Rodeo veterans help Oakley’s 80-year-old event grow and prosper
Looking down from his perch in the announcer’s stand, Ken Woolstenhulme admits that Oakley’s current rodeo complex exceeds anything he could have imagined. He remembers when the town’s first rodeos were held in a meadow roped off with snow fencing. Local cowboys parked their trucks around the perimeter to use as bleachers. Their headlights lit the makeshift arena.
"I was 8 or 9 years old and they let us kids ride steers. They gave us 50 cents if we rode ’em and 25 cents if we got bucked off. That was a big payday in those days," he recalls.
Then in the late 1940s, a handful of local leaders decided to build an arena at the town park. "We pulled in a couple of wooden bleachers next to the school house," Woolstenhulme said. As attendance grew, so did the facilities. They built chutes and bigger bleachers while Woolstenhulme and the other local kids kept riding bigger and bigger animals.
After honing his skills in the local arena, Woolstenhulme expanded his horizons on the Rocky Mountain Rodeo Association circuit throughout the West. He found success riding bulls and bareback broncs, winning 18 regional championships.
Woolstenhulme reluctantly admits that he even worked a couple of seasons as a rodeo clown, "to make my entry fees," but ultimately found his calling as a pickup rider, one of the mounted arena officials who swoop in to grab cowboys off the ground before they get stomped by an agitated bull or bronc. He and his brother Dutch Woolstenhulme rescued a passel of riders during the six years they worked together for the Bar T Rodeo, one of the West’s pre-eminent rodeo producers.
When it was time to settle down, Woolstenhulme bought the general store in Oakley and took over as the town’s postmaster. His central role in the community was cemented when he won the mayor’s office and from the head seat on the council he encouraged the town to continue investing in the rodeo grounds.
"But you can’t talk about that without mentioning Gerald Young. He was there from the get go," Woolstenhulme said.
Young, who still serves as chairman of the Oakley Rodeo committee, was another one of those rambunctious kids getting tossed off steers in the meadow on Millrace Road.
"We’d sit around listening to the other cowboys tell tall tales. I did a little bareback, nothing too fancy. I went down to Henefer once and won $50," he recalled. But, instead of competing Young grew more interested in owning the animals the cowboys were riding. "I started with a few horses, got a few more and we started going around the state producing rodeos." His company, Young and Young produced the Oakley rodeo for many years.
During that time, Oakley’s little local rodeo kept gaining new fans, eventually drawing the attention of the Professional Rodeo Cowboy Association, the World Cup circuit of rodeo competition. That’s when, according to Young, the Oakley Rodeo really took off. The crowds, competitors and animals began to overflow the arena.
At that point, according to Mayor Woolstenhulme, a local landowner offered to sell the city a 78-acre parcel on the outskirts of town where there was plenty of space for parking, stockyards and even bigger bleachers. Young and Woolstenhulme immediately realized that the site would offer the rodeo, which had become a vital source of revenue for the city, room to grow.
These days, Young and Woolstenhulme leave riding the rough stock to younger cowboys. But they are still active in ensuring the four-night, sold-out event is a success.
Wednesday evening, leaning on the rail behind the bull chutes, Young surveyed the flurry of activity — bull riders checking their rigging, bronc riders making last-minute adjustments to their stirrups and Bar T officials jotting notes on their clipboards.
"If you are born and raised here, it becomes part of you. I’m proud of it," he said.
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