Home » History »

NDRA -- The Beginning...

by Vicki Pennington, Killdeer (1986)

"Dear rodeo enthusiasts..." and so it all got started. An organization that grew from one man's idea into a nationally respected association over 500 members strong. From its humble beginnings some 30 years ago (53 years as of 2006!), the North Dakota Rodeo Association (NDRA) has managed to survive and prosper, overcoming many problems along the way. It has seen other associations come and go. It has been the leader for many states to follow. Why does it continue to succeed despite the odds? Perhaps we should credit those who laid the ground work so many years ago for their dedication and foresight.

Norman "Peg" O'Neil, Killdeer, ND, is often called the "father" of the idea of the NDRA. He felt that the rodeos throughout the state needed to be organized and coordinated making them better for everyone involved--the committees, the cowboys, and the spectators. Peg did more than just come up with a good idea , he worked hard to try to make it happen. He is credited with much of the success that the NDRA has enjoyed.

The first step in implementing his plan was to send out letters to various rodeo-minded people throughout the state inviting them to a meeting at Beulah, ND on February 28, 1952 (the site of the NDRA's 40 year celebration in February 1992). At this first meeting, some instrumental individuals were chosen as officers. Had these people not been of the hardworking, dedicated sort (like today's rodeo committees!), the NDRA may not have become the strong organization that it is today. Peg O'Neil was elected President, a position he held for three years. Ralph Murray, Zap, ND, served as the first vice president; Clair Cullen, Hensler, ND, was elected as secretary-treasurer. He didn't actually accept the position, but took it upon himself to find "just the right person for the job". And that he did! After returning home from the Beulah meeting, and an evening out to "butter her up", Clair approached his wife Pearl with the news that she had been selected as the first secretary-treasurer of the newly formed North Dakota Rodeo Association. A better secretary could not have been chosen; the energy, dedication and enthusiasm which is the very makeup of Pearl herself, was apparent in all she did.

This group of three contacted as many rodeo committees as possible in the state, outlining the idea of the Association, urging them to cooperate and send the name of a candidate for the board of directors. The first board was appointed from these names; succeeding directors were voted on by the membership much as it is handled today. The by-laws, which were established by that first board 50 years ago, included many principles that the Association still follows today.

The main objective of the Association was to promote better rodeos and to publicize the sport of rodeo, as well as to help the local committees and cowboys with rodeo related problems. It was supported by all the professional and amateur rodeos in the state, the stock contractors and rodeo producers, as well as numerous amateur and professional cowboys.

When first organized, the NDRA was strictly a committee organization. The only members were rodeo and horse show (if the show contained any approved events) committees throughout the state. A $5 yearly membership fee was charged each organization and in addition, another $5 or 1% of the prize money (whichever amount was larger) was collected from their rodeo. In 1953, 20 rodeo associations joined and some are still promoting and producing NDRA approved rodeos.

The original standard events were bareback, saddle bronc, calf roping, steer wrestling, and bull riding. Bucking bulls were hard to come by in the early years so cow riding was a poplar substitute. The wild horse race was also a big hit at many rodeos.

Even during the first year, the NDRA set up a point system for year-end winners. One point was awarded for each dollar won at a member rodeo. The main difference in that system and the one we use today, is that during the first year, entry fees were not included (however, that was changed the next season).

Interest in the year-end championships ran high and it wasn't long before ND had many cowboys vying for these titles. The summer found Pearl busy tallying points and keeping standings. Peg set the date to work on obtaining donors for the trophy buckles he was hoping to award the year-end champion in each of the five standard events plus high point cowboy. The cost for these engraved buckles for the 1953 champions was $37, and true to the hopes of the Board, they were awarded at the first NDRA awards banquet held in Dickinson. The top cowboys for the year were: High Point Man -Tom Tescher, Sentinel Butte; Bareback -Pete Fredericks, Elbowoods; Saddle Bronc - Duane Howard, Minnewauken; Bull Riding - Alvin Nelson, Sentinel Butte; Calf Roping - Howard Schnell, Dickinson; and Steer Wrestling - Gene McCormick, Menoken.

The rodeos of this era ranged from Wild West Shows to jackpots; from Match Rides to the more traditional style rodeo we know today. Often at these early rodeos, cowboys paid entry fees of $4 - $10 to ride at purses of $250 - $300. Some purses were as low as $50. No NDRA rule book existed so they followed RCA rules "as close as possible". It was up to each committee to select judges that they felt were qualified. At most rodeos the cowboys were required to take two head of stock. The payoff was divided into four places and an average was normally paid. Even as early as 1954, concern over spectator or liability insurance was prevalent. Pearl did some investigating for the committees and found that reasonable effective insurance was available.

At a board meeting at Bismarck in December, it was suggested to Pearl that they needed a newsletter to keep people informed of the goings on of the Association. Living up to her reputation of getting things done, it was only one month later (Jan. 1954) and Pearl had the first NDRA newsletter in the mail.

Times were different then, but Pearl agreed that the newsletter, as it still is, was quite an undertaking. In 1954 when the first newsletter came out, the format was very different from today's eight to twelve page tabloid, but the intent was the same--to keep the membership informed and involved. Pearl recalled her "production line". The county agent was kind enough to donate the use of his secretary (after hours of course!) to type the newsletter onto a stencil, then mimeographed it and returned it to Pearl who folded, stapled and hand addressed them. Postage was $.02 per copy compared to the $.10 it is now (1986). The newsletter, regardless of its cost or style has been a valuable tool for the Association and has been going strong since that single page mimeographed sheet was sent out in January 1954.

