O.J. Sweeden, who turned 83 recently, was a youngster when the Cavalcade Rodeo got its start, 72 years ago. He sold sno-cones for a dime apiece that first year, and still gets excited when July rolls around.
“I was big for my age and to me it was awful big excitement,” he said. O.J. and other boys were also hired on to help prepare the camping area. “We all went in there and picked up rocks and filled the ravines.”
He had no way to know then that he was embarking on a multi-generational adventure. Today, O.J. Sweeden is an elder statesman of Cavalcade, an honorary director and former chairman; and his kids, grandkids and great-grandkids are following in the Cavalcade Rodeo tradition.
Cavalcade began in 1947. Two years later, the Pawhuska Roundup Club bought the rights to it, and formed the Cavalcade committee. Its appeal is that of a highly competitive, prestigious amateur rodeo event that seeks to perpetuate the values and drive of earlier generations.
So while Cavalcade changes a little on the surface in the direction of modern comfort, it remains built around the participation of families and riding clubs that attend every year.
“It’s been people coming back every year that’s made it what it is,” O.J. Sweeden said. His own Cavalcade story has grown richer as it has come to include his family. For instance, his son, Joe, who joined him for a newspaper interview last week, was born in April 1961 and attended his first Cavalcade when he was just a few months old.
“I started setting up barrels and poles when I was a fifth- or sixth-grader,” Joe said, looking back on his early involvement with Cavalcade. Sometimes he’d sleep outside, sometimes in a horse trailer, sometimes in a bus, he recalled.
Joe was eventually chairman of Cavalcade, remians a director, and today handles marketing duties for the rodeo along with his daughter, Delaney, 25. He has a grandson, age 3 1/2 years, who looks forward to riding a pony in the Cavalcade grand entrance this year.
People come from communities like Collinsville and Turley and camp in the same place every year — for decades, Joe notes. Many families have third-, fourth- and fifth-generation Cavalcaders, he said.
Aside from campers and contestants, there are others who tend to be around from year to year, forming a stable core at the center of the Cavalcade community. Whether it’s stock contractors, concessions people or announcers, “Once you’re in, we tend to keep everybody around,” Joe said.
Another aspect of the group orientation of Cavalcade is that you don’t just drive up and enter the rodeo. You have to belong to and compete on behalf of a riding club.
Cavalcade has also traditionally filled the same spot in the calendar, right in the middle of the July heat.
“It’s held probably the hottest week of the year,” O.J. Sweeden said. There have been times when there were rain storms, and when people were under blankets, but that has been the rare exception, he said.
Joe Sweeden pointed out Cavalcade went half a century without ever losing a day’s performances.
“The 50th anniversary it rained out a whole day for the first time ever,” Joe said. He was chairman that year. The schedule shuffling that rainy weather caused also led to changes in ensuing years, particularly the move toward morning performances when the weather would be cooler, he said.
Cavalcade is also still growing.
“It’s still on a general upward trend,” Joe said. O.J. observed that visitors have been bringing more travel trailers, which has created a need for additional space. In 2014, Cavalcade bought 40 acres to the south of the Osage County Fairgrounds to handle growth in the numbers of spectators and participants.
Joe Sweeden credits current Cavalcade Chairman Jeff Bute with keeping a firm hand on the organizational purse strings, and preventing Cavalcade from trying to do things it simply can’t afford.
“He’s trimmed costs over the years,” Joe Sweeden said of Bute; and Joe credited downtown merchants with being good about supporting Cavalcade, so that it has the financial backing it needs.
Like any good marketing man, however, he sees room for continued spectator appeal.
“There are still a lot of people from Pawhuska who have never been to the Cavalcade,” Joe says.