Rodeo is an American tradition – the past meeting the present and a chance to be a kid again. Even in this fast changing world, the American cowboy remains a symbol of traditions and values that remain steady. Rodeo events such as roping, tie-down, bareback and saddle bronc riding, all evolved from the cowboy’s regular ranch chores that made long work days on the ranch pass faster with a little competition. Today, the rodeo events keep the “old days” alive.
Since 1949, the Franklin Noon Rotary Club has been bringing rodeo traditions to Franklin with the annual Franklin Rodeo. There have been changes during the past 70 years, such as change of date, venue, sanctioning organization and parade route; the elimination of the shoot out on Public Square in the 1990s and the addition of new activities and events.
However, the core of the rodeo and the Rotary principles have not changed.
The Franklin Rodeo emerged when founding members of the Franklin Noon Rotary Dr. Harry Guffee, Rev. Henry Moberly, Bill Miller, Bob Corlee, John and Preston Fowlkes and others were looking for a fundraising project that echoed the Rotary’s principles of truth, service, goodwill and friendship while benefitting others. It so happened the Texas-born Fowlkes brothers had rodeo experience and the others still had a little cowboy left in them.
The Franklin Rodeo debuted on the first weekend in May at the county’s community football field, located where the Community Services facility currently stands.
Until 2007, the three performances were Friday night, Saturday afternoon and Saturday evening.
“They had to set up a fence all around the arena,” said Karen Fowlkes, daughter-in-law of the late Preston Fowlkes.
“They pounded in posts [for the fences] all around the arena.”
The beneficiary of the first rodeo was the Franklin High School Marching Band, and the donation was designated for new uniforms.
Thousands of Williamson County children grew up with the Franklin Rodeo. For many, it was the biggest event of the year. Charlie Fox was one of those children.
“The rodeo was the highlight of the year,” Fox said.
Like many children, Fox rode his pony in the annual Saturday afternoon rodeo parade. It wasn’t uncommon to have 1,000 horses in the parade. The route ended at the rodeo gates in time for the 2:30 afternoon show and kids who participated in the parade got free admission to the rodeo.
“The rodeo gave us a couple weeks out of the year to revert back to our childhood days and play cowboys again,” Fox said.
Doyle Beard was 16 when he began helping put up the cross fences to contain the livestock before and after the shows. The fence-post holes were dug by hand, and the cross ties were rolled around the arena to be put in place.
“We had bulls try to jump the fence,” he said. “One bull jumped out and made a straight line to the arena.”
The bull made it into the stands before “Mr. Preston” roped it and dragged it away, Beard said. The crowd went home with an exciting story.
Rain was an issue every year at both the community field and later the field at Jim Warren Park. It never missed a year, but the show goes on – except once when a tornado was predicted. Often the Saturday afternoon show was moved to Sunday afternoon due to rain, but it wasn’t canceled.
Years later, a female contestant told Fitzgerald she “didn’t know how many boots [she] lost in the arena during that time.”
At Jim Warren Park, the arena, located where what is now the new football field, was a bowl created by the mining of phosphate many years earlier. Pumps were installed to get rid of the rainwater, but they often failed.
Larry Dale became a member of the Rotary club in 1980 and was in charge of the calf scramble for kids.
“The mud was so deep kids would lose shoes and boots, and we had to carry the kids out,” Dale said. “The next year, when we were preparing the arena, we’d find the boots and shoes.”
After years of dealing with the rain, a Rotarian made the case that weather was always better the third weekend in May, said Rotarian Pat Dunn. It was decided to change the rodeo from the first weekend in May to the third weekend to get away from the mud and the cold weather than often hit early in the month. The rain continued, but it often was warmer.
Until the 1990s the parade paused for a good ole western shoot-out on Public Square between gun-toting Rotarians – some good guys and some bad guys who, for a day, were kids again.
The rodeo was a sanctioned International Professional Rodeo Association (IPRA) event until 2004 when it changed to a Professional Rodeo Cowboy Association sanctioned event.
By then, “we could see we needed more professional athletes,” said Bill Fitzgerald, rodeo chairman. “With the professional sports in the Nashville area - Titans, Predators, Sounds, it just made sense.”
The year 2007 was a year of big changes. The rodeo moved to the indoor, climate controlled arena at the Ag Expo Center where rain would no longer be a problem, or so they thought, until an Ag Expo employee turned on the water system in the arena a few days prior to the rodeo, and everyone went out to lunch. When they returned, the arena was flooded. Fortunately, it was drained and dried out enough to have the rodeo.
Also that year the schedule changed to performances on Thursday, Friday and Saturday nights.
Thanks to a few visionaries and friends working together, for 70 years the Franklin Rodeo has been providing an evening of family fun entertainment, while raising funds for local charities and demonstrating service above self.
“That’s what we do,” Dale said. “It allows the community to help [give back]. It’s a win-win for everybody.”