EFFIE - Like everyone else who was anticipating the North Star Stampede held here this past weekend, Shawn Stutzman, of Staplehurst, Neb., was taken aback when organizer Cimarron Pitzen announced …
EFFIE - Like everyone else who was anticipating the North Star Stampede held here this past weekend, Shawn Stutzman, of Staplehurst, Neb., was taken aback when organizer Cimarron Pitzen announced that spectators would not be allowed at the popular event this year.
And Pitzen, who announced the decision on the rodeo’s Facebook page the day before the event was set to begin, made it clear it wasn’t his idea.
“Thanks to John Olson from the MN. Dept. of Health and Jason Pleggenkuhle from the Attorney General’s office pushing their political agendas, The North Star Stampede will take place with no spectators,” Pitzen wrote. “If people would like to come and protest against this ridiculous Government Over Reach, feel free to do so, I will not stand in the way of peoples ‘Right to Assemble.’”
Stutzman, a professional rodeo clown who performs under the name “Stutzy,” had a vested interest in the news. With events canceled across the country due to coronavirus precautions, this was going to be his first big rodeo in over four months.
“Cimarron called me Wednesday and wanted to make sure I wasn’t driving up there,” Stutzman said. “He told me to stay home and not come.”
But as Stutzman saw the enormous response to Pitzen’s post on Facebook, he sensed there would be a good crowd, and he talked with Pitzen to renegotiate his contract and hit the road.
“I didn’t want to miss being a part of it,” Stutzman said.
Apparently, neither did the other North Star Stampede fans, as they turned out by the thousands on Friday, Saturday, and Sunday to enjoy some rodeo, support the Pitzens, and thumb their collective noses at the state officials who would have denied their attendance.
The first hint of protest at Friday night’s opening was evident as people pulled into the parking lot – more than a dozen pickup trucks had dual flags sticking up from their beds, an American flag paired with a Donald Trump 2020 campaign flag. There were no signs of any health or law enforcement officials trying to turn people away.
Because “spectators” weren’t allowed, no one was in the ticket booths to collect the advertised $15 adult entry fee, but as “protesters” entered the gates they pulled out their wallets and deposited generously, often exceeding the admission price, into containers marked for donations to livestock. Only a handful had some kind of face covering, which as of last Saturday are required for outdoor gatherings where social distancing can’t be maintained. And with the stands nearly filled to capacity, social distancing was the last thing on anyone’s mind.
Homemade posters with protest messages were scattered about the arena -- about 30 white, green, and pink signs could be seen in the east arena stands. While many colorful and extreme suggestions had been posted on Facebook, most posters at the rodeo were in keeping with rodeo’s family-friendly culture. Numerous signs sported some variation on the theme of “Rodeo Matters.” More took aim at Gov. Tim Walz, something Stutzman picked up on quickly to get the crowd revved up.
Noting that the governor’s name sounded like some kind of dance, Stutzman called out over the loudspeaker, “Let’s call him Governor Hokey Pokey tonight – that’s some kind of dance.” The jab was met with an approving roar from the crowd.
“This is the best protest ever,” Stutzman proclaimed. “I’ve never done a Minnesota protest so I’m highly excited.”
At one point between events, Stutzman had everyone stand, wave their signs, and chant “Hell no, we won’t go.”
“This was a pretty new type of deal, so we just kind of ad libbed everything and threw in a bunch of stuff about the protest,” Stutzman said on Tuesday. “We made sure especially with all the TV there that people knew it was a protest.”
Stutzman said it was “the best crowd at a rodeo I’ve had all year” while noting there hadn’t been as many crowds to entertain this year because of the coronavirus.
“Everybody was there just to stand together and it turned out great,” Stutzman said. “They were there to have fun, and it was packed all three days. It’s about time people stood up and do what they want to do.”
In stark contrast to the main weekend sessions, Thursday afternoon’s preliminary slack event, a term used to describe the overflow of contestants who do calf roping, barrel racing, and other events, was jammed with competitors but not spectators.
Social distancing came naturally to the few fans scattered about the stands, and there was little evidence of any protest.
However, participants welcomed the rare opportunity to compete and socialize with each other. Barrel riders Kennedy Wardas and Laura Julkowski were among them. Their comments suggest why the Effie rodeo enjoys such strong support, even in the face of the threat of COVID-19.
“It’s the hometown of everybody around here,” Wardas said. “It’s one of the biggest open rodeos in the area. You know everybody. It’s a great rodeo community up here.”
Julkowski, a five-time barrel racing champion at the North Star Stampede, was even more emphatic as she weighed in about the 65th annual event.
“If they didn’t have the Effie rodeo, that means the world is ending and everybody else should be scared,” she said.
Wardas noted that it’s been a tough season due to all the canceled events.
“I’ve only gone to four or five runs,” she said. “Usually I get one every weekend and some during the week, too. This is our summer; this is what we do, and it’s put a damper on a lot of things for a lot of people.”
Julkowski is a district director for regional barrel races, and she said scheduling races and ensuring all health and safety precautions are followed has been difficult. And with fewer races, the field of competitors at each event has been bigger.
“The races are super huge,” she said. “They’re three times, four times the size right now, because nobody is rodeoing. They’re itching to get out so bad.”
But Julkowski noted a benefit to having more than 70 entries in barrel racing at Effie.
“The barrel racing payout is going to be insane,” she said.