Everybody’s got a little giddy-up in their step by the time July 24 gallops into Utah. It’s the month for kicking up our heels at all sorts of events celebrating the founding of this pretty, great state.
But not all Pioneer Day celebrations are cut from the same green Jell-O mold, pardners.
Down in that capital city to the south, the Days of ’47 are king, with a huge parade and rollicking rodeo. Yet here in our own neck of the sagebrush, the Ogden Pioneer Days rule the roost.
And we can’t help but think there may be a bit of competition between these two large but very separate events rife with cowboy hats. Why, just let a body say they’re fixing to watch the Days of ’47 parade roll down Washington Boulevard and they’d be laughed out of town.
“It’s a little like the University of Utah and BYU, there’s a rivalry, but it’s a healthy rivalry,” says Desiree Cooper-Larsen, sponsorship director for the Ogden Pioneer Days committee.
Ogden parade director Bryan Schade says it isn’t a matter of folks up north trying to outdo the July 24 events in Salt Lake City.
“They think they’re the best and we think we’re the best, and we’ll both enjoy our parades and celebrations,” he says.
Although both festivals keep us connected to our pioneer legacy, Ogden Pioneer Days chairman Jerry Shaw explains, “We just feel comfortable in our own skin. We’re satisfied with what we’re doing and we like to try to improve it every year.”
And what better place to celebrate the founding of Utah than in Ogden, where the railroads and the stockyards once attracted droves of people from across the nation, says Mayor Mike Caldwell, taking the reins for his first Ogden Pioneer Days celebration.
“We were the Crossroads of the West ... we’re just one of the most natural places to have it,” Caldwell says.
What is it, then, that sets Ogden Pioneer Days apart from that grand party down in the City of Salt? Let’s take a look at what’s notable, different and even — dare we say it? — better about our home team’s celebration.
Salt Lake City stakes claim to the first parade celebrating Pioneer Day, in 1849, just two years after the Mormon pioneers arrived. Over the years, various parades were held in the capital city, including an event once known as Covered Wagon Days.
But in the modern era, Pioneer Days predates the Days of ’47 celebration by nine years. “Cowboy Mayor” Harm Peery established the Ogden event in 1934, whereas today’s Days of ’47 organization was not incorporated until 1943.
While Salt Lake City festivities focused on pioneers arriving before the coming of the railroad in 1869, Peery designed Ogden’s activities to focus on all of the pioneers settling the state before and after that time, from the American Indians to the Chinese railroad workers, says grandson Robert Peery King of Ogden.
“He thought we should include everybody,” King says, adding, “Every single church had a float, not just the (LDS) wards.”
Rodeo al fresco
Keep your air conditioning and cushy Maverik Center seats, Days of ’47 Rodeo — we’ve got cowboys kicking up dust clouds in the great outdoors.
“We call ours ‘real rodeo under the stars,’ ” says Craig Bielik, marketing and public relations director for Ogden Pioneer Days, of the event that continues Monday and Tuesday.
Other Pioneer Days committee members agree, citing the Ogden Stadium’s picturesque mountain backdrop, spectacular sunsets and cool canyon breezes.
“A lot of cowboys remember this and they like to come here because of that,” says Shaw.
Cooper-Larsen also says the rodeo’s heritage is tied to the stadium, its only home for more than 75 years. The Days of ’47 rodeo started at the Utah Fairpark, then moved to the Delta Center (now EnergySolutions Arena), then relocated in 2009 to West Valley City’s Maverik Center.
As for the notion of holding such a quintessentially Western event in an indoor arena, Bielik jokes, “How real is the rodeo if they’re vacuuming next to you?”
Horses on parade
We’re not talking about real horses, although we’ve got those by the herdful in Ogden’s annual Horse & Hitch Parade, held July 16 this year.
No, these are the painted horses trotting up and down the city streets during Pioneer Days, leading the way to the rodeo grounds. The “Trail to Pioneer Days” features about 65 fiberglass equines embellished by various local artists.
One horse sports a painting of the peak known as Ben Lomond, one bears a likeness of John Wayne, one is even covered in photographs of the faces of community residents.
Other cities across the country may have cows on parade, or buffalo, or even fish, says Ginny Stout, arts director for Downtown Ogden Inc., but, “The horses are special to Ogden.”
This retro-looking cowgirl with the short white dress and twirling lariat is the “face” of Ogden Pioneer Days and an image unique to the O-Town celebration.
