FROMBERG—Butch Bratsky and Monica McDowell are standing inside the Clarks Fork Valley Museum, surrounded by photographs and memorabilia paying tribute to the Bridger Youth Rodeo.
Bratsky, now a senior executive with Stockman Bank in Billings, grew up in Bridger and went on to become the national collegiate bull-riding champion in 1974. McDowell is the wife of Sam McDowell and the mother of Heather McDowell, both of them serious rodeo competitors.
They are reminiscing, pulling names out of the past, triggering memories and stories and still other names—Schwend, Greenough, Parker, Meek and LaFrance, among others.
Annette Anderson, who helped put the museum exhibit together, is standing there, too. Referring to several of the people named in the roll call, she says, “These guys are all big time now, but they started out as a kid on a horse.”
There are a lot of kids and a lot of horses in the history of the Bridger Youth Rodeo. It began in August 1964 and continues today: the 51st annual rodeo took place on July 11.
Anderson, a local businesswoman and community historian, said she couldn’t be sure the Bridger Youth Rodeo was the first youth rodeo in Montana, but she was reasonably certain it was the longest-running youth rodeo in the state.
The exhibit she was mostly responsible for assembling, “Mamas Please Let Your Babies Grow Up To Be Cowboys (and Cowgirls),” opened June 25 and will stay up until Sept. 6. The museum, at 103 E. River St., is right across Highway 310 from the Little Cowboy Bar. Hours are 11-3 Thursday through Sunday.
Included in the exhibit is a black-and-white photo of some of the entrants in that first Bridger Youth Rodeo in 1964. On the far left, looking every inch the cowboy, is a very young Bratsky. He was born in 1953 on a small farm-ranch just southwest of Bridger and took up rodeo when he was 9 or 10.
His family didn’t have a lot of money, Bratsky said, so they bought a horse one year and then waited a year before buying a saddle. He soon joined the Bridger Saddle Tramps, which was organized by Dude Parker a couple of years before the start of the Bridger Youth Rodeo.
Parker lost an arm in a farming accident in 1957 and thereafter spent much of his time helping young people in the Bridger area.
“He was really devoted to the kids and wanted to make sure they were brought up in the western way,” Bratsky said.
Bratsky remembers the Saddle Tramps had black cowboy hats, red neckerchiefs and tan denim jackets, which they wore with great pride when they rode in parades in Red Lodge, Cody, Billings and other towns. Little Britches Rodeo was big then, but the only other one in the state was in Wibaux, so the kids from Bridger would compete there, or the Wibaux team would travel to Bridger, for a chance to advance to the Little Britches finals in Colorado.
Bratsky went on to rodeo at Montana State University, where he was on two national championship teams, in addition to winning the individual bull-riding trophy. He continued to rodeo until 1983, when he went into judging, which he still does occasionally. He is also the alumni president of the National Intercollegiate Rodeo Association.
“I can’t get it out of my blood,” he said. “I told ’em I’d do it two years, and that was six years ago.”
Even more than with other sports, McDowell said, kids in rodeo tend to remain lifelong friends. Her husband, Sam, whose family has lived in the Clarks Fork Valley since 1946, was always involved in rodeo, as a competitor, judge and supplier of livestock.
Monica and Sam’s daughter Heather competed in the Bridger Youth Rodeo from an early age and was the high school all-around cowgirl in the late 1990s.
In a memory book Anderson compiled to mark the 50th anniversary of the Bridger Youth Rodeo, she told of how, one year, Monica and Heather were working furiously, in the face of a quickly advancing storm, to herd up enough cows for the youth rodeo. Sam McDowell was off doing some other ranch work, so it was just mother and daughter, racing the elements.
“Imagine Monica’s astonishment,” Anderson wrote, “when she looked back at little Heather, whose long blond hair was standing straight out from her head! The electric atmosphere was so intense, it had given the little girl a truly hair-raising experience!”
Monica said the volunteers who ran the Bridger Youth Rodeo always tried hard to make it affordable for parents and rewarding for the young competitors. Entry fees were kept low and virtually all the proceeds went back into the jackpots for the various events. The cowboys and cowgirls also received trophy buckles for first-place finishes and merchandise for second- and third-place.
Anderson had previously self-published a couple of children’s activity books full of local history. She started working on the Bridger Youth Rodeo book last summer but didn’t have it done in time for last year’s edition of the rodeo. Once the book was done, she started assembling the museum exhibit.
She rounded up news clippings, banners, quilts, chaps, ropes, vests, cowboy hats and boots and other memorabilia. On Thursday, Bratsky drove down to Fromberg with the very small denim jacket he wore as a Saddle Tramp more than 50 years ago. He said he’d be lucky to get his arm in it now. It is on exhibit, too.
The display also includes a fair number of old black-and-white photos and many color photos, most of them taken by Sue Knighton, whom Anderson described as a talented photographer with numerous other creative interests. Knighton’s photos, in fact, were what prompted Anderson to mount the exhibit.
Anderson said that when she saw a collection of them, “I said, man, these pictures are superb. They need to go up on a wall somewhere.” It took a long time to sort through them, she said, adding , “You should see the ones I didn’t get in here.”
The museum, located in the old Fromberg train depot, is run on a shoestring and staffed entirely by volunteers.
“You’re looking at a lot of bake sales,” Anderson said, gesturing around the small, tidy museum.
Copies of the Bridger Youth Rodeo book are available at the museum for $25 each, with half the proceeds going to the museum and the other half to pay printing costs.