The first rodeo took place at Andrews Field, close to the Arkansas River near downtown Fort Smith, in 1933. It was billed as the “Pawnee Bill Rodeo” and featured the real Pawnee Bill from Pawnee, Oklahoma. Bill agreed to appear at the downtown parade and during the grand entry of every performance. The cost of entry to the rodeo was 65¢ and records show it was very well attended.
In 1934, R.K Rodgers became the first rodeo chairman, a role he would serve for many years. Pawnee Bill made several appearances in those early years and helped grow the rodeo’s popularity. Another hot attraction in those early days was Cowgirl Bronc Riding, an event you won’t see in today’s modern rodeos.
In 1942, Bert Harper and R.K Rodgers led the effort to purchase land known as the OG&E Electric Park on Midland Boulevard in Fort Smith. In later years, this showground would become known as Kay Rodgers Park, named after the visionary chairman who helped start the rodeo.
During World War II, some rodeo committee members questioned whether to continue the rodeo. Others on the committee, as well as area government officials, felt that the show must go on…and go on it did. Even though there were a few setbacks, such as a mighty Arkansas River flood and a World War, the early forward-thinking committee had a grand vision for the Old Fort Days Rodeo.
That same spirit has helped transform the Old Fort Day Rodeo into one of the premier rodeo events in Arkansas. From the construction of a first class arena in 1949 (Harper Stadium – named after the late Bert Harper), to the multi-million dollar expansion of the current rodeo and fairgrounds, the Old Fort Days Rodeo has carried on the pride and tradition that its founders envisioned more than 79 years ago.
Today, cowboys from all over the world compete for one of the largest prize purses in Arkansas. Events include Saddle Bronc Riding, Bull Riding, Bareback Riding, Calf Roping, Barrel Racing and Steer Wrestling, Kid’s Mutton Busting and more! Beginning each year on Memorial Day, the legend of the Old Fort Days Rodeo lives and breathes new life into a cherished national pastime that will continue for many generations to come.