In 1933 the rodeo that became the Omak Stampede was just a dream of two Okanogan County stockmen, Leo Moomaw and Tim Bernard, who had started a rodeo string in 1932.
Stampede is marking its 85th year this year.
Moomaw and Bernard approached Omak’s businessmen, who were eager to try anything to keep the Main Street of Omak busy. The little western town, situated in the heart of cattle country, soon pulsated with the thought of having a real live rodeo that would attract thousands of people to see world-famous cowboys perform.
Soon world champion cowboys announced they would participate. The lineup included Stub Bathlemay, world champion at the Calgary Roundup; Norman Stewart, winner of both Pendleton Roundup and Cheyenne, Wyo., Roundup and world’s best bronc rider; Bert Evans, winner of the north central Washington championship in 1932, and Ralph Sutton, winner at Waterville’s 1933 rodeo.
Since the Cowboy’s Turtle Association - which evolved into the present-day Professional Rodeo Cowboys Association - was not formed until 1936, the rules for riding were set down by the contractors, cowboys and sponsors of the rodeo.
The first two rodeos were on the high school athletic field.
In 1935 a rodeo committee was formed, with Omak mayor R.W. Caldwell as president, E.T. Stewart as vice president and general chairman, E.G. Hubbert as secretary-treasurer and Claire Pentz as publicity chairman.
The city had purchased land on the east side of the Okanogan River from the Swimpkin family and planned a children’s park there. Grandstands were built and the 1935 rodeo was held in the park.
Stampede’s first queen, Bert Robbins, was crowned that year and the World-Famous Suicide Race also was added to the lineup.
The primitive bleachers, built with volunteer help and lumber donated by Biles-Coleman Lumber Co., seated about 750 people. Ross McNett, president of Biles-Coleman and president of the Omak Chamber of Commerce, was convinced by his brother-inlaw, Paul Maley, that the rodeo would be a boon for the town.
In the early 1940s the Omak Active Club took over Stampede under an agreement that called for all profits not required by the Stampede to be used for East Side Park improvements. The park still benefits from rodeo proceeds.
The Active Club building committee, headed by Jerry Bramer, continued to improve the arena with covered grandstands that seated about 1,500. Bleachers provided seating for about 3,500 fans, with the announcer’s stand built above the chutes.
Stock was held in eight pens behind the chutes. In 1949 lights were added to the arena, enabling night shows.
Stampede continued to grow throughout the 1950s and 1960s, with continual improvements being made to the arena and grounds.
In 1963 the Omak Stampede was incorporated as a non-profit corporation, and took over the event’s operation through an elected a board of directors and a large group of volunteers.
In 1969 a Friday night show was added, making the Stampede a three-day event. Seating over the bucking chutes was rebuilt in 1973.
In 1979 a Saturday matinee was added to the Friday night, Saturday night and Sunday afternoon shows. In 1996 the Saturday matinee was replaced by a Thursday night show, making Stampede a four-day event.
After being damaged in a 1997 tornado that tore off part of the grandstand roof, Omak Stampede Inc. and the city began seeking funding for a new arena. The state Legislature ultimately came through and, with state and local funding, the new arena was completed in time for the 2009 rodeo.
The 1970s chute seats - officially known as the Paul Maley bleachers - were left in place.
The World-Famous Suicide Race, Stampede’s signature event, began in 1935. Publicity Chairman Claire Pentz, in a search for something exciting to add to Stampede, heard of a mountain race run by Indians for many years in the Keller area.
During the Suicide Race, competitors start 50 feet back from the hill’s edge, then plunge down the embankment and into the Okanogan River. Once they swim the river, they race up the bank and into the Stampede arena.
The first race attracted what has become an annual parade of news coverage - from newsreels to television and still photographers who have spread images of the Suicide Race throughout the world.
It was been featured twice on TV’s “You Asked for It,” and in dozens of newspapers, a full-length Walt Disney movie, “Run, Appaloosa, Run,” and on national and international television. The young boy in the movie was Casey Nissen, who is a Suicide Race winner many times over.
