She was a fixture at the Sonoma Rodeo for many years, serving as a secretary and setting up a booth to collect riders’ tickets and pay out cash prizes. But that only begins to tell the story of Shirley Jones.
“She also participated in barrel racing and won a trophy,” said Alina Garcia Ivancic, a Sonoma resident and daughter-in-law of Jones. “And she nicknamed her among the cowboys was ‘Cactus Kate’ because she wouldn’t let any of them get away with it! She also took rodeo movies and was very proud to capture Slim Pickens on film as a rodeo clown before he went to Hollywood to become an actor.”
Jones was one of the many colorful characters that graced the Sonoma Rodeo, also known as the Millerick Rodeo. The Larson Family Winery, including the tasting room that was destroyed in a fire this month, now stands on land where the rodeo once flourished.
“The back lawn, which is now an event space for us bordered by Chardonnay vines, was the site of the grandstands, where up to 10,000 spectators enjoyed the broncos, barrel racers and rope,” said Tom Larson, the wine master, CEO and head of vineyard operations at Larson Family Winery. “Our family bred and trained racehorses, ran the Sonoma Rodeo, and supplied cattle for other western rodeos and shows, as well as western movies that were being filmed in nearby Niles Canyon.”
Patricia Cullinan, president of the Sonoma Valley Historical Society, recalls that the rodeo, a summer event, was a very popular community event.
“I was just a little kid, but the events were so much fun!” she said. “This was the longest running rodeo in California and really engaged all segments of society as Sonoma was a rural farming community. Sonoma County was a barn, with all kinds of farms: truck farms, cattle ranches, dairies, many of them in Sonoma, and, of course, chickens. It’s hard to remember that society back then wasn’t so mobile, with long commutes to work.”
The roots of the rodeo go back to the early 1900s, when Jack Millerick and his brother, Tom Millerick, operated the Millerick Brothers Stock Company in Schellville, raising and raising horses, including the rodeo. Among other things, they supplied material and riders for the San Francisco Pan-American Exposition in 1915.
Michael “Buster” Millerick, a cousin of the brothers, learned to ride a horse on the Schellville estate before launching a stellar career as a professional horse trainer. Buster began working as a professional trainer when he was 20 years old. Shortly after Santa Anita Park opened in Arcadia, California in 1934, he was hired to condition horses for Charles Howard and worked with head trainer Tom Smith when the stable acquired Seabiscuit in 1936.
Four years later, Buster won his first major race for the Howard stable when Yankee Dandy captured the California Breeders Champion Stakes. Always shying away from the spotlight, however, he was inducted into the National Museum of Racing and Hall of Fame in 2010.
Tom was a rodeo participant and, beginning in 1921, the director of the Reno State Rodeo, supplying 16 cattle cars to the rodeo before succumbing to tuberculosis in 1925.
“Many young men who worked for the Millerick brothers became prominent horsemen and lived in the Sonoma area at one point or another,” Cullinan said, adding that many members of the community participated in competitive riding, including legendary winemaker August Sebastiani and community activist Dr. Carroll B. Andrews.
The Sonoma Rodeo began in 1929, founded by Larson’s uncle, Jack Millerick, and later owned by his nephew, retired US Air Force Major Jim Millerick. Jim’s extensive knowledge of rodeos and cattle allowed him to make the rodeo a great attraction. Hollywood celebrities attended, including Max Baer, Andy Devine, and Slim Pickens, who performed as a clown at the rodeo.
Robert M. Lynch provides some intriguing details about the rodeo in his book, “The Sonoma Valley Story.” He notes that crowds of up to 8,000 people attended the rodeos, which are held every summer, to watch 60 to 70 contestants compete in a variety of competitions, including bull riding, saddle and bareback bronco riding, roping calf roping, team roping and bull dogging. .
The rodeo continued to grow, featuring many stars of the rodeo circuit, including Ben Dobbins, Ty Stokes, Al Haupt, and Bob Studnick, known as “Bronco Bob,” the best wild horse rider in the West. They and other skilled horsemen and ropers competed against strong local talent, including Bob Thornsberry and Ken Jones in bull riding and bareback.