In compiling nine decades of history, Grover rodeo volunteers could have started with available paper documents — old newspaper clippings, programs from past events, black-and-white photos of old cowboys riding long-gone livestock.
But such resources can’t explain in detail the atmosphere of the event when it first started in the early-1920s, a time when there wasn’t even any standardization for rodeo competitions in the U.S.
Only someone who had seen it with his own eyes could describe how contestants of the Grover rodeo — held annually on Father’s Day weekend — rode cows instead of bulls, how entry fees were $1 and how there was no fence on site so a circle of parked cars was used to keep participating cowboys and livestock within the boundaries.
That one and only someone now is John Hillman, a story-teller in boots, blue jeans and a pearl-snap shirt, sitting comfortably against a plaid blanket draped over his recliner. A wrinkle in the middle of his forehead shifted slightly every time a tale of the old days made him smile or laugh.
When Hillman, 98, began attending what’s now called the Earl Anderson Memorial Rodeo, the term “Dust Bowl” — which Hillman himself would later endure on a family ranch near Grover — hadn’t made its way into American history books, because it hadn’t yet happened.
A gallon of gas at the time was about 15 cents, a loaf of bread was even less, and you could take a girl out for a date for 25 cents, Hillman recalled with a smile.
The Wall Street crash of 1929 was still a few years out when Grover had its first rodeos, and Hillman attended.
It would be almost 30 years after Hillman started going to Grover rodeos that his home would have indoor electricity.
Not only was Hillman there for the birth of the Grover rodeo, but, aside from a couple years he had to miss as a kid, he’s returned every year.
It’s his stories that will help volunteers with the Grover Community Club, who put on the local rodeo each year, fully tell the story of the event, and explain how it’s still up and running in a town of less than 200 people that’s nowhere near an interstate, and is an hour away from Cheyenne and two from Denver.
While the rodeo takes place off the beaten path, the history and reputation of the annual event is still plenty to attract about 1,500 to 2,000 people each year — many of whom spend the weekend camping along Grover’s nearby, picturesque buttes.
With the rodeo in Grover celebrating its 90th anniversary June 15-16, Jeff Wahlert, president of the Grover Community Club, and others gathered recently in Hillman’s room at an assisted-living home in Evans, and took careful note of what he had to say.
Volunteers say they’re not sure what all the 90th celebration will include, but having history on hand when it rolls around will only enhance whatever it may be.
“He’s about all there is anymore,” Wahlert said of Hillman and the limited amount of resources that date back to the early days of the rodeo. “We’re awfully lucky to still have him.”
Hillman’s loyalty to the rodeo has earned him reserved parking up-front — the only saved stall at an event known to have started an argument or two over a good viewing spot, according to Steve Anderson, the grandson of the Earl Anderson after whom the Grover rodeo is named.
“I just always like to go see the stock ... and everything,” said Hillman, who, during his one time participating in the Grover rodeo, won $5 for taking first in cow riding and took second in calf roping with a time of 21 seconds, he noted.
Hillman’s talk of the old Grover rodeos also tells the story of the town itself.
He said back then Grover was a community with a downtown that featured a bank, clothing and drug stores, a train station that served as a stopping point for daily routes from Sterling to Cheyenne, a hotel and even a movie theater — where Hillman saw his first film, the silent “Uncle Tom’s Cabin.”
That same downtown once hosted the Grover rodeo’s dance, which is now held in a building on the rodeo grounds — just south of the town’s water tower.
But the Dust Bowl, like it did to so many other towns on the high plains, caused a gradual exodus from Grover.
Early Sunday afternoon this past weekend, there was little activity in town — aside from the laughter of a family pickup game of basketball outside Pawnee High School, a pair of joggers and A&W Water trucks rolling through town.
There were two customers inside the only store open for business — the Grover Market Basket & Country Deli, a store that features “Where the Hell is Grover, CO?” T-shirts.
But when rodeo time rolls around, Grover is again bustling with activity.
Hillman’s talks last week also drifted toward agriculture at a time when the Grover rodeo began; using horse mowers, getting paid $5 per head to break horses, and — from the high plains of northeast Weld County, where his family raised Herefords, sheep and crops for feed — watching the black clouds of what would be the Dust Bowl roll into town.
Back then, it was a community effort when a family barn was built.
Anyone who could hammer a nail was a carpenter, Hillman said, smiling.
“You just have to take advantage of a great mind like that,” said Terry Gertge, who’s also volunteering to help put together history for the 90th Grover rodeo — an event Hillman is planning to attend, by the way.
“As long as he can make it, he’ll be there,” said Hillman’s daughter, Janet Konig, who lives in Texas but returns to Weld County to escort her father to the rodeo.
Konig said her father was still helping herd cattle on the family ranch at the age of 93.
“He’s still doing well,” she said. “And he loves that rodeo as much as anything. I’m guessing he’ll be there.” ❖