Riders in the 1935 Suicide Race were Leo Crossland, Leonard St. Peter, Tom Woods, Bev Conners, Mathew Dick, Pete Carden, Edward Armstrong, Eddie Parsons, Wallace Moomaw, Alex Dick and Bert Evans. Winners were Wallace Moomaw, first; Bev Conners, second, and Bert Evans, third.
Alex Dick became the race’s winningest rider, with race victories starting in 1941 and continuing until his retirement in 1967. He notched the most victories on Brownie.
During their heyday in the 1950s, the pair won 23 of 28 races, including 11 in a row.
In 1959 Rusty Tawes, a vivacious 17-year-old from Pendleton, Ore., slipped into town announcing that she had come to ride in the Suicide Race. This threw the Stampede committee into a frenzy.
With Francis Charette as her mentor, Tawes won entry to the race as its first female competitor. Without a saddle, only halter and reins, she crossed the finish line in sixth place.
Since that time many young men and women, Indians and whites alike, have experienced the thrill of the Suicide Race.
The original race course was slightly west of the current Suicide Hill, which is owned by the City of Omak.
Prior to the Omak Stampede Indian Encampment, Native Americans gathered near the present-day East Side Park.
They also would come and pick apples in the area, and to participate in the grand parade and Fourth of July celebrations.
Early day Stampede organizers welcomed the thought of an Indian village. Paul Maley and Doc Benson, two of the local businessmen involved in the rodeo during its early days, invited the Indians to camp at the west end of the park, across the road from their original encampment.
As the encampment grew, it moved closer to the arena and then east to its present spot. Today the encampment is a beautiful experience to visit and watch dancing, drumming and stick games.
In 1935 Bert (Robbins) Aveldson was crowned the first queen of the Omak Stampede by votes that were cast in stores downtown prior to rodeo weekend.
Queen contest committee and staff assistants worked until nearly midnight counting votes that had been cast for the queen’s contest. Bertha Robbins led her closest rival, Flo Huber, by a margin of a million and one-half votes and was declared the Omak Stampede queen.
Others who participated in the contest were Stella Carraher, Belva Gray, Florine Tucker, Jessamine Clark, Katherine Kumbera and Evalyn Nickel.
Robbins was crowned during a public coronation ceremony on Main Street. She traveled with other rodeo boosters to different towns in the valley to advertise and invite people to come to Omak.
In 1964 Paul Maley thought it would be a great idea to have an Indian princess accompany Omak Stampede Queen Virginia (Ginger) DeTro. Maley went to the encampment committee and, with that group’s help, selected Darlene Moses as the first Stampede Indian princess.
A Stampede-selected princess traveled with Miss Omak Stampede for about a decade, then the Colville Confederated Tribes began selecting its own royalty representatives to travel on separate schedules.
Three Stampede queens — Shauna Beeman, Jody Wooten and Amanda Emerson — went on to become Miss Rodeo Washington. Another, Jonnie Crossland, was a two-time Miss Washington State High School Rodeo.
The Omak Stampede and World-Famous Suicide Race wouldn’t be possible without the support of hundreds of volunteers who donate their time and talents toward making each year’s event a success.
Members of the Stampede board are volunteers, as are those who take and sell tickets, sell programs, guide fans to their seats, sell concessions, park cars and do dozens of other chores.
The community supports Stampede directly by volunteering on the grounds and indirectly by organizing parades, promotions, downtown activities, an art show and other activities.
Critical to Stampede are specialty acts, clowns and bullfighters, stock contractors, calf pushers (those folks who help get calves out of the chutes so they can be roped), those who work the gates and others who help in the arena.
Without them there would be not Omak Stampede or World-Famous Suicide Race.
—Compiled by former Chronicle Publisher John E. Andrist and updated by Chronicle reporter Dee Camp