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Time & Place with Alicia Barber

Early Rodeo Traditions Turned Reno Into The Wild West

Women ride in mock paddy wagon.
Neal Cobb Collection, Nevada Historical Society
Volunteers operate the ‘Black Maria,’ looking for passersby without Western wear to jokingly capture for this unique rodeo tradition. ";s:

The Reno Rodeo celebrates the 100th anniversary of its founding this year, and as you might imagine, the event has inspired a wide range of traditions over the course of a century. Historian Alicia Barber highlights one of them in this installment of Time & Place.

It just wouldn’t be summer in Reno without the rodeo. The event dates back to 1919, when it was first introduced as the “Nevada Round-Up,” and it was such a hit that the local business community vowed to make it an annual tradition. In 1935, after a brief stint as Pony Express Days, its organizers formed a Rodeo and Livestock Association, built a grandstand, and adopted the permanent name of the Reno Rodeo.

Reno was a pretty small town in the early days, and the rodeo was the biggest event of the year. It’s always been kicked off by a parade, while other traditions came along much later, like the annual cattle drive that was introduced in 1990. But what remained consistent year to year was the complete transformation of downtown Reno during rodeo week. The city hung banners over the street and businesses from clothing stores to restaurants decorated their windows with Western-themed displays.

But it wasn’t only the businesses that went Western. Frank Cassas, who became the Reno Rodeo President in 1992, was eight years old when he moved to Reno in the late 1940s. Interviewed in 2011, he remembered how local residents got into the spirit.

“Well, there was a tradition for years and years. You dressed Western during the rodeo days. When I was a kid, that’s the way it was,” Cassas said.

In the days around the event, the streets were filled with locals shopping, banking, and dining in Stetson hats and cowboy boots, Western-style shirts, denim jeans, and shiny belt buckles. But that wasn’t enough for the rodeo’s boosters, who decided in the mid-30s to introduce some lighthearted penalties for anyone caught without any Western regalia Cassas recalls:

“Everybody went to work, and if you got caught on the street without Western gear, they had this old, they called it the Black Mariah, but it was a truck, it was a big paddy wagon, and they’d put you in there.”

Once thrown into the Black Mariah, offenders would be paraded through the streets to a kangaroo court, located right in the heart of downtown, where they would plead their case to a ragtag judge and jury. For decades, the Junior Chamber of Commerce, known as the Jaycees, were responsible for enforcing the “Go Western” rule, and they got a big kick out of staging kidnappings of city leaders and visiting celebrities and dragging them to the makeshift jail.

To be set free, the guilty party might have to buy a rodeo ticket or a piece of Western wear, like a garter, for a dollar. Some had to sing cowboy songs or beg spectators to donate cash to bail them out, with all the proceeds going to charity. The more prominent the person, the bigger the spectacle. And the boosters would milk it as long as they could.

“And sometimes, you might get stuck in there all day,” Cassas said. “And, well, it got a little out of hand because they were yanking in doctors and professional people off the street, for Pete’s sake!”

The Black Mariah was eventually retired as most of the city’s shops and services moved out of the downtown area, but it still might not be a bad idea to throw on some cowboy boots or tie a bandanna around your neck for rodeo week, just to be on the safe side. 

Historian Alicia Barber is the author of Reno’s Big Gamble: Image and Reputation in the Biggest Little City. Oral history clips for this segment were provided by the Special Collections Department of the University of Nevada, Reno Libraries.

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