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Fort Pierre’s Historical Week

Fort Pierre's Historical Week

For the first time in history, Fort Pierre hosted the South Dakota High School Rodeo Finals this past weekend. It’s a big deal for the state’s capital – after all, rodeo has deep roots within the history of the community.

Belle Fourche had become known in recent years as the home for the high school rodeo finals, which makes sense. After all, they had hosted the event for the past fourteen years. But now it’s a new era of rodeo, one that is located as close to central South Dakota as you can get.

And really, when you think about it, Fort Pierre makes a lot of sense. Not only geographically, but because of some of the big rodeo names who have ties to the town. For starters, Casey Tibbs.

Tibbs was born in Stanley County, about 50 minutes northwest of Fort Pierre. While his passion for rodeo began on South Dakota’s plains, the community that gifted him with his early opportunities of competition were Fort Pierre.

He would go on to win nine world rodeo championships, which included six in saddle bronc, two in all-around cowboy, and one in bareback.

With a legacy like Casey Tibbs, and a town with so much additional passion for rodeo, you’d think at some point, the high school rodeo finals would have come to Fort Pierre – but that wasn’t the case. However, it was because of the failed attempts to host high school rodeos biggest stage that led to another youth rodeo tradition for the community.

“I was put on the state high school board in, I think, 1971 to get [the high school finals] moved from New Underwood to Fort Pierre. There were three of us that weren’t from New Underwood on the board and we didn’t get it moved,” said Willie Cowan, former rodeo athlete and longtime fan. “So that’s really why the 4-H rodeo was here. The community wanted something to do with youth rodeo – that is why the 4-H rodeo is here.

In August of 2021, the 4-H Rodeo Finals will celebrate 50 years in Fort Pierre.

Fast-forward to today, and Fort Pierre is starting new traditions with high school student athletes.

Roughly eighteen months ago, right after the town was awarded the high school rodeo finals for 2020, as part of a new three-year agreement with the South Dakota High School Rodeo Association, the real work began. This was no doubt a big win for the community, but at the same time it meant the facility needed to see some upgrades.

“We started on October 15th of last year and we worked when we could, all we could, during the winter when it wasn’t plump freezing. We had some stuff inside we could work on,” explained Scott Deal, Stanley County Fairgrounds Manager. “Every chance we could get we were out here welding, pounding posts, and building, and it was a major accomplishment, because (for most of it) there was only two of us.”

Despite the hard work, there was concern if the 2020 High School Rodeo Finals would even take place. Covid-19, which forced the cancelation of pretty much all spring sports and activities, was breathing down the necks of rodeo ‘decision makers’ as the event grew closer. Eventually it was decided to proceed forward with the high school finals. Efforts were still made to keep fans and athletes safe at the event.

“We’ve kind of, more or less, tried to follow the [Center for Disease Control] recommendations for staying away from everybody. We’ve put up hand sanitizers and keep things as clean as we can get them,” said Deal. “Rodeo people are kind of a tough crowd, so you tell them to put a mask on, and unless they’re robbing a bank, it’s probably not going to happen.”

It’s true, the rodeo culture is a different breed when it comes to toughness and grit. After all, Casey Tibbs himself broke over 45 bones in his body throughout his career with the sport. South Dakota as a state ranks third for the amount of kids who participate in rodeo at the high school level. It’s not just a hobby, but it’s a way of life for so many.

And in 2021, rain or shine, you can bet that cowboys and cowgirls from all over the Mt. Rushmore State will flock to the west side of the state’s capital to celebrate one of the biggest high school sports events that the state has to offer, the South Dakota High School Rodeo Finals.

Willie Cowan said it best, “Rodeo is South Dakota, and I’m proud to be a South Dakotan.”

Nate Wek is currently the sports content producer and sports and rec beat reporter for South Dakota Public Broadcasting. He is a graduate of South Dakota State University with a Bachelor of Science degree in Journalism Broadcasting and a minor in Leadership. From 2010-2013 Nate was the Director of Gameday Media for the Sioux Falls Storm (Indoor Football League) football team. He also spent 2012 and 2013 as the News and Sports Director of KSDJ Radio in Brookings, SD. Nate, his wife Sarah, and two kids Braxan and Jordy, live in Canton, SD.