Bath House Brawl
Old-Style Rodeo Revived
Story and Photos by Dale Toweill
As more than a dozen mounted riders race toward me shoulder-to-shoulder, I force myself against the rough footing of a barn. Water flies in all directions when the stampeding horses cross a shallow creek. I hold my breath as they hurtle past, every muscle straining, the riders intent on pushing their steeds to maximum speed as they race toward the wet meadow and a hill. This is a horserace but it’s happening in the midst of a rodeo, and it’s nothing like what most rodeo-goers have ever witnessed. It is the start of the Bath House Brawl, a demanding mile-long gallop through a meadow and around a hill, across a stream and a swamp, while the setting sun casts long shadows over the Garden Valley landscape.
The Bath House Brawl is the best-known of many events during Duke Days, an old-style throw-down rodeo held the third weekend of August each year in tiny Garden Valley, home to 489 people spread across 7.4 square miles. Duke Days is rapidly gaining a nationwide following among rodeo fans, some of whom remember when rodeos were strictly local social events and often were a community’s event of the year. Such ranch rodeos are still common in the West but few are advertised or easily accessible to the public. They’re generally held in late summer, after neighboring families have managed to keep themselves and their livestock fed through the cold months of winter, and after the hard labor of preparing fields, planting crops, and taking care of each new year’s calves and other livestock for the coming spring.
These small-town rodeos are an opportunity for celebration and socializing with neighboring families, which often includes a pot-luck picnic and entertainment in the form of contests among young men out to demonstrate skills at handling rough stock (a kind of audition for future ranch employment) and to seek bragging rights in a society where such skills are held in high esteem. The rodeos are nothing if not fun, the high point of a day filled with socializing, good food, and often a party afterwards that lasts well into the night.