The Cowboy Ball at the Ravalli County Fairgrounds will be held February 12th. This is the tenth annual event and the way it’s shaping up, it’s going to be an event worthy of a jubilee celebration.
Rod Freeman is the chair of this year’s event. Freeman is also the chair of the Rodeo Committee, and the vice chair of the Fair Board, which he’s been on for 12 years. A real estate agent for 18 years here in the Bitterroot, and also in the Army for 21 years, his organizational and fundraising skills, and discipline, have been put to good use as chair of the Cowboy Ball committee.
Freeman said the committee hopes to raise $50,000 this year, for the expansion of the rodeo bucking chutes. “They’re just getting old,” he said. “They need to be replaced. They’re getting banged up. Bucking stock can be hard on metal.”
The 10th annual cowboy ball – which actually started 11 years ago but couldn’t be held last year due to the pandemic – has been upgraded this year.
“This is the first year we’ve ever done a fully catered dinner,” said Freeman. The University of Montana Catering Service will provide the dinner. Desserts are provided by 4H members. “We’ve spent a lot on upgrading decorations and bringing in special auction items. We’re trying to make it a very special event for the ticket purchasers. We’ve sold all the tables already.” And, as of last Friday there were only eight individual meal tickets left. However, people can still come for the popular dance. Dance guests can come at 8 p.m. It’s $20 for adults and $10 for children 12-17 and under 12 are free. The 406 Band will provide the music. “It is a family event,” said Freeman. “It’s always been a family event.”
“We started this 11 years ago as a thank you for our major sponsors,” said Freeman. “The first year we felt like if we could break even we’d be happy. We made $6,000 so then we knew we could make it not only a thank you but a fundraiser for the equestrian side of the fairgrounds.”
Freeman said that in the past it has been the rodeo committee and the fair manager that have put on the event. But with all the events that happen at the fairgrounds all year long, it’s become too much for them to do, he said. “We put this committee together this year,” said Freeman. “It includes some members of the rodeo committee and some who are not.” Committee members are Rod Freeman (chair), Kathleen Castle, Christie Anderson, Steve Russell (also emcee of the event and Pastor of the High-Country Cowboy Church), Karen Russell, Colleen Stenger and Adrienne Mereck.
Each year the proceeds of the Cowboy Ball go to an improvement that enhances the rodeo experience. Some of the investments have been: new arena panels, new skyboxes over the bucking chutes, a new sound system, and new handicapped seating for the rodeo grandstand. They also purchased and had installed new horse pens for the 4-H horse show.
In addition, the proceeds go to sponsoring the “big screen” that was installed several years ago that televises the action in real time for the audience. “That’s a very popular attraction to the rodeo,” said Freeman.
There were record numbers of attendees at the fair and rodeo last year, and Freeman points out that there is no extra charge for the rodeo.
“We wanted to increase the attendance for the community and the cowboys because they like to perform in front of spectators,” said Freeman. He said that the fair rodeo is tied with Ekalaka for first place as the largest Northern Rodeo Association rodeo in the state of Montana.
“I would say that we have a higher attendance at our rodeo than any NRA rodeo,” said Freeman. “That’s partly because it’s free. But because we’ve made it free, we’ve also increased the fair attendance. At 5:30 or 6 you have a huge crowd coming in and they’re headed to the rodeo.”
“One of our goals is to support rodeo as a sport and to contribute to the growth of rodeo as a sport,” said Freeman.
He has a personal connection – he rode saddle broncs for years, including in Oklahoma, Texas, New Mexico, even Germany and, of course, Montana, where he grew up. “I was never close to being a world champion, I just loved the sport and loved doing it,” he said.
The Cowboy Ball has all the usual components of a fundraising event. A cash bar, a catered dinner and dessert, raffles, live and silent auctions, and dancing. One thing they do that Freeman thinks is pretty special is a “paddle call.”
“We do a paddle call every year where we are raising funds specifically for the featured project which this year is the bucking chutes,” said Freeman. “The auctioneer will ask for donation bids and they will bid it up until it sells to someone in particular. Then the donation bid will start again.”
Freeman said when they were raising money for the 4H horse pens, the paddle call brought in almost $12,000.
Freeman stepped up to chair the event this year, just because he is passionate about rodeo, and the fair, and there wasn’t anybody else coming forward. He’s 77 years old, but still works every day, still rides and competes in horse shows. He says he’s “into natural horsemanship and developing high end horses.”
“We need to keep our brains active by working on challenges every day,” said Freeman.
“It’s been very rewarding to see the Cowboy Ball come together this year,” said Freeman. “We’ve already sold 500+ dinner tickets. I think we might have 600-700 people who attend.”