HELENA — This story is part of a weekly summer series recycling of "Curt's Replays" column by longtime IR sports writer Curt Synness. The article on the inaugural Last Chance Stampede Rodeo was first published on July 28, 2001.
On the morning of July 30, 1961, Bill Carson and Homer Phillips anxiously climbed to the top of the grandstands at the Lewis and Clark County Fairground, and looked south. Both men were nervous as they waited, watching to see how many people would show up for their brainchild, the very first Last Chance Stampede.
The original Montana State Fair, which took place from 1891 until 1932, was held at the old Montana State Fairgrounds, as they were then known. Many an exciting horse and trotting race was run. There were dances, fireworks, carnivals, and horse shows, as well as animal, culinary and handicraft displays.
One of the biggest events took place when Charles Lindberg visited in 1927. Another participant in that 1927 state fair, Homer Phillips --then 10 years old -- recalled, "I entered a calf in the fair that year, and I slept overnight with it out at the Fairgrounds. Lindberg landed his plane at the old airport, which was where the Bill Roberts golf course is now."
After the state fair was discontinued due mostly to the effects of the Great Depression, the state-owned facility was essentially abandoned for the next 26 years and fell into disrepair.
"There were a few small rodeos and some stock car races there during the 1950s, and the Helena Trail Riders used the barns," Phillips said, "but the state had plans on bringing over prison inmates to tear down the grandstand and structures and sub-divide the property."
Phillips' friend, Bill Carson, who had owned Carson Construction and Helena Sand and Gravel, suggested that in order to save the fairgrounds, the acreage should be transferred from the state to the county. Carson worked out a deal with then Attorney General Forrest Anderson, and a 99-year lease was purchased for $1, turning the ownership over to Lewis and Clark County.
"In 1958, the County Commissioners appointed a fair board charged with the responsibility of developing the fairgrounds into recreational, educational and civic betterment facilities," according to the 1961 Last Chance Stampede Program.
The original fair board was comprised of: Bill Carson, president; Homer Phillips, secretary; Al Steffeck, vice president; Clyde Burgan, director; W.J. Harrer, director; and Yvonne Fetty, board secretary.
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For the next three years the fair board and a group of volunteers, with materials contributed by local businesses, worked to renovate the 215-acre fairgrounds.
"We decided that the most popular event we could put on was a rodeo," Phillips related. "But neither Bill nor I knew anything about rodeos. The Exchange Club had been thinking about a rodeo, but we talked them into handling the beer concessions, which they've been doing for 40 years now. Longtime local cowboys Dan Buck and Ed Lamb were put in charge of running the rodeo -- which they did very well."
The corrals to hold the broncs and the eight bucking chutes were built from materials donated by local citizens under the supervision of fairgrounds manager Bud Ballard.
The county had given the fair board $9,000 to do the restoration and put on the event, but that money ran out quickly.
"But by May of 1961, we needed a lot more money, and the Stampede was only two and a half months away," recounted Phillips. "So we went out and talked to jillions of people. We got 40 people to pledge $100 a piece, with the promise that if the Stampede was a success, they wouldn't have to pay. We then used that as collateral to borrow the rest of the money we needed."
While promoting the endeavor, Phillips says he and Harold Ormseth took a bull downtown and into the lobby of the First National Bank. Once inside, the bull "made a deposit." But, as history records, the project was completed just in time -- and the 40 who made pledges were able to hold onto their $100.
Homer Phillips passed away in 2010.