Driving west toward Gilroy on Leavesley Road, the unmarked back side of the Gilroy Premium Outlets appears on the horizon as a fortress, marking a clear boundary between a commercial hive of shopping bags, parking lots and brand names and a much quieter wide-open landscape.
Most locals and out-of-towners who crowd the outlets don’t go beyond the McDonald’s at Leavesley. But in August, out in the agricultural flats east of town, a tradition returns in the hope of evoking what Santa Clara Valley used to look like before anyone knew what an outlet mall was.
On Aug. 11 and 12, the latest incarnation of the Gilroy Rodeo will take place at a newly constructed rodeo grounds between Leavesley and Dunlap Avenue a few miles east of Highway 101. The new event is consciously and deliberately picking up the tradition of the old rodeo, formally known as the Gilroy Gymkhana, which held its last annual event in 1956.
“The goal here is to have a hometown event,” said rodeo director Erik Martin, standing at the top of new bleachers at the edge of the rodeo’s arena. “We’d love to see some familiar faces here. If not, then let’s get to know who is here. This is a community, and we want to reflect that.”
Martin is walking the grounds of the 62-acre ranch that was once the Furtado Dairy, owned by his wife’s grandfather Bill Furtado, who died at age 96 last November. “Bill was keen on having this happen,” Martin said.
Looking out over the pasture that will served as the rodeo’s parking lot, Martin laid out his vision for the two-day event. At its center is the oval arena, which will showcase several rodeo events: a ranch rodeo demonstration, a junior rodeo and the main-event conventional rodeo, as well as an opening ceremony that will feature a Wells Fargo stagecoach, side-saddle riders and a drill team. A designated children’s area will feature demonstrations of horseshoeing, milking cows and chainsaw carving, along with pony rides and hands-on construction projects.
Adjacent to the arena will be a stage that will host a Saturday night dance called “Tough Enough to Wear Pink,” raising money to fight breast cancer and featuring a live band, the Country Cougars. That will be followed bright and early on Sunday morning by a church service featuring “cowboy preacher” Coy Huffman.
A large tent will be erected to serve as the rodeo’s dining hall, with many selections available from local vendors (including the cowboy’s favorite dish, tri-tip). Treats such as cotton candy, shave ice and kettle corn will also be available. Informational booths and western wear vendors will also be part of the atmosphere.
The Gilroy Rodeo is affiliated with the California Cowboys Pro Rodeo Association (CCPRA), an alliance of rodeo events in small towns and rural areas across Northern California. The CCPRA-established rules and standards include eight demonstrations and competitions: bull riding, bronco riding, bareback riding, team roping, tie-down roping, breakaway roping, steer wrestling and barrel racing, in which horse and rider negotiate a cloverleaf course at top speed.
On top of the traditional rodeo skill demos, Saturday morning will feature a “ranch rodeo” event. Ranch rodeo is a team event in which groups of riders showcase the kind of things that working cowboys do all the time: calf banding, team roping and “doctoring,” a simulation of treating a sick animal, featuring four riders working in tandem. “That’s what they do in these hills every day when they have a sick steer or cow that they need to doctor,” said Martin.
Organizers will also set up a display area paying homage to the old Gilroy Gymkhana, featuring invited guests who are old enough to remember the event.
The rodeo hopes to sell up to 5,000 tickets as a successful kick-off to establishing itself as an annual event. “Maybe I’ll end up eating my hat,” said Martin, wearing a cowboy hat in the midday sun at the rodeo arena, “but I think this county right now is in great need of this event.”
Martin, 43, grew up on a ranch in San Diego County and watched as his family slowly lost the ranch to suburban sprawl. “I was a third-generation rancher down there, but then property taxes shot up so we had to sell half to keep half, sell half to keep half, sell half to keep half. Before long it was too small to be viable.”
He runs a construction company now and has no interest in the event-organizing business. But, he said, he has taken on the workload and headaches of establishing this event to preserve a way of life that otherwise might be in danger of disappearing. “It’s kind of like drawing a line in the sand,” he said. Before Gilroy was known for its international garlic festival or its outlets, or for being a spillover for Silicon Valley’s housing crisis, it was a community of farmers and ranchers. Those folks are still around, working to make a living. And they need a flagship event to celebrate their culture and hand down their traditions to the next generation.
“I want my kids to be able to experience life the same way I did,” said Martin, the father of two young children (a third is due in September). “We have to ask ourselves: Are we going pave over the best farmland in the country and make it all into houses? Or are we going to celebrate what’s here, and figure out a way for everyone to be here?”
Martin leads a force of about 60 volunteers, as well as many community sponsors, who have all been working for six months to put the infrastructure in place for an annual event that they hope will serve as a reminder of the valley’s heritage.
“Let’s let people know that there is another way of life happening here,” said Martin, “that people are engaged actively in the lifestyle of agricultural pursuits in the Santa Clara Valley. You have farmers here. You have ranchers here. And their kids are growing up to be farmers and ranchers. They’re not getting bred out. They’re not going anywhere.”
Aug. 11 and 12, events begin 8am both days. Main rodeo performance at 2pm both days.
Gilroy Rodeo grounds, 2365 Dunlap Ave, Gilroy
Tickets are $20 advance; $25 at the gate for adults. Free for kids 12 and under. Free parking. Advance tickets can be purchased at gilroyrodeo.com.