Pecos is a town with roots tracing back to 1873 and it stands as a testament to the rich tapestry of American frontier history. As the Butterfield Overland Mail Route, Chisholm Trail and Goodnight-Loving Trail traversed here, Pecos quickly evolved into an important supply town for the ranches scattered within a 100-mile radius.
In the early days of frontier Pecos, the corrals were bustling with the comings and goings of cattle, and the atmosphere was alive with the camaraderie and occasional argument that arose when cowboys congregated. These gatherings were important, as they formed a network that connected the vast landscapes of the American West. However, where cowboys gathered, conflicts were bound to emerge. Judge Roy Bean’s “Law West of the Pecos” became the silent guardian of order, keeping the rowdiness in check, except for a few gunfights leaving their mark, literally, on the town’s colorful history.
One can still trace the echoes of these confrontations through the bullet holes preserved in the historic West of the Pecos Museum, a testament to that tumultuous yet spirited era in the history of Pecos. However, with time, a more friendly competition began to take center stage.
As the story goes, in 1883 the cowboys from several area ranches were engaged in an argument as to which outfit (ranch) had the best cowboys. It was decided to outline a number of contests that would determine who were the best cowboys. On July 4, 1883, Pecos, Texas, was home to the first rodeo. That date was chosen because it was a holiday, and everyone could attend.
The excitement that filled the dusty air that day was palpable, with bragging rights hanging in the balance as cowhands from various ranches showcased their skills. The location for this event was the south side of the Pecos Courthouse. Various wagons and horses made a circular makeshift arena. No admission was charged and on that day the audience witnessed a defining moment of the Wild West as the first rodeo was held.
Cattle outfits that were represented during this historic event were the NA, Lazy Y, and W Ranches. The prizes were ribbons cut from a new dress from a little girl in the crowd. That memorable day the best ropers were first, Morg Livingston of the NA and second, Trav Windham of the Lazy Y. Others who participated were Howard Collier, Fate Beard, Jim Mannin, George Brookshire, John Chalk, Jeff Chism, Jim Livingston, Jim and Henry Slack, Brawley Oates, Henry Miller, and E.P. Stuckler. Henry Slack, who was the last surviving member of this group, headed the annual rodeo parade for many years, always riding straight and tall in his saddle. He passed away in 1944.
Local historian Barney Hubbs gathered affidavits from people and family members who participated in that first rodeo. Encyclopedia Britannica declared Pecos, Texas as the Home of the World’s First Rodeo. The encyclopedia states Pecos is where the first public cowboy contest wherein prizes were awarded to the winners of the bronc riding and steer roping competitions.
The rodeo was held in at least four locations until 1935 when several significant changes were made. The location was set at its current location on South Highway 285. Up until that year the rodeo was held during the day, with dances following in the evening. In 1935 the rodeo started a new tradition by staging the event in the evening, when it was a lot cooler than those over-110-temperature days. Additionally, the rodeo was broadcast for the first time on the local Pecos KIUN radio station.
The West of the Pecos Rodeo has played a pivotal role in shaping rodeo events, notably introducing the Cloverleaf pattern in Pecos on July 3, 1945. This innovative concept, initially created to include cowgirls in the rodeo, involved navigating the distinctive cloverleaf pattern as quickly as possible around three barrels in the arena without knocking them over. This unique contribution has become a defining and dynamic element of the modern rodeo.
Today, the legacy of that first rodeo lives on with the annual West of the Pecos Rodeo. The rodeo is one of the Professional Rodeo Cowboys Association’s (PRCA) top 40 prize money rodeos and showcases the best cowboys and cowgirls from around the country. Each year the rodeo brings in over 500 contestants, each vying for top prize money that can catapult them to the prestigious National Finals Rodeo in Las Vegas, Nevada.
The West of the Pecos Rodeo has continued to evolve while staying true to its deep-seated history. Recognized as one of the top-notch rodeos in the PRCA today, it has earned multiple nominations for Large Outdoor Rodeo of the Year.
The event transforms Pecos into a tightly knit community welcoming participants and spectators alike for a week filled with Wild West festivities. The festivities kick off Monday night with the famous Silver Skull gala which is designed not only to entertain but also to showcase the rodeo sponsors who play a crucial role in bringing this event to life. The following day (Tuesday) starts with evening slack and every morning after that. Wednesday is the official start of the rodeo with the much-anticipated West of the Pecos Rodeo Parade. Colorful floats, horse groups, and the Pecos High School band travel the parade route waving at the crowds of people lining the streets. The Annual West of the Pecos Museum Old Timer’s Reunion is also held that day. This event has brought together area pioneers for over five decades. Each rodeo performance begins at 8 p.m. nightly and is filled with adrenaline-pumping performances for both participants and spectators.
A cornerstone of the West of the Pecos Rodeo’s success is attributed to the dedication of the Rodeo committee; its members oversee and guide all aspects of the rodeo. The choice of stock is paramount, and in this regard, the rodeo has consistently set itself apart by bringing in some of the best in the business. Pete Carr and Carr Pro Rodeo, with their unparalleled reputation for having the finest stock, ensure that every rodeo-goer witnesses riveting matchups and, perhaps, witness history being made in the arena.
The West of the Pecos Rodeo brings in some of the most notable personalities to make the rodeo experience a once-in-a-lifetime event for all who attend. The emcee of each rodeo performance is Anthony Lucia of Weatherford, Texas, who has a deep understanding of the rodeo world and provides humor and keeps the fans informed from his vantage point on horseback in the arena. Adding to the electrifying atmosphere and rocking the house every night is the 2022 PRCA Music Director of the Year, Benje Bendele, who ensures that the energy is palpable throughout the performances. However, the magic doesn’t stop there. Behind the scenes, the unsung heroes of the rodeo are John and Sandy Gwatney, often referred to as the backbone of the entire rodeo operation, who work tirelessly to ensure that every aspect runs seamlessly. Their dedication and attention to detail contribute significantly to the overall success of the West of the Pecos Rodeo.
The acclaim and recognition bestowed upon the West of the Pecos Rodeo extend beyond the arena. In 2015, 2016, and 2023, the rodeo received nominations from PRCA cardholders, the cowboys themselves, as one of the five best large outdoor rodeos across the country. Such acknowledgment speaks volumes about the high regard in which the West of the Pecos rodeo is held within the professional rodeo community.
The pinnacle of recognition came in 2008 when the West of the Pecos Rodeo was inducted into the ProRodeo Hall of Fame. This prestigious honor solidified its place in history, acknowledging not only its longevity but also its significant contributions to the sport of rodeo.
The West of the Pecos Rodeo garnered further accolades in 2023 when the rodeo was nominated as Large Committee of the Year in the PRCA Texas circuit, a testament to the tireless efforts and collaborative spirit of the individuals and organizations behind the event.
The West of the Pecos Rodeo has evolved into a world-class rodeo spectacle and is a celebration that transcends time connecting the modern rodeo experience to the roots laid down in the dust of Pecos over a century ago. Immerse yourself in the legacy of rodeo excellence at the Texas Rodeo Hall of Fame and discover frontier tales and cowboy lore at the West of the Pecos Museum.