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Rodeo celebrates an Imperial Valley tradition

Nov./Dec. 2009 California Country magazine
Story by Darren Simon
Photos by Gene Hyder

In the Imperial Valley, the Brawley Cattle Call Rodeo is a celebration of the area's Western tradition and the importance of the cattle industry to the local economy.



The year was 1920. A young cowboy named A.J. Kalin made his way from Lompoc, Calif., to the desert Southwest—the Imperial Valley to be specific—to pasture cattle on behalf of a Lompoc-based cattle company.

In doing so, he began a new life in the Imperial Valley and helped—along with other young cattlemen of the time—build a cattle industry tradition that today is very much a vital part of the valley’s economy and a rich part of the region’s heritage.

It is a heritage celebrated annually with the Brawley Cattle Call Rodeo, a 53-year-old rodeo unique in how it came to be and because of what it still means to a community that cherishes its Western traditions.

The 53rd annual Brawley Cattle Call Rodeo (Brawley is the Imperial Valley city that hosts the rodeo) will be held Nov. 14 and 15, 2009, in Cattle Call Park.

For those who have never experienced rodeo or visited the Imperial Valley, the Brawley Cattle Call Rodeo, according to those who organize the annual event, offers a chance to see an area where agriculture—from farming to the cattle industry—thrives and a chance to experience rodeo as a communitywide celebration.

Not only is there the rodeo, but there are a week’s worth of events leading up to the rodeo, like a chili cook-off the Saturday before, mariachi celebrations, a beef cook-off, a cowboy poetry event and, on the first day of the rodeo, a community parade that draws tens of thousands of people.

At the heart of the rodeo, is the valley’s cattle industry—past and present. Today, say local cattle feedlot owners, the Imperial Valley cattle industry is the largest in a region stretching all along the West Coast up to Texas.

“It should be celebrated,” said Ross Jenkins, general manager of Phillips Cattle Co. based in El Centro, one of the seven cities that make up the Imperial Valley.

Jenkins added, “The very name Cattle Call Rodeo brings the cattle industry to mind. It does carry on the tradition of the cattle industry.”

Carson Kalin, son of the late A.J. Kalin, is one of eight community members who serve on the Cattle Call Rodeo Committee. It is their task to ensure the rodeo comes together each year. And it is a task Kalin and other committee members say they relish.

“It keeps us in touch with our heritage,” Kalin said. “It really brings us all back and reminds us what the cattle industry has meant to Imperial County.”

For Kalin, himself a farmer and former cattleman, the rodeo has special meaning. Not only is he organizing an event that celebrates his late father and all pioneering cattlemen and women, he is following in the tradition his mother, the late Louise Willey, began five decades ago.

It was Willey, together with three others—Ed Rutherford, Dick Smith and Al Smith, all with ties to the cattle industry—who shared a vision of having an annual rodeo to honor that industry.

Those four founded the annual Cattle Call Rodeo.

What they did was galvanize the community around the idea that Brawley could be home to a professional rodeo, one that is part of the Professional Rodeo Cowboys’ Association, that would draw the best and brightest from around the country.

But it would take a great deal of work and community support. And in 1956, led by the original four Cattle Call Committee members, work began on getting ready for that first rodeo.

First, the most unlikely of sites was chosen as the home for the rodeo—a large basin that Al Smith, the only surviving member of the original four Cattle Call Committee members, called a jungle.

There were endless shrubs and weeds, rattlesnakes, no roads nor any infrastructure whatsoever. Yet, Al Smith and his fellow committee members were undeterred. They knew that plot of land would work.

With the help of Brawley Public Works crews and volunteers from throughout the community, work began on clearing the land. In a manner of months city crews and volunteers, all led by the rodeo committee, had cleared away all the brush and weeds, developed a roadway in and out of the area and created what would become Cattle Call Park.

Today, Cattle Call Park is a central location in the city of Brawley where not only the rodeo is held, but many other community events as well. It also is a park for families to enjoy and an area for horseback riding year-round.

Today, the park is also home to an upgraded rodeo grounds renovated with the help of funding raised by the Cattle Call Rodeo Committee, revenue from the annual rodeo and community in-kind service donations.

But back when the rodeo was first held, it took the labor of community volunteers working endless hours in the days leading up to the rodeo to get the grounds ready, put up make-shift seating and build the chutes.

In fact, Al Smith said in a 2008 interview, for that first rodeo in 1956 work on the fencing was being done even on the day of the rodeo. But, he said, they succeeded in making the rodeo a reality.

Smith has said he takes pride in the fact the rodeo remains a tradition in the Valley. Those in the cattle industry join in that sense of pride.

Though dealing with challenging economic times, 10 cattle feed yards continue to prosper in the Imperial Valley, and there is a beef plant in Brawley owned and operated by National Beef.

That beef plant became a reality in 2001 based on a community effort led by business leaders and cattle feedlot owners and managers who came together and fought to have such a facility open in the valley.

Those leaders in the cattle industry say they appreciate that the community celebrates what they do through the rodeo.

“It celebrates the pioneering spirit of those who build the cattle industry,” said Paul Cameron, owner of Mesquite Cattle Feeders Inc., based in Brawley.

He added of the rodeo, “It is a reflection of what we try to do in the cattle business.”

County Agricultural Commissioner Steve Birdsall also said the Cattle Call Rodeo is an important way to honor a critical industry in Imperial County.

“Not only is the cattle industry, at least dollar wise, our No. 1 agricultural industry, but there are a bunch of people supported by the industry,” Birdsall said. “There are the growers who grow alfalfa and there are other ancillary businesses that benefit from the cattle industry.”

Birdsall said it only makes sense that the industry be celebrated and the Cattle Call Rodeo is a communitywide way to do that.

“It has a heck of a long tradition,” he said of Cattle Call.

Cameron said he has missed maybe one Cattle Call Rodeo in the last 40 years, adding it is a tradition to attend. He invites those who have never attended to come see the valley and attend the rodeo.

“It is a chance to see what great people we have here in the Imperial Valley and what Cattle Call is all about,” Cameron said.

Tickets for the rodeo are on sale now. For information on ticket prices, to purchase tickets or to learn more about the rodeo and its history, visit the Cattle Call Rodeo Web site at www.cattlecallrodeo.com.

Darren Simon is a writer in El Centro, Calif. He can be reached at simon760@msn.com or at 760-604-5100.


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