Dayton is ‘not just a rodeo’ these days

DAYTON – As the big weekend comes up, volunteers have a lot of work to do.

Two weeks before the Dayton Rodeo begins, the regular local events on the rodeo grounds are shut down, so workers can replace fences, paint, power wash, and get the whole place in shape.

The 76th annual Dayton Rodeo, beginning Friday, has to be perfectly set up to provide entertainment for the crowds, said Rodeo Committee President Luke Fleener.

“One of the main things we’ve learned in the 10 years we’ve been in the professional rodeo business is, our rodeo is geared to be entertaining,” he said. “Our goal is to make the people on the hill happy that they paid the money to come in, and want to come again.”

Dayton gets professional riders, ropers and wranglers through the Professional Rodeo Cowboys Association.

“The sport of rodeo has changed, when you talk about the professional ranks. It’s so fast-paced, it’s just action, action, action, to put on a show,” Fleener said. “Not just necessarily a rodeo.”

Part of that means finding ways to make the show bigger and better every year.

The giant LED screen added last year is one way to do that, said committee Vice President Jesse Green. The screen shows names of the contestants, replays of their run, and a pre-show featuring the rodeo’s sponsors.

And for the second year, there will be fireworks every night after the show, Green said.

There’s always been a dance after the show, but it used to be out in the parking lot, he said. This year it will be inside the general admission area.

“The dance will be right on the grounds, at the top of the hill,” Fleener said. “Fans coming to the rodeo will be able to go in there, listen to music, watch last night’s performances on the screens.”

“This year, it will be like a party zone, where there’s things to do. They can watch the performances. We’ll have a live feed up there from our cameras,” Fleener said. “I think it will be a huge draw.”

A cowboy 5k and fun run will be held Saturday in honor of Kathlynn Shepherd, the Dayton teen who was killed on May 20 after being abducted on her way home from school.

That night, it will be “Paint the Hill Purple” night, with donation cans in the audience. All proceeds from those donations and from the run will go to the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children.

“It’s a chance for us to pay tribute to her and her family for the tragedy that occurred in this small town,” Fleener said.

More than 250 contestants will come through in those four days of the rodeo, he said, and a huge number of spectators.

“Last year there were over 12,000 people that visited Dayton in that four day stretch. Not a lot of small communities can say that with one event,” he said.

“There’s easily over 100 volunteers that have to work just that weekend, not counting what’s going on now in prep of that.”

Volunteers come largely from the Rodeo Committee, the Community Club, and Dayton Wranglers saddle club, Fleener said. They start working on smaller projects about a month before the big event, with final work on the big projects in the last two weeks. This year, new lighting is being installed and new fences around the arena.

“A lot of the money made during that one weekend goes back into refurbishing these grounds, so the saddle club can use it year-round,” Fleener said.

One of those volunteers helping with preparation was Jeff Sorenson, who also is the announcer for youth rodeo events. He’s also in charge of the Labor Day parade, which will start at 10 a.m. sharp, he said, on Sept. 2.

“The founding members, there’s only one left,” Sorenson said. “He’s 96 years old, and he’s going to be in the parade.”

Sorenson got into this, he said, because “It’s all about the kids. If we can’t keep kids interested in the rodeo, the rodeo is going to go away.”