MONTICELLO — It was 61 years ago that Monticello sisters Martha and Mary Jo Oehmke decided to spread their love of horses to the neighborhood. Within a year, the Piatt County Riding Club — now the Piatt County Trail Blazers — had formed, and this year it celebrates six decades of presenting horse shows and rodeos.
"What those girls did was give riding lessons to neighbor kids, and that's how this all started," said Linda Dyson, whose family has been involved with the club for most of its existence.
The Oehmke sisters' father, Elme, was the club's first president. Shows were originally presented on leased ground on Allerton Road, prior to the purchase of land that paved the way for the current venue.
This year's Piatt County Trail Blazers Rodeo runs Thursday through Saturday at the Trail Blazers grounds on Old Route 47 north of Monticello.
With 60 years of shows under their large-buckled belt, longtime members have their share of stories, from periodic struggles to keep the show going to a Trail Blazer president accepting a dare to climb on the back of a bull.
Why, there was even a wedding proposal in the riding rink in 2001. She said yes, of course.
The rodeo has also seen its share of somber memories, from a 2007 fire that claimed the clubhouse to losing 2012 Rodeo Queen Jorden Austin to a fatal auto accident. A Jorden Austin Memorial Horse Show is being planned for later in the year.
Other challenges included financial constraints that nearly canceled the show on a pair of occasions. But Dyson said "miraculously, the membership made it happen." And the rodeo has been going strong ever since.
Through it all, organizers have been able to keep a subdued, solemn attitude when needed while still keeping a sense of humor when appropriate.
One year, Trail Blazers President Darrel Hicks was jawing with a rodeo contractor about who'd have enough guts to climb on a bull. Hicks took the bet, going to the chute and climbing on the bull — and immediately climbing off.
"There you go. I got on the bull. You didn't say anything about calling for the gate. I win," he was heard to say on the Wednesday night before the opening night of the rodeo.
Other memorable moments cited by organizers include the patriotic opening of the rodeo in 1999 to volunteers helping put up a new clubhouse after that 2007 fire.
Muddy rodeos also bring back memories — the event is held rain or shine.
Members are thankful for the permanent bleachers and animal pens on the site. Prior to their installation, portable ones had to be transported to and from the grounds each year.
The club is 61 members strong, and they are generally involved for the same reason.
"Friends and family involvement — sharing the love of horses and rodeo — and just having fun with it," Dyson said.
From cowboys to clowns
Gates open at 5 p.m., with competition beginning at 7:30. Keep an eye out for renowned clown Dusty Myers, who's back to provide entertainment throughout event.
Schedule includes 7 p.m. coronation of 2014 Miss Trail Blazer, Autumn Mix of Clinton, followed by rodeo at 7:30.
10 a.m. parade in downtown Monticello kicks off day, followed by Kids and Clowns Lunch at 11:30 a.m. at Rick Ridings in Monticello. Rodeo starts at 7:30 p.m., with a dance capping off the weekend at 10 p.m.
Steve Hoffman is editor of the Piatt County Journal-Republican, a News-Gazette community newspaper. For more, visit journal-republican.com.