appeared in Methow Valley News Rodeo Guide 2019
Talking with Tom Graves is a little bit like approaching a wild horse: you’re never quite sure if he’s going to settle down and let you lead the conversation, or rear back and keep you chasing him.
This is a man who first sat on a horse as soon as his stomach muscles were strong enough to support himself upright, who began riding in earnest around age three, who was born and raised in a homestead at the end of Pearrygin Lake, who rode a horse to school daily (uphill both ways, of course) and eventually graduated valedictorian, who broke colts, who began fighting fires at 13, who packed horses in the Pasayten, who moved countless sticks of irrigation, who worked as a farrier and a smokejumper, who served in the Army and fought in the Korean War, who felled timber and cut logs, who built fences and plowed roads, and who, among other things, is one of the founding members of the Methow Valley Rodeo, which has been operating consistently since 1971, when Graves and five other local horsemen joined Claude Miller in re-instituting an event seemingly integral to every small-town western community at the time.
At 90, Graves still has a spark in his eye and a piercing wit. Although at age 80 he retired from his former rodeo role of Pickup Rider (who helps the competitor jump free of the bucking bronc and onto the pickup rider’s horse), he still helps plan and manage the two rodeos held each year at the Methow Valley rodeo grounds. Now, says MV Rodeo president Dennis Gardner, “Tom keeps us all organized.”
Graves is no longer in the saddle during the rodeo; visitors will most likely find him at the gate, selling admission. But he still owns horses and rides whenever he can, including participating in the annual multi-day cross-country Ride to Rendezvous. A visibly crooked collarbone bears testimony to a Ride to Rendezvous a couple of years ago. Graves and a few friends were reconnoitering a section of the route, when they found themselves in a boggy area. Graves’ horse, John Henry, immediately went down, “up to his belly in mud,” says Gardner. Somehow, Graves ended up under John Henry, and as the horse struggled to get up, he pressed Graves further and further down into the mud, stepping on Graves’ chest. When Gardner and the other man finally freed Graves, then 88 years old, Gardner looked at Graves and said “Tom, we’ve got two choices. I can call a helicopter, or you can get back in the saddle.” Graves didn’t hesitate. “Help me back up,” he said.
Although Graves has spent periods away from the valley (including attending what is now Washington State University, where he “majored in Girls and minored in Agriculture,” serving in Korea, and working on the west side for a stint), the Methow Valley is the only place he has ever called home. Graves’ involvement in iconic Methow Valley events is testament to his investment in this place. He has ridden in nearly every 49er Days parade since 1959 and served on the planning committee since 1960. He has participated in every rodeo since 1971. And he wants the next generation of riders to find joy in rodeo participation—although he would never use the phrase “find joy.”
“We put on a good show,” Graves says of the Methow Valley Rodeo. “It’s not a full-blown rodeo anymore, with team roping events, but we have ranch saddle bronc, barrel racing, and bulls for the rough stock events.” And there are eight junior rodeo events, Gardner adds, “including pole bending, mutton bustin’, bulls, calves, and barrels.”
It’s getting harder to put the rodeo on, the two men acknowledge—with all the grounds maintenance, watering, infrastructure repair, promotion, and sponsorship procurement—but it’s worth it. “Every small western town should have a rodeo,” says Graves. “Whether you’re a first time rodeo watcher, or a visitor, or a local, you’re going to have fun.”
For Graves, the Memorial Day and Labor Day rodeos are as much about honoring the legacy of the rodeo founders as they are about keeping the rodeo tradition alive. Graves and the other rodeo committee members are steeped in the history of the Methow Valley Rodeo, and value it both as a piece of this community’s past and as a signature element of its future. “Rodeo used to be a family tradition,” Graves says. “Kids these days need a reason to ride.”
Graves recognizes the significant investment that many local businesses make in the rodeo through sponsorship, which provides the cash prizes for the event winners. “Without the sponsors and volunteers,” he says, “we wouldn’t be able to put this on.”
Graves is able to sit still during the interview, but then the many chores that have kept him busy for the better part of a century summon him through some internal clock and he’s off, back to the irrigation pipe he still changes himself, back to the horses he turns out daily, back to the cats who need to be fed. A trip to the gym rounds out Graves’ days, keeping him strong in the absence of some of the manual labor he did well into his 80s.
“Show up to watch the rodeo,” Graves says as he walks away, a photograph of himself pulling a rodeo competitor off a bucking horse tucked under his arm. “Guarantee you’ll have a good time, and you’ll come back.”