Carbon County’s Creative Comeback

Fall 2020 By Laura Bailey Photography Contributed

In March, when Montana Gov. Steve Bullock declared a state of emergency in response to the COVID-19 pandemic, Montanans were asked to stay home, avoid large groups and help do their part to stop the spread of the novel coronavirus. No one could have predicted how that order would change an entire summer’s worth of activities in the Big Sky State. Rodeos, county fairs, parades, concerts, festivals and many other events were all canceled. 

It was a tough blow, but Montanans don’t give up easily. With some ingenuity and a can-do attitude, a few activities continued, albeit a little different than they had been in the past. Here are a few events that found a way to carry on.  

Sankey’s Drive-In Rodeo

Stay in Your Truck to Watch Them Buck

Rodeos across Montana always draw a crowd, so it was no surprise that rodeos were among the first summer events to be canceled. Sankey Pro Rodeo, a provider of roughstock for most of those Montana rodeos, decided to invite the community over for a “drive-in” rodeo at their ranch in Joliet. After working with the Carbon County Health Board and Carbon County Commission to ensure the event was COVID-19 compliant, and then selling a few tickets, the idea took off.   

At the drive-in rodeos, attendees backed their pickup trucks up to the arena fence and watched from lawn chairs in the bed: social distancing accomplished. Because only broncs are raised at the Joliet ranch, the rodeos featured only bronc riding, but they had music, concessions and an announcer, as well as the occasional short-legged dog race to pass the time as they loaded the chutes.   

“On one hand, it was depressing to be limited and not be able to do rodeo like we always have,” said Wade Sankey, owner of Sankey Pro Rodeo and Phenom Genetics. “That feeling was always there, but on the other hand, entertaining our neighbors and getting to buck some horses and be a part of rodeo when no one was doing it was great.” 

The Sankey drive-in rodeos were not a PRCA-sanctioned event, but because of Sankey’s reputation in the world of rodeo, they attracted everyone from the young up-and-comers to Jesse Kruse, a past PRCA world champion bronc rider, and several other PRCA National Finals qualifiers from throughout the region

“They wanted to stay sharp, and we were the only company bucking anything of the caliber they wanted to ride,” Sankey said. 

The rodeos were held for six weeks through the end of May and most of June. For now, Sankey is looking forward to the Dillon Jaycee’s Labor Day Rodeo, which organizers have decided will continue despite state restrictions – but Sankey is not ruling out more drive-in rodeos this fall. 

Flatbed Friday Night 

Honk if You’re Having Fun

Thanks to COVID-19, Lee Calvin, frontman for the band Calvin and the Coal Cars, went from having a full schedule of summer show dates to nothing on his calendar. That got him to thinking of ways the band could continue to perform for a social-distanced crowd. “Why not a drive-in show?” he asked his bandmates. They gave the idea an enthusiastic thumbs-up.  

Calvin and the Coal Cars, which plays traditional country-western music, is based in Red Lodge, so Calvin reached out to the owner of the Amusement Park Drive-in Theater located between Billings and Laurel.   

“I didn’t even get through my whole pitch, and he said, ‘Yes, let’s do it!’” Calvin said. 

They billed it as “Flatbed Friday Night” and on June 19, at the Amusement Park Drive-In, Calvin and the Coal Cars played – on a flatbed trailer — to a sold-out audience of about 175 cars. Stillwater Sound out of Absarokee managed the sound, and Vivid Northwest projected the show onto the big screen. Matt Strachan and the Hoot Owls opened for the band, and the highlight of the night came after the third or fourth song, when the band counted down to have everyone honk their horns in unison. 

“After that, instead of applause, we had people honking their horns,” Calvin said. 

The show was not without its challenges. Calvin and the guys in the band had to do all the promotion, and the logistics of sound and video needed to be sorted out well in advance. Thankfully, it all came together in less than three weeks. 

“It was one of the more memorable performances I’ve had in 20 years of performing live,” Calvin said. “We might try to do it every year.” 

Carbon County Kids Rodeo

Kids Get A Chance to Romp & Ride

When schools closed starting in mid-March, activities for kids followed in step with organizers canceling kids’ summer camps, events and programs. Lori LeBrun wasn’t’ ready to see the Carbon County Kids Rodeo meet the same fate, and she figured that with a little coaching, everyone involved could safely social distance and stay within family groups. This summer, she hosted five rodeos at her arena in Belfry for kids aged 2-18, with about 20 kids participating. 

“There was nothing for these kids to do this summer,” LeBrun said. “We decided we’ve got to do something.”

Events included many of the traditional rodeo events, including barrel racing and roping as well as other events like poles and flag races. The kids rodeo even hosted a royalty competition. This year, LeBrun said there was an increase in the number of kids, probably since so many other activities were canceled or postponed. 

“It’s always fun to see the little ones start riding on their own,” LeBrun added. “You watch a lot of kids grow up over the years in kids rodeo.” 


Don’t Say It’s Not Fair...

...The Show Must Go On

After watching more than 300 kids in 4-H work all year to prepare for the Carbon County Fair, Nikki Bailey, the Carbon County Extension agent, couldn’t stand the thought of canceling. And as the adage goes, “When there’s a will there’s a way,” Bailey and a dedicated team of volunteers made the Carbon County Fair happen despite the pandemic. 

“We have a great group of volunteers and we had great support from the fair board, the county commissioners, the county health board and the community as a whole,” Bailey said.

To manage the fair in such a way that social distancing was possible, it was extended a day and ran July 21-25. Most events were held outdoors, and instead of a mass weigh-in event at the start of the fair, animals were weighed right before their shows. After the show, kids went home with their animals. Masks were required for those participating in or viewing indoor exhibits, and disinfecting protocols were in place throughout the fairgrounds. Interviews were all conducted by appointment to ease congestion. 

The livestock sale was conducted online and was facilitated by Montana Cattle ConneXion, based in Park City. Kids submitted a description of their animals with photos ahead of time, and catalogs were sent to previous buyers and prospective buyers. The 24-hour sale ended on Saturday night with a flurry of last-minute bidding. 

“We had people bidding from all over Montana, and local buyers really supported our kids as well,” Bailey said. 

Animals were sold by the head rather than by weight, and altogether more than 180 lots were sold. According to Bailey, the sale was about equal to last year — and last year’s sale was one of the Carbon County Fair’s best sales.  

“When you’re forced to do things differently there’s always going to be rough spots, but there’s good ideas that can come from it too,” Bailey said. 

Bailey and the fair board are considering continuing with the morning weigh-ins and scheduling interviews for indoor exhibits. Not only did those changes help with social distancing, they proved to be much less stressful for participants and their families, Bailey said. 

“Our primary goal was to preserve the learning opportunities for the kids,” Bailey said. “It was different for sure, but for the most part, everyone was just happy to have something to do.”


© 2020 Raised in the West Magazine