Camp Lewis Rodeos (World War I)

  • By Duane Colt Denfeld, Ph.D.
  • Posted 11/15/2014
  • Essay 10950
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During World War I, the U.S. Army at Camp Lewis, located in Pierce County, operated a remount station, preparing horses and mules for service in France. The army's numerous horses and many skilled cowboys provided the opportunity to present Wild West rodeo shows for the enjoyment of both soldiers and civilians. The 91st Division, which formed at Camp Lewis in September 1917, had within it more than 300 cowboys, most serving at the camp's remount station, and including world champions and former performers from Buffalo Bill's Wild West show. Camp Lewis held its first Wild West rodeo on November 11, 1917. The rodeo presented 100 riders and 500 horses, and the performers included top rodeo stars who were serving in the army at the camp. These cowboys would go on to present rodeos and Wild West shows at Camp Lewis, Tacoma, Olympia, and Seattle. The rodeos were huge draws, with 30,000 spectators at one 1918 show. They equaled the top rodeos in the nation. With the armistice ending World War I, the cowboys were discharged, Camp Lewis was nearly abandoned, and the rodeos ended.

Big-Time Rodeo 

During World War I the Puget Sound region had rodeos that equaled the famous events at Pendleton, Salinas, Cheyenne, and Calvary. They were a product of the 91st Division that had been organized at Camp Lewis. The division was nicknamed the "Wild West" division since it had more cowboys than any other division to go to France. Its cowboys came from Montana, Wyoming, and the Pacific Northwest. Many of the top rodeo stars of the day were drafted or enlisted into the 91st Division. They were riders with victories at the major events at Cheyenne and Pendleton Roundups.

At Camp Lewis, 300 cowboys operated the remount station with the responsibility of training 10,000 horses and thousands of mules for service in France and Belgium. At the remount station, three miles southeast of the cantonment, a large stadium was constructed with seating for 18,000, and the hillsides of the natural amphitheater could seat another 15,000. Once the remount station was up and operating efficiently, rodeo shows entertained the troops and civilians. The public was invited and the rodeos became popular events with large crowds.

People came from Portland and the Puget Sound area. Special trains ran from Tacoma and King Street Station in Seattle to Camp Lewis. The Puget Sound Navigation Company had special boats leaving Seattle's Coleman dock with land connections to Camp Lewis. Olympia fans came by special buses. Some Seattle rodeo goers reached Camp Lewis via the S.S. Tacoma, S.S. Indianapolis, and S.S. Flyer boats that departed Seattle's Colman Dock. They connected at Tacoma with steam and electric cars and finally buses for Camp Lewis.

The First Puget Sound Rodeos

The first rodeo was held on November 11, 1917. It had 100 riders and 500 horses. Among the premier riders wearing the uniform and participating was Wilfred B. Killham (1893-1964), world amateur horse-riding champion. Several former performers from Buffalo Bill's Wild West show also competed in roping and horse events. The rodeo included horse races, bareback riding contests, steer roping, bull dogging, fancy roping, a two-mile relay race where the saddle had to be changed twice, and a half-mile wild horse race.

Charles Maggini (1894-1982), a bull rider from California, was a favorite with the crowd. He continued after the war as a rodeo performer and in 1929 became the world steer-roping champion. The first rodeo also included two clowns, who did their routines in the oval. A crowd of 18,000 attended, producing a profit of $9,000 that went to support the 91st Division's athletic activities.

Two weeks after the first rodeo, another Camp Lewis unit put on a rodeo in Olympia. A special train transported the riders and animals to perform a military and Wild West show.

On the weekend of December 15 to 16, 1917, the Camp Lewis rodeo stadium was the venue for another military pageant and Wild West show. Special trains ran from Olympia to the show. The events at the two-day pageant included a four-ring circus, bronco busting, comedy steer- and mule-riding, and band performances. Despite rainy weather, a large crowd attended.

On June 16, 1918, the second major rodeo was held at the remount station. One new event was the mule jump, where the mule with the highest jump won a prize for its rider. There was also a four-mule-team wagon haul, judged on performance skills, and a horse-team wagon contest that demonstrated combat skills that would be employed in France. Enlisted men and officers rode their mounts and government horses in a number of competitions. First Lieutenant Elijah Worsham (1886-1918), former Seattle broker, was the show announcer. He later went to France and commanded a machine-gun company of the 326th Infantry, 91st Division. Captain Worsham was fatally wounded in battle on September 29, 1918.

