Erik Martin, standing on his family’s 62-acre ranch on Ferguson Road, points west toward Gilroy city limits.
“On that side of 101, it’s all City of Gilroy,” he says. “There’s sidewalks on every street, nothing that’s ag. You come on this side, all these fields here in the valley, it’s all ag. It’s still here.”
Silicon Valley’s urban sprawl is slowly making its way south, pushing out those who have deep roots in the South Valley’s Western heritage.
“How can we turn our back on ag?” Martin asks. “All that history is right here. How are we not celebrating our Western heritage?”
For six decades, that was the case for Gilroy, until the Gilroy Rodeo made its return in 2018, marking the end of a long absence. The Gilroy Rodeo returns Aug. 7-11, featuring even more events and celebrations than last year’s popular debut.
“This community is something special,” says Martin, the director of the rodeo. “They have an identity. It goes beyond Gilroy. A lot of people that moved to Hollister have deep Gilroy roots.
“This rodeo is for all of them. It’s the Gilroy Rodeo, but Morgan Hill is supporting us, San Jose is supporting us. It’s all about preserving heritage.”
This year, the rodeo expands from two days to five: Aug. 7 and 8 features kick-off barrel racing and team roping events. The next three days are packed with junior events and every type of rodeo event imaginable. In addition, the rodeo will include a dance, cowboy church, live music, food vendors and more.
Before the Gilroy Rodeo’s debut in 2018, Gilroy had not had a major rodeo since the Gilroy Gymkhana, which ran from 1929 to 1956, featuring a parade and rodeo of a Wild West theme. Other smaller events lasted into the 1990s.
The response last year proved there was a demand for a Gilroy rodeo. According to Martin, the first day saw about 3,500 people fill the arena that was recently built on the former dairy farm. The second day, 4,000 showed up in the arena that can seat nearly 6,000.
“The first year was awesome,” he said. “Nobody thought we could do it.”
After dealing with difficult county regulations, insurance and other expenses, the rodeo cost about $200,000 to put on and lost about $20,000, according to Martin. The rodeo raised $10,000 for local youth organizations such as Gilroy FFA and Sobrato 4-H.
The rodeo is on track this year to enjoy a better bottom line. Martin said it has received $80,000 in sponsorships so far, already doubling last year’s numbers. Organizers have also had more time to sell tickets this year, after only having a 30-day window in 2018.
“I feel like we are going to do a lot better this year,” he said. “Our goal is to sell out every day.”
The next generation
Corissa King is the 2018-19 Miss Gilroy Rodeo. The daughter of Dean and Cindy King of Hollister, King is currently studying agriculture education at California State University Fresno.
Rodeo runs deep in the King family, with both of her parents active in the arena from a young age. Corissa King has participated in events at junior rodeos, and was crowned Miss San Benito Rodeo in 2017. She is currently an intern at the Beef Unit at CSU Fresno and a member of the college’s Block and Bridle Club, among other organizations.
King said she applied for the title last year in order to help get the emerging rodeo off the ground. Once she hands off her title to the next Miss Gilroy Rodeo, she plans to remain active.
“I want to help Erik as much as I can and keep pushing it to the best that we can get it,” she said. “Erik has high expectations, and I do as well.”
Cindy King said she used to rodeo in the ’80s, when there were many arenas in the area. Most of those disappeared in the following decade, she recalled.
“It was really exciting when I found out that the Gilroy Rodeo was going to happen,” she said. “It’s keeping the spirit alive. Too many forget about where our roots are.”
Martin said the plan is to donate the use of facility to high school rodeo participants.
“Our whole goal here is to give people that are part of the Western heritage a place,” he said.
The rodeo is the first major event in Gilroy following the Garlic Festival, which ended in tragedy July 28 when a gunman shot and killed three people and wounded more than a dozen others.
As a result, many people are wary of attending large events, fearing a similar situation will happen again.
“Some people have asked me, ‘Are you canceling [the rodeo]?’” Martin said. “No, we’re not canceling it.”
He said rodeo organizers held a special meeting following the Garlic Festival to discuss security protocols. The rodeo’s public safety director is a retired Gilroy police officer and SWAT commander who developed the event’s active shooter program, which was in place last year as well.
In addition to increased security, all attendees will be searched using a metal-detecting wand, and all bags will be inspected.
“We want the community to know that we are doing everything we can to prevent something like that from happening,” Martin said. “We’ve got a lot of security measures in place. I’m very comfortable that we have control of the situation.”
The rodeo will include a moment of silence in honor of the shooting victims.
“We feel the community needs to come together,” he said. “It’s going to be a healing experience.”
For tickets, a schedule and information on the Gilroy Rodeo, visit gilroyrodeo.com.