The Baker County Fairgrounds arena in Baker City is normally a hive of activity and excitement the third weekend of July.
Rodeo fans from across the region crowd into the bleachers to watch the annual Baker City Bronc and Bull Riding competitions.
But not in 2020.
The coronavirus pandemic prompted the new organizer to cancel the rodeo events he was excited to put on for the first time.
“We held out as long as possible, it was more or less the governor’s order of not allowing big groups,” said Jason Mattox, president of the Coastal Farm & Ranch Challenge of Champions Tour.
Mattox, who lives in Roseburg, announced in January that the Baker City events, run since their inception in 1995 by a nonprofit led by Ken and Shirley McPheron of Baker City, would become part of his Challenge of Champions Tour.
That’s a series of rodeo competitions across the Northwest.
Mattox, a former bull rider himself, was eager to take over a competition that he never got to compete in due to an injury.
“It is such a unique event in the Northwest,” Mattox said.
With $25,000 in prize money for both bronc and bull riders, it’s a major draw for competitors, Mattox said.
“As a cowboy that’s what you want to ride at,” he said. “They (the McPherons) built this thing from scratch. It was a great fit for both of us.”
This year’s bronc riding was set for Friday, July 17, and the bull riding competition the next evening.
Mattox planned to televise the events for the first time.
But with the pandemic continuing, and Oregon Gov. Kate Brown limiting attendance at public events, putting on an event that draws hundreds of spectators just wasn’t possible.
“I held out till at least the first of June, and I was actually really excited because of how much the town supports us,” Mattox said, “But then you start to see that people were a little leery with what is out there, so we didn’t want to put anybody in jeopardy of making a choice to come or not come.”
Though this wasn’t the outcome he was expecting his first year of hosting the events, Mattox said he appreciates that people seem to understand the circumstances.
Most other summer events, both locally and across the state and nation, have also been canceled, including Baker City’s Miners Jubilee, which takes place the same weekend as the bronc and bull riding.
“Everyone has understood, I think everybody is in the same boat,” Mattox said. “We don’t know what to expect, and better to error on safety than just to try to push through.”
Although larger events such as the bronc and bull riding have been shelved for the year, some smaller rodeos, including the Haines Stampede on July 3 and 4, did happen.
Mattox encourages the smaller events to go forward if they can comply with health precautions.
“I think if people want them to do an event, let them do it,” Mattox said. “A regular rodeo is awesome, whoever wants to do something they should roll with it.”
Mattox, meanwhile, remains enthusiastic about the future of the Baker City events. He’s looking forward to 2021.
“Once these events open up, they are going to be bigger and better than they have been,” Mattox said, “People are going to be excited to celebrate the cowboy way again and watching rodeo.”