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The Reno Rodeo began with ranch hands competing against one another as a way to bring the community together after WWI. It has transformed into a juggernaut event for the area, celebrating everything western. The 100-year history of the Reno Rodeo is rich and sometimes complicated, which has left a lasting impact on Northern Nevada. What has the rodeo looked like in the past? What are the attitudes on animal care and riders’ safety now? Does the Reno Rodeo still have a place in modern Nevada culture? Find out more through our series, “Spurs and Mud: A Century of Rodeo.”

Documenting The Reno Rodeo: A Storyteller's Journey

A woman holds a camera.
Lucia Starbuck
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Jessi LeMay taking portraits of Reno Rodeo attendees and volunteers before the events begin in 2019.

To celebrate and capture the history of the Reno Rodeo's 100th anniversary, multimedia storyteller Jessi LeMay has interviewed more than 75 individuals about their memories of this Western event. She’s talked to cowboys, competitors, queens and everyone in between for the project she's created, Reno Rodeo 100. She spoke with KUNR’s Lucia Starbuck about the project.

About two and a half years ago, LeMay set out to collect photos, videos, and audio stories of people retelling their favorite moments of the Reno Rodeo. There have been nine live events so far, where people get on stage and recount intimate tales from their time at the Reno Rodeo and short films are played.

LeMay is a 'people person' and says she feels a connection when folk share their experiences with her.

“I've created a career based around this idea of, 'What are the stories of the people in my community and how can I get those stories to the other people in my community?’ When you know your neighbor's story, you're more connected to your community and those stories become your own lore,” LeMay said.

Gathering distant memories from past and present rodeo attendees can be a daunting task. LeMay has a relaxed method of shooting to make extracting memories from people easier, as some of the oldest members connected to the rodeo are in their nineties. After she sets up her camera, she tries to make the interview as conversational as possible. A lot of people try to say they don’t have an interesting story for her, yet she persists, believing they do.

Three people look at an old photograph album.
Credit Jessi LeMay
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Jessi Lemay's interviewees looking over old photos.

“Oftentimes, what I'll do is sit them down and have them lay out their oldest photos and their mementos and those objects are usually little guides," LeMay said.

LeMay has gathered well over her goal of 100 stories. One that stuck out to her the most is from a four-hour interview with rodeo attendee Bill Richards.

"I think the reason that he's my favorite is, he left home, ran away from home at 14 and went and lived on the Rodeo grounds in a horse stall, which is insane to me and crazy. And his stories, he tells it in such a way as you've kind of feel like you're there."

LeMay will view Reno Rodeo 100 as a success if people learn something new about Reno’s past. This region has deep roots in ranching and farming, and without this Western history, she explained that the Reno Rodeo wouldn’t exist.

“There are many members of Reno Rodeo Association that you hear them, you know, wax romantic about the Reno days when this was a real, pure ranching community and people wore their cowboy boots out to dinner,” LeMay said.

Reno Rodeo 100 is funded by the Reno Rodeo Association, the Reno Rodeo Foundation, and the City of Reno Arts & Culture Commission with support from Nevada Historical Society, and sponsored by Save Mart Supermarkets.

For now, the project can be found online at RenoRodeo100.com and will later live in a Reno Rodeo museum that's planned for the future.

Two women face each other with microphones in a recording studio.
Credit Holly Hutchings
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Jessi LeMay (left) came in to KUNR's studio to talk with reporter Lucia Starbuck about Reno Rodeo 100.

Lucia Starbuck is an award-winning journalist covering politics, focusing on democracy and solutions for KUNR Public Radio. Her goal is to provide helpful and informative coverage for everyday Nevadans.
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