One of the most unique horse-drawn parades in the country is in Tucson, Arizona. Every year 200,000 people line the streets to watch as historical wagons and carriages, decorated with a distinctive Southwest flair,
are pulled by draft horses. This year marks the 86th anniversary of the parade, a kick-off celebration for “La Fiesta de Los Vaqueros” Rodeo. In 1924, prominent businessmen, led by Frederick Leighton Kramer, were searching for ways to attract tourism to Tucson. Kramer was from Philadelphia and spent winters in Tucson. He was also the President of the Arizona Polo Association. The businessmen including ranchers, car dealers and bankers decided to hold a rodeo. Originally, it was a one-day event consisting of the rodeo participants riding from downtown Tucson to Kramer's polo field, where the rodeo took place in the afternoon. The first parade and rodeo was held on February 21, 1925, and was wildly successful. The parade included two military bands, mounted cowboys, cowgirls and Indians, mounted police and polo players, a riding group from the University of Arizona, the chief of police and a U.S. Marshal. Tucson schools and the University of Arizona declared a holiday; a tradition that continues to this day. The prize money for the first rodeo was $6,650, an impressive amount in 1925, but a long way from the current payout of $310,000.
The parade is known as the largest non-motorized parade in the country. Though other parades claim this status, one thing separates this one from the rest. The majority of the wagons, coaches and carriages are from the collection of Tucson Rodeo Parade Museum. They opened to the public in 1964 and house over 200 historical pieces in six buildings. The museum began acquiring the collection in the 1930s. Some pieces were purchased, but most were donated by prominent Arizona families. They have a good selection of wagons built by the F. Ronstadt Company, Tucson's preeminent wagon maker. Proprietor F. Ronstadt was the great-grandfather of singer, Linda Ronstadt. The museum also houses the entire Seth Thomas (the clock maker) collection of carriages. Thomas's granddaughter,Josephine Reeve, was married to Tucson rancher, Richard Reeve. In 1946, when the Seth Thomas farm in New Jersey was being sold, Josephine managed to ship out the entire collection of carriages and donated them to the Arizona museum. The most valuable carriage in the museum is a square roof Landau made in France at Napoleon's orders for the Coronation of Emperor Maximilian of Mexico. There are many stories about how this carriage arrived in Arizona, but the most popular involves the driver of the carriage covering a bet in a poker game with the carriage and losing. An Arizona businessman, who remains nameless, brought the carriage to the museum in 1933. The “Antiques Roadshow” visited the museum to film a segment and valued the carriage of Maximilian at $500,000. Eight pieces in the museum were donated by the Skeel family, descendants of Noah Webster. The museum is also home to Andrew Carnegie's personal carriage. Carnegie spent time in Arizona building the Carnegie Library which is now home to the Tucson Children's Museum.
The Tucson Rodeo Parade has attracted movie stars from nearby Old Tucson Studios such as Michael Landon, GaryCooper, Gene Autry, Ben Johnson and Richard Boone. Old Tucson Studios was built in the desert of Tucson by Columbia Pictures in 1939 for the filming of the movie “Arizona” starring William Holden and Jean Arthur. Old Tucson Studios has been the backdrop of over 300 movies and television programs since it began and still exists today as a movie studio and major tourist attraction. In the 1960s, Old Tucson Studios would ride and drive over 100 head of horses from their location to participate in the parade and ensuing rodeo only to ride and drive them back when it was over. In this year's parade, Jesse Bell, a second generation cowboy/stunt man at Old Tucson Studios, and his team of wranglers drove four teams of Belgian/Quarter Horse crosses to the fairgrounds, drove them in the parade and then back to the studio.
One of the Parade Museum's buildings is dedicated to the maintenance of their collection. Every piece is at least 100 years old and requires meticulous restoration and maintenance. Every wagon and carriage is inspected for needed repairs and has the hubs greased annually. Donations of wagons and carriages are still rolling in today. The maintenance crew assesses whether the donated vehicle can be restored. If not, they use it for parts. They never throw anything away.
Sixty horse-drawn vehicles were entered in this year's parade; 48 were museum pieces and were pulled by 75 draft horses. All draft breeds, except Clydesdales, were represented. The rest of the 113 entries were made up of bands, riding groups or individuals. The parade, held on a Thursday every year, attracts over 200,000 spectators and is televised live.
The Tucson Rodeo Parade Committee works hard to make certain the parade is safe for participants and spectators alike. Troy Haviland, a 30-year veteran of the commercial horse business, has been the stock contractor for the parade since 2008. Haviland uses a strict selection criteria in deciding which horses and teamsters he will use. Haviland hires only experienced teamsters with suitable horses to pull the wagons and carriages of the museum. Only teamsters who make their living at parades and street work are asked to participate.After a mandatory 6:00 a.m. safety meeting, teamsters bring their horses to the wagons and Haviland personally oversees the hitching of the horses to the wagons, making sure the harness is safe and the horses are hitched properly. All horses must wear halters under the bridle and Haviland ties the lead rope back to the hame in a quick-release knot. Black electricians tape is then wrapped around all buckles on the harness, at the heel chains and the combination snap to avoid any potential safety issues. The wagons are divided into four groups. After hitching each group goes through another safety inspection before entering a warm-up area. Each teamster spends 30-45 minutes in the warm-up area working out any issues with the equipment or horses. After the warm-up, teams are then released to drive to the staging area, a distance of two miles. Then, and only then, do the riders get on their designated wagon or carriage. Guns, noisemaker toys, balloons, candy and paper handouts are all strictly forbidden. All hitches must have at least one walker and a volunteer mounted Ranger accompanies each entry down the parade route. A generous number of parade volunteers are spaced down the route to keep all spectators back at a safe distance and keep them from crossing the street during the parade. All railroad crossings and storm drain grates are covered with conveyor belt material to provide the horses with safe footing.
The cost of hiring professional teamsters is offset by the participants themselves. Sponsorships start at $500 and include a museum carriage pulled by a single horse and a professional driver. Bob Stewart, Rodeo Parade Committee Member, says, “It costs the parade entrant a little more, but the cost is insignificant compared to the need.” Parades have always raised liability concerns and more so for horse-drawn entries. Haviland explains, “It's like a lot of things in the horse business, things just have to be changed. It's come to the point where liability is such an important part of whatever we do that safety just has to be your number one thought.” The cost has not affected participation, even during this challenging economy. Many sponsors rent the same museum piece over and over and this year, the parade had 16 new entries.
The Tucson Rodeo Parade has had its share of ups and downs but is going stronger than ever before thanks to the commitment of its many volunteers. Tucson is a big city stuck in a small town, and it loves its parade. Next February when your horses are knee-deep in snow, you might consider a trip to sunny Arizona to see the Tucson Rodeo Parade and Museum.
For more info:
Tucson Rodeo Parade Museum
4823 S. 6th Ave., Tucson, AZ 85714
photos by Audra Daugherty