The East Helena Valley Rodeo opens its 53rd annual weekend Friday night, but the land was used by cowboys well before. In fact, one of the original bronc-busters still throws on his boots and gets his hands dirty some 60 years later.
“In 1948 I jumped on a motorcycle and rode all the way out to Montana,” Leroy Johnson said. “And I’ve been here ever since. I fell in love with the country here.”
“That’s Leroy Johnson,” said Mike Buckley, the President of the East Helena Valley Rodeo. “He broke the ground, essentially, here. He leveled the ground. He’s done it all. This will be our 53rd NRA rodeo and they were rodeoing here 63 years ago under different names.”
And different conditions. Johnson took up broncs and bulls in the 1940s, well before the East Helena rodeo grounds were built.
“It was just pasture-land,” Johnson said. “We tried to work it up but we had humps all over. Back then we didn’t have no barrel racing or stuff like that. Everything was all roughstock. It was the bucking stock and bull-dogging and stuff like that.”
There were no $50,000 stock trailers or even bleachers.
“They just sat in their automobiles or sat along the fence and watched,” Johnson said.
In the early days, every rodeo was, in a sense, a cattle drive.
“We didn’t have no overnight pasture here,” said Johnson. “So we would herd the horses and bulls into a pasture in the valley out there. Then, the next day we would herd them back in again and pen them up. Then run them out again.”
The rodeo outgrew the pasture days and Johnson, along with a handful of other cowboys, built the arena from the ground up.
“These are the original bleachers built in 1963,” Johnson said. “These in here were all wood at one time. Finally, we got steel and we welded them all up and we have mostly maintenance-free.”
That was 53 years and numerous procedures ago.
“I’ve got eight stents in my heart, too, but I’m still kicking,” Johnson said, comically raising his arms in victory.
“Probably the neatest thing about Leroy is he really enjoys driving the tractor and working the grounds,” said Buckley. “As you can see, he’s in his upper 80s and he’s been here for, like I said, 63 years.”
“Mostly keeping the ladies happy, so that their horse can do a good job running out there. That’s the main thing,” Johnson said. “Other than that, just a regular old rodeo.”
A regular old rodeo featuring one of the early cowboys – one who plans to drive that tractor for years to come.
“I hope so, yes. I’m counting on it,” Johnson said.
– Richie Melby, MTN Sports