In the hills that surround Gilroy and Morgan Hill, the west is still wild. Cowboys still ride and rope, same as they did back in the day of Henry Miller’s reign as the “Cattle King of California.”
This summer, a reminder of the Santa Clara Valley’s past and present will descend on Gilroy Aug. 11-12. The Gilroy Rodeo is back after a 62-year hiatus.
“I asked my wife, Kendra, ‘Why isn’t there a rodeo in town?’” Rodeo Director Erik Martin said. “She said, ‘Because all the other wives said no.’ Well, she said yes.”
What started as a conversation between husband and wife turned into almost two years of planning and work. The Gilroy Rodeo is a nonprofit event, designed to be family-friendly, with the ultimate goal of donating revenue to local organizations such as 4-H that help preserve the county’s western heritage.
The new home will be on a 62-acre ranch on Ferguson Road, a former dairy farm owned by Bill Furtado, Martin’s grandfather-in-law. There, the Gilroy Rodeo is building a 150-by-310-foot arena, large enough to seat more than 6,300 people.
“We’re proud to host this event on our family ranch,” Martin, 43, said.
There’s a lot more than cowboys and steers that goes into organizing a rodeo, and wrangling with county regulations has proved to be as formidable as a charging bull.
“It’s been a headache,” Martin said. “You need to jump through a lot of hoops in the world we live in. And most ranchers don’t like to do that.”
Thankfully, Martin has a stable of 60 enthusiastic volunteers. On May 24 they met at the Old City Hall in Gilroy to crown the Rodeo’s grand marshall and the 2018 Miss Gilroy Rodeo.
In a place that values its agricultural heritage, Gilroy has not had a rodeo since the Gymkhana shut down in 1956. The site of the old Gymkhana is now home of South Valley Middle School. The 2018 Gilroy Rodeo will be the only rodeo in Santa Clara County.
While nearby rodeos such as the massive California Rodeo in Salinas and the San Benito County Saddle Horse Show and Rodeo are going strong, the Gilroy Rodeo will give local riders a chance to shine in the arena.
“This is a hometown rodeo,” Martin said. “The difference between the California Rodeo and us is that they are a Professional Rodeo Cowboys Association rodeo and we’re going with the California Cowboys Professional Rodeo Association. It’s kind of like a farm league. They have insurance, and anyone can sign up for it with a one-day permit. The sign-ups open two to four weeks before the rodeo.”
It will be an action-packed August weekend for the Gilroy Rodeo. Aside from the rodeo competition, there’ll be a dance, a cowboy church, music and a full-on display of what cowboy life is all about.
“We’re going to do things that simulate what you do on a ranch,” Martin said. “You’ll see what working cowboys do.”
Martin, the owner of a construction company, grew up on his family’s ranch outside of Escondido. As Escondido grew, the ranch was eventually swallowed up by urban sprawl. He now hopes to pass along his family’s ranching tradition to his son Maverick, daughter Cora-Lee and one more child on the way.
Gilroy High alumnus Jade Katen-Ynzunza, a marketing and biology major at Northern Arizona University was crowned the 2018 rodeo queen, and her grandmother Joyce Vieira was named the grand marshall.
“I’ve been a rodeo queen before, so I know it’s quite a responsibility,” Katen-Ynzunza, 21, said. “You need to be the face of the rodeo, you talk with the news, and you need to be a role model for kids.”
Vieira, who owns and operates a ranch on Day Road, still rides high in the saddle and, at age 77, ropes and rides with visitors to her ranch. Being rodeo royalty is not new for her: In 1959 she was queen of the San Jose Firefighters Rodeo.