“We’re the only one who has a Whoopee Girl,” says Shaw, adding that the classic image, which appears on posters, charm bracelets and souvenir plates, is in the process of being trademarked.
The original Whoopee Girl was Lorene Donaldson Call, a 14-year-old horseback rider chosen by Peery in 1934 to promote the first Pioneer Days celebration.
“We have kept that tradition alive and are even moving forward with it,” Shaw says. Today, a new generation of Whoopie Girls — with a twist on the spelling — are selected each year to ride in the rodeo, carrying sponsor flags, and to participate in other Pioneer Days events.
Cannons in concert
Sure, the Salt Lake City celebration hauls in some big guns — none other than the esteemed Mormon Tabernacle Choir performs for its annual Pioneer Day Commemoration Concert.
But our big guns are real, live cannons, booming in time to “The 1812 Overture” during the annual Lindquist Pops Concert, another outdoor event, held July 15 this year on the grassy lawns of Weber State University.
The Civil War-era cannons belch fire 10 to 15 feet out their barrels and make noise aplenty, says John A. Lindquist of Lindquist Mortuary, whose family and business have sponsored the crowd-pleasing event for 34 years.
“The 1812 Overture” is typically performed with bass drums, Lindquist says, but the cannons just add to the experience. “You can hear a drum anytime on the radio,” he says.
Parade mash up
Anything from horses to Girl Scouts to a bevy of tractors or combines may show up in Ogden’s Pioneer Days parade on Tuesday, and that cross section is one of its pluses, says director Schade.
“It’s more of a hometown flavor,” Schade says, explaining the Salt Lake City parade is more selective about its entries. For example, no towed floats are allowed; they must all be self-propelled.
“I think the people watching the parade enjoy the mixture of what we have,” he says.
Schade says he also likes how Ogden’s parade rolls smack dab down the town’s main street — Washington Boulevard — in contrast to the Days of ’47, which moves along a less central route through Salt Lake City.
Ogden’s Pioneer Days parade differs, too, because it moves from south to north through town, instead of the more common north to south direction of some other Utah parades.
Bielik says another visible difference in the Days of ’47 parade, sponsored by KSL, is that, “They get all the (television) news coverage — there’s no competition,” he quips.
Sure, the Days of ’47 has its parade-waving royalty, but Ogden Pioneer Days takes it up a notch by boasting tiara-wearing beauties on horseback.
Ogden is home to the annual Miss Rodeo Utah pageant, “the premier rodeo queen contest in the state,” says Nicole Cypers, pageant director. The five-day contest among young women from throughout Utah ends with the crowning of a new winner during the July 24 rodeo.
Miss Rodeo Utah not only represents the sport of rodeo, “she’s an ambassador for the Western way of life,” Cypers says. Although folks may view the contestants in the sparkly shirts as “the pretty thing” in the rodeo arena, Cypers says rodeo queens must be accomplished horsewomen who are knowledgeable about rodeo rules and regulations, as well as horse health and anatomy.
Evidence of the caliber of the state competition is that five Miss Rodeo Utahs have ended up also winning the Miss Rodeo America title.
Ogden Pioneer Days Rodeo enthusiasts say the choice of stock contractor gives the hometown event a leg up on other rodeos in the area.
Stace Smith, who brings bulls and horses to Ogden from Texas, has been recognized by the Professional Rodeo Cowboys Association as Stock Contractor of the Year for the past eight years.
“The top stock draws top cowboys,” Bielik says, and, “Top cowboys produce good rides.”
The spectators benefit, too, Shaw says: “People like to see action — the horses we have now, they’re bucking very well.”
Traditions are plentiful in the Ogden Pioneer Days celebration, but 2012 also introduces something new.
A preview of the Utah Cowboy and Western Heritage Museum is on display through July 31 at Ogden’s Union Station. The goal is to create a permanent year-round museum to honor the cowboy and also the artists, performers, ranchers, writers and others — past and present — who have promoted the Western lifestyle.
A sampling of items now on exhibit include Harm Peery’s saddle, artwork publicizing the original Ogden Pioneer Days celebration, and suits belonging to some of Utah’s former Miss Rodeo Americas.
The statewide museum, which will go dormant until next year’s Pioneer Days event, allows visitors to connect with items that link us to the culture and diversity of the West, says chairwoman Susie Van Hooser.
As she says, “You lose those things, they’re never to be found again.”