Rodeo life: a series of one-night gigs

By John Butters. The JOURNAL


Every year, Grand River Rodeo owner Kevin Wookey thinks it might be his last year to rodeo. Every year he saddles up for another one.

Wookey brought his show to Washington on Tuesday night after resting two nights from the last rodeo in Geneva, Neb. ?We took a few days to recirculate our stock and repair equipment. Then we loaded up and drove into Washington on Monday to set up for Tuesday night?s show,? he said.

It?s a tough schedule. Most of the shows he produces are one-nighters. During the Midwest?s fair season in July and August, he might set up two or three shows a week. It?s a lifestyle that takes a toll on him and his employees.

?It?s a hard life. There is a lot of travel. You have to love doing it. It?s about all I have ever done. It?s a family business. We also have a farm and a restaurant that we manage,? he said.

The Wookeys have been in the rodeo business for more than 30 years. Kevin?s late father started the business before Kevin was born. After his father passed away, he shouldered the load. It?s a family tradition; their heritage. ?I get a lot of help from the family. We all have to work at this to keep it going,? he said.

Located in Grand River, the rodeo works a Midwest circuit, earning a stellar reputation in the business for putting on a good show. ?We try to find out what the rodeo committees want us to bring to their towns. Then we go and find the acts they want to see,? he said.

In addition to the traditional comedy acts, Grand River offers nine competitive events; a lot for a small company. Grand River shows include everything the larger shows have. They just place it in a smaller package. ?There are all sizes of rodeo companies. Large ones, smaller ones like ours. We want to please the crowd. That?s why we offer bull riding. A lot of smaller shows won?t,? he said.

He views the animals in his care as athletes. Experience has taught him which ranches produce the best livestock for his shows and he looks for them at auctions. ?It?s in the bloodlines. Good quality stock produces better athletes,? he said.

Most of the cattle are Brahman-cross, he said, but the horses are a mix. ?We have some wild horses, some that are semi-broke to ride and some that just want to buck. A lot of our stock comes out of South and North Dakota,? he said.

The stars of the show are the cowboys and cowgirls who trail his and other rodeos across the Midwest. Wookey gets to know them by name and feels a close kinship with them. He has known several generations of some families. ?We love the rodeo people. We root for them. They?re like family to us,? he said.

Setup and teardown is a big part of his job. He trucks in his own gates, panels, riders? chutes and the livestock. Then it all has to be trucked to the next job. ?Finding enough help can be tough. Everyone is working two jobs now. It?s hard to find employees to come and work for a weekend or an evening shift,? he said.

Wednesday, Grand River Rodeo will be hitting the road for a one-night show in Mount Ayr. Following that, the rodeo will head to northwest Iowa for a show in Thompson and then back south again to Sabetha, Kan.

?We love it. That?s why we do it. Rodeo people are great. It?s a family,? he said.

Looking off into the livestock pens, Wookey is silent for a moment. He tugs at his hat.

?Every year we ask ?are we going to do it again next year?? Then every year we say, ?maybe one more time?,? he said.

He?ll be back. It?s in his bloodline.