100 Years A-Runnin’
Wolf Point has always embodied the untamed and free-spirited nature of the West. Its first non-indigenous settlers were fur trappers and traders—and, in fact, it is believed the town was named for a culling of wolves in the mid- 1800s. A Pony Express rider, William Bent, claimed that “one winter the wolfers killed such a large number of wolves that they froze before the skins could be removed. The frozen carcasses were piled near the river to wait the coming of spring, and the pile was so high, it became a landmark for all the country around.”
In the years since, Wolf Point has become more developed and less isolated—but no less wild in spirit. Symbolic of this is the Wolf Point Wild Horse Stampede, an annual event distinct from every other rodeo weekend in Montana. With multiple rodeo performances, parades, street dances, and its one-of-a-kind “world famous” wild horse race, the Stampede serves as a three-day celebration of Eastern Montana culture, free of glitz and packed with fun.
The First Run
Wolf Point’s first stampede took place not in the arena, but in the form of a land rush. With James Hill’s vision of a railroad across Montana’s “Hi-Line” and the Enlarged Homestead Acts of 1909 and 1912, men and women from across the United States clamored west to stake their claims on “free” government land.
Those that established their homesteads along the Hi-Line were met with many challenges—harsh wind, scarcity of resources, and often poor soil quality. Only the hardiest men and women could “prove up” the unforgiving landscape. But those that did came to love life along the Hi-Line, and they celebrated their many blessings in spite of their hardships.
One such celebration began in 1915. Cowboys and local tribesmen gathered on the dusty streets of Wolf Point (which had been incorporated that year) to stage a small, impromptu rodeo.
In 1921, the gathering became an organized community event. Wolf Point’s Commercial Club scheduled the rodeo to take place at the local ballpark (where the Junior Senior High School now resides) in conjunction with the Palmer Brothers Circus on the last weekend of July. Rodeo committee members were Joshua Wetsit, Ray Mitchell, William Knorr, Charles Hall, and Alvah Kellog.
The event was a roaring success, and thus, the “Wolf Point Wild Horse Stampede” was born. In 1923, the event’s date was permanently changed to the second weekend of July.
A Wild Ride
Wolf Point’s Wild Horse Stampede is a traditional rodeo in many respects. It’s got all the conventional PRCA events like barrel racing and team roping. There’s a street dance—which is popular among smalltown rodeos. There’s an all-class reunion— which is popular among smalltown rodeos. There’s a cowboy Calcutta—which is very popular among smalltown rodeos.
But the Stampede has several unique traits as well.
For one, it is the home of the Catholic Burger. In 1947, the Immaculate Conception Catholic Church (from nearby Fort Peck) conceived the idea of using Wolf Point’s Stampede as a fundraiser, selling burgers made with locally sourced beef and onions cooked in pickle juice. It is not uncommon to find a line down Main Street of folks waiting for their turn to order the limited-time delicacy.
The Stampede is also among the most family-friendly rodeos in the state, with numerous activities for children, including a three-day carnival, and of course, parades. The annual “Stick Horse Rodeo” also serves to delight both its child contestants and adult spectators.
Of course, the Stampede’s main distinction is right in its name; folks travel the world over to experience the Wild Horse Race. In this raucous event—reminiscent of the Stampede’s humble origin—teams of three test their skills against wild bucking broncs. The winning team is the first to get their horse across the finish line, unsaddle it, and secure it in the chutes. The unpredictability (and thus, inherent danger) of the event makes for a thrilling performance. It should come as no surprise that Wolf Point’s population spikes dramatically during the rodeo weekend.
Since 1921, there have only been a few instances where the Wild Horse Stampede could not be held. In 1943, the event was suspended in honor of the war effort. When the Stampede resumed in 1946, there wasn’t an empty room in Wolf Point that second weekend of July, and in fact, several attendees reported sleeping in their cars.
The 100th Ride
July 2023 marks 100 years of cowboy history, culture, and entertainment at the Wolf Point Wild Horse Stampede, making it the oldest (still operating) rodeo in the state. It is regularly billed as “the Grandaddy of Montana Rodeo”—a fitting title for an event which is not just old, but beloved by many.
The 100th Wolf Point Wild Horse Stampede will be held July 6-8, 2023.
For more information, visit wolfpointchamber.com.