The small farm community of St. Paul, Oregon with a population of 425, is located in the heart of the Willamette Valley, 20 miles from Salem, the State Capital, and 30 miles southwest of Portland. The area for 20 square miles around St. Paul is some of the most fertile irrigated farm land in the country. Farmers raise a great diversity of crops here including grasses, grains, nursery, hops, fruits and vegetables.
It was in this setting in 1935 that eight local farmers and businessmen conceived the idea for the St. Paul Rodeo. These eight originators were Bill Smith, Ray Manegre, John McKillip, Carl Smith, Maurice Smith, Jim Gooding, Ralph Butts, and Ed Unger.
The City Park, a baseball diamond surrounded by scotch broom and littered with tin cans, was cleaned up and a pole fence built around a short, eighth mile track. Four bucking chutes and a roping chute were added, and the locals went looking for stock for a rodeo to be held July 4, 1936.
Bill Smith was the first President of the fledgling organization and the ramrod in getting things going. He farmed with a great number of horses and from his herd came several of the bucking horses used the first few years. One of them, St. Paul Special, was used in the Christensen Bros. rodeo string for several years.
Word was out! And that first year cowboys came from all over Oregon, 50 of them strong, to compete for a rip-roaring purse totaling $500. There were bareback and steer riding events and roping competitions using the new chutes. Saddle broncs were blind-folded and "snubbed" to a 2,000+ pound draft horse in the arena. The competitor's job was to saddle the bronc, mount, and ride. Local folks pitted their fastest teams and bravest drivers against each other in tumultuous hop buggy and chariot races. Trick riders and trick ropers provided additional colorful and exciting entertainment.
Supplementary entertainment was available in the Park where numerous carnival food, beverage, and game vendors provided good times. There was an ever-popular gambling tent where poker, blackjack, and slot machines entertained adults who considered themselves lucky and figured they could "beat the odds". St. Paul was remote enough that this type overt activity went "unnoticed" by the authorities. Rumor has it that the local Mayor's wife was a regular patron of this tent and fully enjoyed her attempts to outsmart the machines! This diversity of wild and colorful entertainment provided just the diversion needed in a time when thoughts focused on the unknowns of a war abroad.
In 1937, the custom of having "royalty" represent and promote the rodeo became part of local tradition. Virginia Ernst was St. Paul's first queen; she served in 1937 & in 1938.