fans later, the tradition is stronger than ever. A Roundup Band Review involving nearly 1,000 grade-school and high-school musicians has been added to the festivities. And the Saturday parade is now a city-long block party whose entries reflect the rich and varied community Tuolumne County has become.
But those dolled-up ponies and rodeo-arena bucking broncs are still at the heart of Mother Lode Roundup. Few among us are cowhands anymore, but this big Western weekend gives us a chance — if only for a weekend — to escape the 21st century and its struggling economy for a trip to our colorful past.
So don "the colorful garb of the cowboy,” pull on those boots and get ready for a rip-roarin’ good time.
Weekly Arts and entertainment guide for Calaveras and Tuolumne counties