When asked of the problems that they encountered during their work with the NDRA, both Pearl and Peg said things ran pretty smoothly. "Many of the problems we faced then, are the same that you are facing now," Pearl noted. Peg remembered that complications involved in coordinating rodeo dates among the committees. They tried to have one rodeo a weekend to help the towns involved get crowds large enough to support the rodeo. Finances and obtaining sponsors and donors are problems that will probably always face the Association and the rodeos.

In trying to pinpoint the element that the NDRA has kept it alive and growing as many other associations have fallen by the wayside, Peg credits some success of the NDRA to a bit of advice he received along the way. Cutting horse and rodeo enthusiast Jerry Boren spoke up at a general membership meeting - "Don't get too big too fast," he stated, "and don't make rules that you can't enforce." Peg said that these "words of wisdom" made a lot of sense and seemed to stick in his mind as the NDRA grew and new rules were established and problems were faced.

Peg O'Neil and Clair and Pearl Cullin were honored and presented with copper plaques designating them as a Lifetime Members of the North Dakota Rodeo Association in 1976. This award is reserved for those who have indeed given a part of themselves in return for the betterment of the Association. What better recipients of this award than those who dreamed a dream and worked at it until it was a reality that many others have benefited from.



The NDRA was formed in 1953 and is 54 years old this year. With its 250+ members it is one of the state's largest rodeo entities. It approves 15-25 rodeos a year and draws more contestants and spectators to the summer rodeos than other rodeo bodies in the state. The NDRA sanctions with the largest prize money and determines state champions through its Finals Rodeo that is currently held in Watford City, ND the second Friday & Saturday in September. Our Finals Rodeo features the top twelve contestants in each standard event, and pits them against the top stock in the state.

NDRA sponsorship programs can be designed from very small to very large, depending on the financial wishes of the sponsor. Programs also can focus on a specific geographic area or they can be statewide in scope. Additionally, they can emphasize specialty areas such as rodeo committees, stock contractors, contestants, bucking stock or a combination of the above.

At this time we are seeking additional sponsors to help support our season rodeos and the Finals. Negotiations are underway, and we feel that the NDRA has a lot to offer each sponsor. Most of the rodeos average 200+ contestants and bring in cowboys/cowgirls from Montana, North & South Dakota, Wyoming, Nebraska & Minnesota. Spectators also come from a variety of places; with tourists following the "Lewis & Clark Trail" they tend to stop and take in a "bit of the Old West". The NDRA office receives requests for information during the summer from people throughout the U.S. that are planning a vacation to North Dakota. Each year our rodeo dates are published in the ND Tourism Guide and various other magazines available (Going Places, REC Magazine, etc.)

The NDRA is excited about its future and the growth it has continued to experience; especially considering the economic effects of the agriculture and oil industries. Rodeo and the western way of life is very appealing and more North Dakota young people are turning to rodeo as a sport to participate in than any other time. The NDRA will so its best in meeting the rodeo needs of the citizens of North Dakota.

1953 Annual Highlights

The North Dakota Rodeo Association (NDRA) was established on February 28, 1953 with a rodeo meeting called by founding NDRA President Norman "Peg" O'Neil at Beulah, N.D. Twenty rodeo committees and horse show associations became first year members. The first NDRA rodeo was held on May 31, 1953 at Garrison, N.D.

After joining the National High School Rodeo Association, the Beulah Junior Rodeo became North Dakota's first high school rodeo and was held on June 30th. For many years in the future, the Beulah community would host the North Dakota state high school finals rodeo.

Young Elbowoods cowboy Pete Fredricks was named the 1953 national high school bareback champion at New Underwood near Rapid City, S.D. At the intercollegiate level, Joe Chase, another talented Elbowoods cowboy from the Fort Berthold Indian Reservation, won his second national college saddle bronc title competing for Hardin Simmons College in Texas.

The 4th of July rodeo at Killdeer, N.D. was canceled by producer Don Hartman for this year. Later in August, at the annual match roping and bronc riding contests in Dickinson, local RCA cowboy Howard Schnell topped the calf roping competition and South Dakota's world champion Casey Tibbs won the bronc riding.

Marion Piper, editor of the Bar North magazine, agreed to provide N.D. Stockmen's Association publication. For the next several years, this magazine featured articles about the North Dakota's rodeo cowboys, state rodeo queens, high school rodeo champions, and the state cutting horse organization.

North Dakota's RCA cowboys were named the first NDRA season champions at the awards banquet held November 21, 1953 at the Ray Hotel in Dickinson, N.D. The champions included Pete Fredericks, Elbowoods (bareback), Duane Howard, Minnewauken (saddle bronc), Alvin Nelson, Sentinel Butte (bull riding), Howard Schnell, Dickinson (calf roping), Gene McCormick, Menoken (steer wrestling), and Tom Tescher, Sentinel Butte (high point ride).

North Dakota Rodeo Association
Michelle Rotenberger
13003 Welch Fire Place
Ludlow, SD 57755
605-576-3266 (Central Entry)
701-516-4333 (Office Cell)
NDRA Central Entry
Michelle Rotenberger
3 - 8 p.m. MT
Most entries on Monday
Call backs on Tuesday