July 4, 2019 — When the waters of Lake Sakakawea are down, the former townsite of Sanish sometimes resurfaces. Back in the late ‘40s and early ‘50s, Sanish was the place to be for rodeo fans.
A group of enthusiasts held a meeting at the Sanish Fire Hall in April 1947, and their brainchild – the Sanish Rodeo – quickly took shape. By July 3, the newly formed association had constructed a covered grandstand, corrals and chutes. The three-day premiere of the Sanish Rodeo was a hit, with around 8,000 people flocking to the rodeo grounds to watch 80 contestants from all over the nation vie for over $2,000 in prize money.
In the shadow of Mt. Crow Flies High, the location was ideal, with easy access to the water, plenty of trees for camping and picnicking and open pasture for parking. The campgrounds were peppered with a wide variety of camper trailers, tents and authentic teepees.
The Sanish event was a salute to the old west; festivities opened with a Grand Parade featuring Hidatsas, Mandans and Arikaras dressed in their finest regalia – some on horses, others dancing and singing. Next came an old-fashioned chuck wagon followed by fiddlers and ‘homesteaders.’
Rodeo events included bronco riding, horse races, bulldogging, calf roping, relays, wild cow milking, and a Shetland pony race. Local bands and specialty acts provided entertainment between events; included were nationally acclaimed rodeo acts, cowboy singers, rodeo clowns and movie stars from popular western films of the day. The first year, a skydiver made two jumps onto the rodeo grounds. There was also a carnival, a nightly bowery dance and concession stands.
As word spread, attendance and participation in the Sanish Rodeo grew, with an estimated 18-20,000 visitors by 1950. One report read, “Three hours before the afternoon program, there was a 2-mile long line of cars waiting to get through the gate.” The grandstand held only 2,500 people, so most of the audience gathered on the sidelines on blankets and lawn chairs.
The prize money grew to nearly $4,000, and the Sanish Rodeo was soon drawing the largest number of contestants in the state. Winners were awarded silver belt buckles donated by area businesses, and the grand champion of the rodeo was presented with a handmade saddle, produced by an area resident and valued at over $250.
The rodeo became one of the highlights of the year, and folks from all corners of the state looked forward to spending their 4th of July holiday in Sanish. Kaye Nelson, of Grassy Butte, attended the Sanish rodeo as a child, and remembers, “It was huge. It was absolutely fantastic! … The people in Sanish and the surrounding area worked like crazy on it. When you’d go to Sanish near rodeo time there’d be signs in the store windows saying ‘Down at the arena.’ They were all down there working. Brooks Keogh was a fabulous organizer and promoter.”
In 1953, just days prior to the seventh Annual Sanish Rodeo, the ninth pier of the Four Bears Bridge was completed, and the rodeo grounds were soon to be under water. Fifteen thousand attended that year, and most supported the idea of finding a new location for the event. But conditions as favorable as those in Sanish weren’t available elsewhere, and the association was finally forced to sell the rodeo equipment and disbanded.
The North Dakota Cowboy Hall of Fame inducted the Sanish Rodeo as a ‘Special Achievement Honoree’ in 2001, commending it as an “entity that helped foster western character.” North Dakotans who remember the Sanish Rodeo would probably agree.
“Dakota Datebook” is a radio series from Prairie Public in partnership with the State Historical Society of North Dakota and with funding from the North Dakota Humanities Council. See all the Dakota Datebooks at prairiepublic.org, or subscribe to the “Dakota Datebook” podcast.