In 1948, C.E. (Eddie) Richards brought the Rodeo to the Tri-State area. Every year since Fort Madison has been home to the best rodeo of the Professional Rodeo Cowboys Association Great Lake Circuit. Every year thousands of people flock to the Fort Madison area starting Labor day weekend for a week of action-packed entertainment and events.
of the tri-state rodeo
The year was 1948, and Fort Madison was about to lose their most significant annual event, a Labor Day parade and picnic sponsored by the railroad’s craft unions; with the introduction of a diesel locomotive 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 the Fort Madison Chamber of Commerce resident 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 horse 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, wouldn’t be big enough for the rodeo. Land was purchased then from the Feisen family, and the Iowa State Penitentiary became the heart of today’s Rodeo Park, 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 area with a capacity of at least 10,000 seats had to be provided. Volunteers did both, resigning $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 related 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 rode 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 filmed part of the parade and rodeo for the network’s “Wild 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 ‘50s and ‘60s, county 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 the livestock to be kept there.
Colorado rancher Mike Cervi became the rodeo’s first producer in 1975, and his Cervi Championship Rodeo Company continues to supply the livestock to this day.
The pre-rodeo week was expanded in 1984 with help from local industries. For the first time, the purchase of a rodeo button was the admission to barbecue and chili suppers, along with a country concert and dances.
National sponsors have added the prize money available to the Professional Rodeo Cowboys Association and Women’s Professional Rodeo Association competitors. The Tri-State Rodeo was designated one of the ten stops on the Winston Tour in 1985. The Tri-State Rodeo is continued to be sponsored by a number of national sponsors, including Gold Buckle Beer, Jack Daniels Distillery, Justin Boots, Wrangler, and RAM. Over the years, the rodeo has been nationally broadcast on multiple networks and featured on the Cowboy Network in 2022.
Since 2000 the Tri-State Rodeo has been named one of the nation's top five large outdoor rodeos and continues to rank first among the Great Lakes Circuit. In 2001 the Tri-State Rodeo was ranked 43rd among the nation’s more than 700 sanctioned PRCA events.
The Tri-State Rodeo continues to attract the nation’s top cowboys, with competition spread over four nights the first week in September. National entertainment takes Jack Daniel’s stage each night following the performance.