Courtesy photos Tim Bridwell (rear) moves livestock at the St. Paul Rodeo, in St. Paul, Oregon, earlier this summer. Bridwell, a partner of Growney Brothers Rodeo Company, travels along the West Coast providing live stock for rodeos.
ST. PAUL, OREGON — When you drive into the rodeo grounds here before showtime, your nose recognizes where you are before your mind can process it.
It's impossible not to breathe in and be overwhelmed by the smell of horses and cattle. The scent is amplified by the mixing of sun-dried hay and manure on a warm, slightly humid summer afternoon.
Once you get oriented and acclimated to the smell of natural fertilizer, your eyes are met by the sight of massive, muscular bulls that stand deceivingly docile in rodeo pens. Sleepy-eyed when they're not at work during a summer afternoon, they transform when put into a bucking chute and the gate is open. The mass of muscle explodes into a snot-flinging, snorting machine of rage whose sole job is to buck a 155-pound rider off its back.
Bucking horses stand well above the height of an average man and are persnickety — more likely to snap at each other or a wayward hand that finds its way into the fence for a quick pet. These are not saddle-bred horses, but horses that are bred to buck through bloodlines that can reach back to the early days of professional rodeo.
These bulls and horses are the domain of Tim and Haley Bridwell, part owners of the Growney Brothers Rodeo Company of Red Bluff, California. From April through December, the stock will travel to rodeos and roundups throughout the west, as the Bridwells and their crew undertake the business of rodeo production.
John Growney, along with his brother Mike and partner Don Kish, began Growney Brothers in 1979. It is a major livestock contractor for PRCA Rodeos such as the Kitsap Stampede and others in the Northwest and Northern California.
In St. Paul, the bulls and horses — along with the Bridwells, their family and the company's crew — were in town for the town's annual 4th of July Rodeo, an 80-year-old event that awards nearly a half-million dollars in prizes and is a stop on the Wrangler Million Dollar Tour Rodeo.
It will be five stops later that the stock and rodeo production crew make their way to Kitsap County (via places like Calgary, Alberta; Idaho Falls, Idaho; and Santa Barbara, California) putting on the Kitsap Stampede at Thunderbird Arena, which begins Wednesday and runs through Saturday.
It's clear that the Bridwells have their feet in two different eras.
"Let's be fair, this is a dying industry because of the way our world is and the way society thinks," Haley Bridwell says, hearkening back to a time when the rural way to life was more familiar to residents of once-rural counties, like Kitsap.
Still, the 21st century's technologically-driven hand has reached back into the Old West and drawn it forward. Cowboys can be seen on horseback with a tablet in hand or on their cellphone searching for the cheapest and quickest flight to the next rodeo. They're on Twitter, Facebook, Snapchat and Instagram endorsing everything from ropes to bluejeans.
AT HOME ON THE ROAD
Life for a stock contractor's family is lived on the road.
The Bridwells — who between them have six children ages 3 to 13 — and their friends have coined their home on the road "The Courtyard."
The Bridwells' two travel trailers are joined at most rodeos by a 40-foot motor coach owned by friends and contract personnel Brent and Sherry Gibson. At St. Paul, the trailers make a U-shaped, 21st-century version of circled wagons.
The larger of the Bridwells' trailers is known as the "Commons" and accommodates anyone who needs a bathroom, kitchen, washer, dryer, changing room, or nap. The secondary trailer gives the group more room and another shower for anyone who needs it.
Family ties reach farther than bloodlines in the rodeo world, especially when you are on the road.
The Courtyard is "the" hangout spot for the Bridwells' inner circle. It's also a refuge.
PRCA pickup man of the year Matt Twitchell and his wife, Molly, who live with the Bridwells in Red Bluff when not on the road, have their trailer to haul Matt's horses. The Commons serves as the couples' other home as well.
Diana Alexander is a rodeo secretary and timer. Sherry Gibson is a rodeo secretary and timer while her husband, Brent, is a former bull rider and now-retired national director for Dodge Ram Rodeo. Bullfighters Eric Layton and Tim O'Connor are employed by Growney; Barry Blagg is the Dodge Ram Rodeo truck representative and attends many of the same rodeos as the Growney crew.
Sherry Gibson said the "family" works well together.
"We all like to be around each other and that counts for something," she said. "They are our family while on the road, our support system. I don't think you could do this job without the camaraderie."
Evenings leading up to a rodeo are a time to relax, imbibe preferred drinks and mutual BS-ing.
And, there's the eating.
Sherry and Haley, upon arrival at a rodeo, figure out a menu for the week. They post it on the side of the motor home. They know which meals are favorites of crew members.
Haley, who grew up in the rodeo business as the daughter of a stock contractor, said having good chemistry and a place that feels like home no matter where they are is essential to the success of Growney Brothers.
"This is our safety (area) so that when we go out there we can be the best and we can give St. Paul what they deserve as far as product and entertainment value," she said.
Matt Weishoff, livestock superintendent for the St. Paul rodeo and a board member, said working with the Growney crew is easy.
"It's kind of more like a family," he said, adding he's known most of the crew for close to 30 years.
Growney Brothers has been the main stock contractor for the Kitsap Stampede for about 25 years. Kitsap rodeo director Joe Drouin said his volunteer crew works well with Growney's crew because they are all professional.
"We've got a job to do and we know our job and we just do our job," he said. "We know what we have to do."
It also helps Growney's crew treats everyone well.
"They kind of treat the volunteers as people and not as labor," Drouin said. "They know our guys will do whatever needs to be done to make this a professional rodeo."
