By Rich Place
When John Kent was growing up, he wanted to be in the rodeo. As a teenager, he’d break horses and he learned to ride them with hopes of one day getting in an arena.
“I wanted to go to rodeos and my mommy wouldn’t let me,” said Kent with a laugh. “I was interested in the rodeo back when I was a kid.”
Kent may have never become a competitor but his involvement in rodeos has spanned decades as he has owned and managed the Ellicottville Championship Rodeo on Sommerville Valley Road alongside his wife, Karen, for 30 years.
During an interview in late June, Kent walked around his property and pointed to spots that triggered various memories. He remembers replacing tents with permanent buildings, erecting an announcers stand to replace a hay wagon and building the seats that now line the hillside.
He also remembers the highs and lows of the cowboys in the arena — from getting bucked completely out of the arena to earning near perfect scores complemented by the generous applause of an enthusiastic crowd.
Despite being a tradition for three decades around the Independence Day holiday, what was it that first made Kent think Ellicottville — known mostly for its skiing in the late 1980s — would be a good fit for a rodeo?
“I’m an odd guy,” he admitted. “But I kind of just knew. Look at the Attica Rodeo, they’ve been up there for 60-some years and the Gerry Rodeo has been up there for more than 70 years. I just figured, ‘hell, there’s room for one more.’
“You go to their places and see their crowds and you realize people like rodeos. I’m kind of an entrepreneur — I like to take risks,” he added.
What started as a handful of events has grown to 10 in this year’s rodeo, which is scheduled for July 5 to 8. There will be an extra trick rider for a total of four this year, plus all the returning favorites like the rodeo clown, talented announcers and judges, and fireworks to end each evening show.
That’s all in addition to the hundreds of cowboys expected to compete for more than $60,000 in prize money over those four days.
A rodeo is a unique event to organize — the rodeo events themselves are sanctioned by both the International Professional Riders Association (IPRA) and American Professional Riders Association (APRA), and competitors sign up themselves to compete in Ellicottville.
But most of the acts — from the clown act in the arena to the announcer in the booth — are aspects of the show that Kent hires himself.
“My rodeo announcer … he’s the top rodeo announcer in the country,” he said. “My clown act, Dusty Myers, he is the top clown.” And Kent isn’t clowning around — Myers has earned Clown of the Year for eight consecutive years.
Locally, Kent said work to get the rodeo underway in early July begins at the beginning of March with ordering T-shirts and organizing the upcoming advertisements and sponsorships.
His wife, Karen, handles a lot of the paperwork for insurance and permits, he said. The pair get advertising in local newspapers and on the radio and this year put up 10 area billboards. They’ve been up since the beginning of June.
Then comes preparing the arena itself. What is essentially a grassy field for 11 months out of the year is turned into a rodeo arena in a period of a few days. The fencing this year went up about two weeks before the show and sponsor signs were quick to go up after that.
Then comes parts of the show most people don’t notice but that add to the experience, Kent said. That includes a strict mowing schedule the days leading up to the show so grass clippings aren’t all over when guests arrive.
“You won’t see that when rodeo time comes because I’ll mow this thing every three days and all that stuff disappears,” Kent said.
A self-proclaimed stickler for keeping his property clean, Kent said there is a team that works the events to constantly pick up garbage and ensure trash bags are replaced often.
“I despise seeing garbage lay,” he said. “You come here and you pay $20 to get in that gate — you want to see a nice place. We provide that.”
It all leads up to the rodeo itself, this year spanning four days right after Independence Day. For a guy who grew up loving the rodeo, Kent admitted when it’s showtime he’s often not watching it himself but keeps busy behind the scenes.
That doesn’t mean he’s not paying attention.
“I listen to the crowd — I know when we have a good show because the crowd is ‘oohing’ and ‘ahhing’ and applauding and cheering,” he said. “But as far as standing and watching it, no. We’ve got 55 people working. There are things that have to be done.”
But in 30 years, he’s still seen his share of action at the Ellicottville Championship Rodeo.
“One year we had a Canadian boy bucked off right here along where the telephone poles are,” he said, pointing to a spot in front of the bleachers. “He landed right there by the bleachers. He got off the ground and sat down on the bleachers between some people. It’s crazy. It’s wild.”
There’s also been plenty of great rides and talented cowboys.
“We’ve had beautiful rides and high scores,” he said.
Twenty-eight years ago he started Nightmare Hayrides at the same property, which keeps him busy long into October. His time is also spent selling hay to other farmers, and that’s something that’s kept him busy recently in conjunction with preparing for the rodeo.
When the show starts on July 5, he’s hoping for a good crowd. The bleachers hold 1,000, his benches on the hillside hold another 2,000 and there’s plenty of room for people to bring blankets and lawn chairs.
Kent said attendance continues to show signs of growth each year and people come from all over — riders from as far as Australia and visitors from across the country and many from right around the area.
No, Kent never got into the arena in front of a roaring crowd. But after 30 years of supplying entertainment to tens of thousands of people, it’s safe to say he made a career out of being in the rodeo.
The Ellicottville Championship Rodeo takes place at 7 p.m. July 5 to 7 and at 2 p.m. on July 8. Gates open two hours prior to each show to allow guests to walk the various craft vendors and food stands. Fireworks are scheduled to follow each evening show.
Adult tickets for those ages 13 and up are $20 at the gate. Tickets for children 12 and under are $12 and children five and under are admitted free.
For more information on the Ellicottville Championship Rodeo, visit ellicottvillerodeo.com.