The year was 1948 and Fort Madison was about to lose their biggest annual event, a Labor Day parade and picnic sponsored by the railroad’s craft unions; with the introduction of diesel locomotives and a resulting decrease in the number of employees needed at the shops, the parade and picnic began to fade.
Enter Santa Fe Railroad telegrapher Robert Wilken, cowboy singer Gene Autry and banker C.E. “Eddie” Richards. Richards was installed as Fort Madison Chamber of Commerce president on January 1, 1948, and immediately started looking for something big enough to replace the Labor Day events. His father-in-law, Wilken had an idea. He knew Autry’s livestock had to be rested during the long train ride from Texas to Madison Square Garden in New York City. Wilken was a big rodeo fan, and knew Autry’s cattle and horses had been making an overnight stay in Fort Madison each of the ten prior years. The negotiations began and by September of 1948 Fort Madison had its first rodeo.
Organizers realized that Ivanhoe Park, where the Santa Fe picnic had always been held, wasn’t going to be big enough for the rodeo. Land purchased then from the Geisen family and the Iowa State Penitentiary became the heart of today’s Rodeo Park, which is now called C.E. “Eddie” Richards Arena. A contract with Autry’s company stipulated that a rodeo corporation had to be formed and that an arena with a capacity of at least 10,000 seats had to be provided. Volunteers did both, raising $100,000 and setting up a grandstand in the summer of that first year. The first rodeo was a sellout, surprising Autry’s business manager, who remarked that not even the Madison Square Garden event saw such advance ticket sales; Autry himself was the featured entertainer.
From the first year, a parade was part of the rodeo activities. Pre-rodeo events were introduced in 1949. The rodeo grew, improvements were made at Rodeo Park and in 1959 a new event-women’s barrel racing- was added. A fly-in breakfast at the municipal airport also began that year. Television cameras arrived in 1963, when ABC television network filmed part of the parade and rodeo for the network’s “Wide World of Sports”. In 1968, several bleacher sections were removed and the arena was reduced to a more practical size for the Rodeo. A rodeo queen contest was part of the first event, but it wasn’t until 1982 that the Miss Rodeo Iowa pageant was moved from Sidney to Fort Madison.
Hollywood cowboys were replaced by Nashville singers as the headline entertainers starting in 1971. While performers like Michael Landon and Fess Parker had been featured throughout the ‘50’s and ‘60’s, country crooner and sausage king Jimmy Dean was the star in 1971 and then 14 year old Tanya Tucker garnered top billing in 1973. As times continued to change, so did the rodeo. Autry’s company no longer moved its livestock by rail. By 1974, the Santa Fe stockyards were gone and new pens in Rodeo Park allowed all of the animals to be kept there.
Colorado rancher Mike Cervi became the rodeo’s producer in 1975 and his Cervi Championship Rodeo Company continues to supply the livestock to this day.
Pre-rodeo week was expanded in 1984 with help from local industries. For the first time, purchase of a button served as the admission to barbecue and chili suppers, a country concert and dances.
Big national sponsors have added to the prize money available to the Professional Rodeo Cowboys Association and Women’s Professional Rodeo Association competitors. First designated one of ten stops on the Winston Tour in 1985, the Tri-State Rodeo today is backed by a number of national sponsors including Coors Brewing Company, Jack Daniels Distillery, Justin Boots, Wrangler and Dodge. The rodeo was broadcast on the ESPN2 cable network in 2001 as part of the Wrangler Summer Tour, but was considered too far east for a return engagement.
Since 2000 the Tri-State Rodeo has been named as one of the nation’s top five large outdoor rodeos and continues to rank first among rodeos in the Great Lakes Circuit and in 2001 ranked 43rd among the nation’s more than 700 sanctioned PRCA events. No other rodeo east of Kansas City, Missouri ranked higher.
The Tri-State Rodeo continues to attract the nation’s top cowboys, with competition spread over four nights the first week in September and big name musicians headlining the Friday and Saturday night performances.