SP Historical Society exhibit shows that ‘Santa Paula Rodeo’ still thrills

August 13, 2008
Santa Paula News

Drawing thousands of visitors to the city throughout two decades, during that time Santa Paula could easily have been known as the Fiesta Ranchera/Rodeo Capital of the World.

By Peggy KellySanta Paula TimesDrawing thousands of visitors to the city throughout two decades, during that time Santa Paula could easily have been known as the Fiesta Ranchera/Rodeo Capital of the World. You’ll see why when you visit “Santa Paula Rodeo,” a tribute to and Wild West show of the Santa Paula Fiesta Ranchera and Rodeo, now on exhibit at the Santa Paula California Oil Museum.This comprehensive exhibit, presented by the Santa Paula Historical Society, details in photos, newspaper clippings, logbooks, documents and memorabilia the heyday of the rodeo. First staged first in 1939 as a fundraiser to help create a children’s park, the Ranchera was held ten times until the early 1950s when that dream came true with the creation of Harding Park, named after George Harding who spearheaded the Junior Chamber of Commerce effort.Action-packed oversized photographs of aspects of the rodeo are a viewing thrill ride, and the life-sized model horse and suitably dressed rodeo competitor give a sense of the heady days of the rodeo, the brainchild of Harding with advice from his good friend, well known rodeo stock rancher Andy Jauregui. The event was wildly successful from its earliest days and, although refined over the years, never lost that flair in showcasing the solidly - then as now - popular rodeo sports.Traditional rodeo always featured the essential rodeo clown, charged with distracting unruly bulls once the rider was thrown. Clowns as well as cowboy celebrities were attracted to the Santa Paula Ranchera/Rodeo, including Monte Montana.World Champion Rodeo rider Gene Rambo was also a participant, lending even more status to the event that proved from the first to be a top draw. In 1948 Wild Bill Elliot, a real cowboy and film star, was a Santa Paula Ranchera fixture.But Harding kept his eye on the prize, and the bottom line to make a recreational park for children a reality. Over the years costs were cut and Harding acted as master of ceremonies, with Joe Wellman delighting audiences as the rodeo clown.
Harding, whose family, like Jauregui’s, were longtime Santa Paulans, took the hometown cowboy image seriously. He designed the Santa Paulan hat, manufactured by famous maker Stetson.Starting with an original sketch of the layout by Jauregui - also on display - by the next year the rodeo’s program took up the entire front page of the-then Santa Paula Daily Chronicle. The Fiesta Parade was also a popular event, bringing as many as 20,000 visitors to the city for the two-hour spectacular, which each year featured the Rodeo Queen and her Court.During rodeo days community members were required to wear western attire and the men required to grow beards. If caught on Main Street otherwise, the offenders were locked in a makeshift hoosegow and fined for their freedom. Such fines also benefited the community.In 1951 the Junior Chamber gave the city the land where the Boys & Girls Club of Santa Clara River Valley clubhouse currently stands. That same year a regulation baseball field was built with the efforts of Santa Paula Police Chief Thomas Moore. Five years later volunteers constructed the Santa Paula Little League Field, and in the 1970s more dedicated citizens constructed the Santa Paula ASA Softball grounds for both girls and boys.Almost 40 years after the initial rodeo, in 1978, Harding and other Junior Chamber members formally presented the city with the land that came to be called George L. Harding Park, a fitting honor for the community booster and visionary.The Santa Paula Historical Society has created a memorable exhibit and planted a thought for event rich Santa Paula: how about bringing back the rodeo? The exhibit ends August 24 at the museum, located at the corner of 10th and Main streets.The museum is open Wednesday through Sunday, 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. Admittance varies. Call 933-0076 for more information.

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