AKDALE -- Six decades after its inception, the Oakdale Rodeo still fits neatly into its surrounding landscape.
The tradition-steeped and loyal Oakdale Saddle Club. The arena where world champions return year after year. A city eager to salute its heritage. Cowboys who chase buckles and dreams.
"Everyone has grown up with it," said Oakdale's Ace Berry, 63, the Hall of Fame cowboy who competed at his hometown rodeo for more than 40 years. "I won the bareback a couple of times, but never the all-around. I started when I was 14 or 15 and never stopped until 2005."
The rodeo wheels into its 59th renewal today, an event that has never lost its connection to the community. After all, when you're the "Cowboy Capital of the World," you must live the part.
That's no problem for the residents of Oakdale, who honor their Western heritage 24-7. For them, rodeo week celebrates a lifestyle that is as natural as swollen creeks after an April storm, a lifetime manual as real as Wranglers over boots.
The essentials never have changed. The Oakdale Rodeo means the beginning of spring and Northern California's first major outdoor rodeo. Cowboys pull their trailers hundreds of miles, after early season stops in Texas, Colorado and elsewhere, and since when has motoring west been a bad thing for cowboys?
"Everything out here is fresh -- fresh cattle, the first outdoor arena and the money is good," said former world champion Jerold Camarillo, 63, one of the hubs of Oakdale's No. 1 rodeo family. "In Oakdale, you get two go-rounds (in almost all of the timed events). And in the aggregate, if you do good in both rounds, you can get paid again."
Oakdale remains the springboard for all the upcoming rodeos -- Red Bluff, Auburn, Clovis, Sonora, Reno and others. Cowboys from far away bunk with friends in Oakdale and commute to rodeos up and down the valley. Some come to town broke and gratefully accept a few days' work from ranchers.
"They need money for the next rodeo," Camarillo said. "They say, 'Where do all these world champions come from? I need to go to Oakdale to see what they're about.' "
They discover a culture that has accepted today's accelerated pace -- cell phones, laptops, iPads, Youtube, Facebook, etc. -- without forgetting its roots. Oakdale sticks to its one high school educational system for the same reason it honors its rodeo.
Because both, people feel, are doing just fine, thank you.
Ropers arrive in Oakdale each year to try their hand in one of the nation's team roping hotbeds. The Camarillo boys and Ceres' Bobby Hurley (before he moved to Arkansas), all world champions, honed their skills here. Oakdale's Daniel Green and Hughson's Wade Wheatley made the Wrangler National Finals Rodeo their December home for many years.
Which explains why Texas cowboy Trevor Brazile, the seven-time reigning world all-around champion, a roping icon at age 33, still puts Oakdale on his schedule. The competition and the money still lure the best.
That said, the rodeo has struggled at times in today's troubled economy. Its purse of nearly $100,000, which used to be ranked in the top 50 of all Professional Rodeo Cowboy Association-sanctioned rodeos, has slipped to 81st.
But the PRCA also has seen its total rodeos melt from more than 700 to, last year, about 560. Although smaller events have rolled away like a tumbleweed in the wind, Oakdale and its determined Saddle Club members and sponsors won't let the rodeo suffer the same fate.
Grass-roots support has grown in recent years. The ninth annual Cowgirl Luncheon, a fund-raiser for the Oakdale Cowboy Museum, drew 480 women who were served lunch and drinks by cowboys. It's become a staple of rodeo week.
"We expect anywhere from 15,000 to 30,000 to visit Oakdale, depending on the weather, each year for the rodeo," said Mary Guardiola, chief executive officer of the Oakdale Chamber of Commerce. "For every dollar spent, it changes hands seven times in town. Most of the time, we're a pass-through. This week we're a destination. This week they come here for a reason."
But those packed hotels and restaurants, water for a thirsty economy, weren't there in 1948 when the "Clover Stampede" kicked off its run in Oakdale. Ace Berry, 1 at the time, owns the steer wrestling championship buckle from that first rodeo, and it's displayed in his trophy case.
The winner that year was an out-of-town cowboy named Buckshot Sorrels, who has since died. Sorrels, like cowboys today, found a temporary home -- in his case, the Berry family ranch in Farmington -- and rodeoed through the spring. For some reason, his bulldogging buckle stayed in the valley.
"A pretty Western story, isn't it?" Berry said.
Yes, much like Oakdale.
Bee staff writer Ron Agostini can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 578-2302.