Limestone County is celebrating its 35th consecutive Sheriff’s Rodeo beginning the week of May 13 and ending May 20, and everyone involved is sure that this year’s is going to be bigger and better than ever! As always it will be held at the arena which is located on Hwy 99 in West Athens. The rodeo has grown to be an impressive, multi-award winning event from its humble beginnings 35 years ago, and helps the economy, promotes tourism, supports the special needs community, provides equipment such as squad cars for the Sheriff’s Department, and brings our town and county together for what has been called “impressive entertainment.” It has other affectionate nicknames as well, such as “The Greatest Show On Dirt,” and Deputy Sheriff Paul Cain says it is “the last bastion of true family entertainment.”
From the perspective of serious rodeo industry standards, our rodeo is one of the top 5 International Pro-Rodeo Association outdoor rodeos in the entire nation, and this year Paul says we’ll have “the biggest program in 20 years.” He went on to say how much he appreciates the support of the local business community and that of local government. “Just this morning Mayor Marks and Commissioner Yarborough were here to sign a joint resolution declaring ‘Rodeo Week,’ and we could not do it without everyone getting involved,” said Paul. He added that we have over 624 businesses supporting the rodeo through ads; there are 30 skyboxes and 26 sponsors contributing to the prize money.
One of the goals for this year’s event is to get two new squad cars, as well as to continue making improvements and renovations on an arena that has literally withstood some fierce storms. The renovations include installing aluminum bleachers, which handle the weather well, along with installing handicapped access and seating. “We are entirely dependent upon the weather,” said Paul. We all know from years gone by that at times the rodeo has been rained out. Even with the weather occasionally throwing a crank in the works, the show does go on, and Paul says, “We just about have this down to a science.” He then proceeded to explain some of the logistics involved in getting the riders slotted, the Rodeo Queen Pageant, the Slack Rodeo and the Special Needs Rodeo organized, as well as the dance and parade in place.
I learned something about “Slack” that I found interesting and pass on to you. I had been under the misunderstanding that people who competed in the Slack Rodeo were kind of like a junior varsity version of a sports team, and this was their chance to gain experience before they “hit the big time.” Not true. There is a complicated process of working around the schedules and registration sequences of the professional riders, and sometimes a champion rider needs to ride Slack on Thursday night so he can get to other events held on a Friday or Saturday. This means that if you cannot come to the Rodeo on Friday or Saturday night, you’ll still see just as good of a show. Paul describes it as a “full blown rodeo without the frills.”
The Sheriff’s Rodeo is not only nationally known for its caliber of riding and roping competitions, it has produced several national Miss Rodeo USA winners. “I want people to know that Debbie Blakely works just as hard on the Pageant as Sheriff Mike does on the rodeo,” said Paul. This year’s Rodeo Queen is MacKenzie Harrold, who hails from Ohio. “She is one of the best ambassadors we have ever had,” said Paul, and the people of Athens-Limestone County have welcomed her with open arms.
She had a situation where she was in a tough Miss Rodeo USA competition in Oklahoma City, and her parents regretfully could not be there with her. Much to MacKenzie’s relief and delight, she looked up and saw a whole passel of folks from Limestone County sitting in a row, just there to support her. In this Pageant, MacKenzie won First Runner-Up, as well as the Photogenic and Speech awards. She narrowly lost the Miss Rodeo USA title to Brittany Howard from Kentucky, also one of our Limestone Rodeo contestants, and who will be joining MacKenzie for this year’s Rodeo. MacKenzie says she’ll never forget our kindness toward her, and is planning on returning here for the Rodeo long after her reign ends in a few weeks.
One of the most important parts of the event is the Special Needs Rodeo. “This year we are going to have 500 kids participating,” Paul said. It’s another part of the Rodeo that just would not happen without community support. He went on to tell me that “the Athens Gas Department grills all the hot dogs. The Fire Department shows up, puts on displays, and the kids can climb on the trucks and see them. The Lions Club brings the little train and gives free rides, and we rent a second train as well.” Of course, there is also the parade that does not charge a fee to enter, the free pony rides, the dance, and the Slack event that serves as a reward program for winners of the reading contest. Paul finished our time by saying, “If you’ve never been, you need to come. You’ll never miss another one.”
For the first time, tickets to the rodeo will be able to be purchased online at www.limestonesheriffrodeo.com, and full information on prices and schedules can be found there.
By: Ali Elizabeth Turner