THE BUSINESS OF THE RODEO
If the Courtyard is the Growney crew's refuge, the rodeo office is its beating heart.
Friday evening's first performance in St. Paul had the office hopping with contestants paying entry fees and collecting their back numbers; sponsors; judges; timers; and anyone else who just wanted part of the action.
At the center of the madness is Haley, an eight-time PRCA rodeo secretary of the year.
A rodeo secretary must be a good accountant, work with the judges to draw the livestock for each performance and be in constant contact with PRCA headquarters in Colorado Springs.
But it goes beyond that. Haley fields queries from contestants asking for aspirin. They want to know where to park, where to get propane, where the find the vet, where to find a dry cleaner. Oh, and can they take a shower in her trailer?
"A little bit of everything," she said.
Some days, she is a psychologist. Many of the contestants are set up to fail, she said. They're broke, missing their families, tired, dirty and mentally defeated.
"And they come into that office and I'm the first person that they see or that they deal with," she said.
Says husband Tim: "She becomes more of just like a mother to a bunch of these kids."
It's a role that's needed on the rodeo circuit, Tim says.
"That's how it is for a lot of these kids. They go and they go to the same rodeos and stuff and see the same old grumpy people and then all of a sudden it's so refreshing to see someone that's not only nice to you, and that you're comfortable around, but that you look forward to seeing."
"Some days we just give hugs," Haley said.
PARENTING ON THE ROAD
In addition to being "mom" to the cowboys on the rodeo circuit, Haley is a real mom to her children and stepchildren, who she and Tim raise on the road during rodeo season. Their family includes daughters Tate, 12, and Tyler 9; and the boys, Jaden, 13, Jace, 11, Jaret, 7, and Jaxton, 3.
Parenting on the road is hard in some instances, they admit. The boys have grown up faster than she would like in some ways.
"We talk a lot about real-life situations and that's one thing, as much as you want to protect them, there's really good lessons that they learn," she said.
They admit that alcohol and harsh language is prevalent.
Last year at St. Paul, Haley said there was a drunk cowboy, about 21, that was passed out near their camp.
"I mean drunker than I've ever seen anyone in my life," she said. "It was terrible. The older boys, I took them over there and I said, 'You see this?' I said, 'That is somebody's child. There is a mom out there that gave birth to this baby' and I told them, 'Boys, I'm not ever going to tell you that you cannot drink alcohol, but … if you are not responsible with it this is what happens to you.' "
The kids have also gained valuable lessons from the adult environment.
Don't fear strangers, look an adult in the eye and shake their hand.
When Tim is busy sorting livestock for a performance or feeding twice a day and Haley is busy with her secretarial duties, there's always somebody on hand to watch out for the boys.
"There's about 10 parents here," Tim said. "Everybody looks out for them."
"I know that there's always somebody that will saddle them up and take them or fix them lunch or make sure their face is clean," Haley added. "I was that rodeo kid that got drug along and so it warms my heart that everybody is so loving."
All the boys are expected to help out with chores. They have Bandit, a black pony that the boys saddle and ride when helping feed the livestock or go for a ride.
"We expect them to learn the work ethics and to learn all of the things that have put all of us at this position," Haley said.
"They're rodeo kids," Tim said. "If Jaret is missing, I wouldn't worry about him; he's probably getting himself a corn dog or something. It's just a different type of environment that 90 percent of America isn't used to."
KEEPING RODEO SPIRIT ALIVE
The Bridwells admit their lives look interesting to outsiders, especially for those who romanticize the Old West or view the rodeo industry with mystique.
But, there's the reality. The rodeo stock business is not an 8-to-5 job. There's no punching a clock or taking a weekend trip.
Cattle need to be branded, fences need mending, a water trough needs to be welded in the rain, at night. If a steer goes missing, you get in the truck or saddle up and go find it.
Oh, and "The (cattle) eat on Christmas too," Tim said.
Day or night the work never stops.
"It's a way of life," Haley said.
The Bridwells understand the draw that the rodeo has on some people — the ability to step away from a fast-paced corporate world.
Haley and Tim agree there's still a wholesomeness to that lifestyle — an honesty and work ethic not present in other professions.
For Haley, the rodeo life is all she has known. She's worked every aspect of a rodeo, from selling popcorn and beer, to announcing, singing the national anthem and carrying a flag. Even her brother, Justin Rumford, is a world-class PRCA rodeo entertainer.
Her parents let her go early to try to make it on her own.
"I have a very sentimental connection with it," she said. "Everything I've ever had in life has come from this industry."
Tim said it may not be the life for everybody.
But, he says, the rodeo has something for everyone, whether they are a fan, a sponsor or a volunteer.
"That's one thing I really want people to know," he said. "Even if you don't ride a horse or own a horse there's still something for you in this business … it's an intriguing life that everybody can have a small part in if you chose to, but it's your choice."
Kitsap Stampede at a Glance
When: Wednesday Xtreme Bulls, 7 p.m. Thursday-Saturday PRCA rodeo
Time: 7 p.m.
Where: Thunderbird Stadium, Kitsap Fairgrounds & Events Center
Admission: Xtreme Bulls, $20 adult combo (fair/concert), $16 senior (60+), youth (6-12), $26 arena floor combo, $36 box seat combo, children 5 & under free; PRCA Rodeo $16 adult (includes fair admission), $13 senior/youth, $21 arena floor combo, $31 box seat combo, Children 5 & under free
About Annette Griffus
Annette Griffus covers sports for the Kitsap Sun, focusing on high school athletics in West Sound.