The Rodeo at Tacoma Stadium

Camp Lewis took the rodeo to the Tacoma Stadium for July 3 and 4 performances. On July 3, the remount station riders put on a rodeo and military show. A special guest star was Mildred Douglas (1895-1985), the women's world-champion bronco rider. On July 4, the Tacoma events included a military and industrial parade, automobile races at the speedway, and that evening at the stadium, a military demonstration by infantry troops from Camp Lewis. A company set up tents, a kitchen, and a hospital in the stadium.

While encamped they came under a surprise "attack" and fought off an "enemy." The "wounded" were taken to the hospital tent and treated. During the attack there was a gas alert and the troops quickly put on their gas masks. There were also weapons demonstrations. Premier riders among the soldiers included Tommy Grimes (1887-1934), a bucking-horse champion who became a movie actor and stunt man after the war. Another rider, Mickey Millerick (1892-1955), also performed in movies after his military service.

Seattle Girls Victory Carnival

The rodeo stars and troops put on shows during the Seattle Girls Victory Carnival at the Naval Station Seattle on the University of Washington campus. The six-day carnival was the largest Seattle event since the Alaska-Yukon-Pacific Exposition of 1909. Events at the carnival included women's athletic contests with navy Yeomanettes races.

The Yeomanettes, under the direction of Anne Bathurst Hoefs (1894-1984) of Seattle, also marched and drilled alongside the navy men. The one-day attendance record was 35,000 people. Over its six days, the event took in $100,000 with profits going to the Navy Relief Fund.

The Final Rodeo

The final major rodeo was held on July 27, 1919, at the remount station stadium. The 13th Division presented the rodeo, having replaced the 91st Division that was in combat in France and Belgium. The rodeo put on 25 events. The start of the show featured military events demonstrating combat skills. They included demonstrating putting in action a horse-drawn 37-m.m. gun. There was also a rescue race to recover a simulated wounded soldier.

The second half of the rodeo was a Wild West show with bronco riding, roping demonstrations, and a Roman race, where standing riders straddled two horses and raced for the finish line. There was also Cossack stunt riding, which especially impressed the audience. Among the Cossack rides was one rider standing on the shoulders of two riders. This required the horses to be exactly lined up and to not move apart. There were demonstrations of sword fighting by Cossack-style riders and also spear throwing. These riders also did stunt acts that had combat utility. Women riders were also part of the rodeo, including nurses, officers' wives, and female employees at the camp. Women also participated in a needle and thread race. Attendance was estimated at 30,000.

With the demobilization of the "Lucky" 13th Division -- nicknamed Lucky since it was in training when the armistice was signed -- and the decline of Camp Lewis, there were no more major rodeos. Today, no trace of the remount station or rodeo amphitheater survives.

Sources: Alan H. Archambault, "The Camp Lewis Remount 'Rodeo'," The Banner: Friends of the Fort Lewis Military Museum, Vol. 22, No. 3 (Summer 2008), pp. 1-4; Alice Palmer Henderon, The Ninety-First: First at Camp Lewis (Tacoma: John C. Barr, 1918); "Army To Hold Round-Up," The Oregonian, November 5, 1917, p. 10; "Camp Round-Up Sunday," Ibid., November 9, 1917, p. 8; "Thousands Cheer Wild West Show," Tacoma Daily Ledger, November 12, 1917, p. 5; "18,000 See Rodeo," The Oregonian, November 12, 1917, p. 4; "Ammunition Train Soldiers Put On Rodeo," The Seattle Daily Times, November 24, 1917, p. 4; "Monster Military Pageant Planned Saturday and Sunday at Camp Lewis," Morning Olympian, December 14, 1917, p. 1; "Army Mules To Jump," The Oregonian, June 9, 1918, p. 27; "Crowd Thrilled by Horse Show at Camp Lewis," The Seattle Daily Times, June 17, 1918, p. 12; "30,000 Persons View Big Show," Tacoma Daily Ledger, June 17, 1918, p. 1; "Troops To Compete," The Oregonian, June 23, 1918, p. 8; "Huge Crowd Watches Military Maneuvers," The Seattle Daily Times, July 5, 1918, p. 13.; "Camp Lewis Plans Great Horse Show," Ibid. July 17, 1919, p. 31; "Show At Camp," Ibid., July 27, 1919, p. 9; "Yeomanettes Act as Color Guard, Setting Precedent for U.S.," Ibid., July 27, 1919, p. 15.

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