BELLVILLE – There is a special feeling that happens in the arena at the Austin County Fairgrounds.
There are many adjectives that describe the aura that surrounds one of the best rodeos in southeast Texas each fall, but the cowboys say it best.
“It’s like one of those small-town football games where the whole town comes out and packs it out,” said Jacob Talley, the 2017 Austin County Fair and Rodeo steer wrestling champion from Keatchie, La. “This is my first time, but it’s a good rodeo.”
Look for Talley to return to Bellville during this year’s rodeo, set for 7:30 p.m. Thursday, Oct. 11-Saturday, Oct. 13. He will be among dozens Wrangler National Finals Rodeo qualifiers who will be part of the world-class event.
For years, Bellville’s rodeo was one of the best-kept secrets in the Professional Rodeo Cowboys Association, but word is spreading. Now there are people talking about why the event could be in the mix for the PRCA’s Medium Rodeo of the Year.
“I think it’s because of the growth it has shown over the past few years,” said John Gwatney, the event’s chute boss from Marquez. “How do you make one of the best county fair rodeos better? You add to it. They’ve got the best personnel in rodeo: Dusty Tuckness, Cody Sosebee, Boyd Polhamus, Sandy Gwatney and Josh ‘Hambone’ Hilton. They’re all award-winners or have been recognized as the best in their area of expertise.”
That’s true. Tuckness is the reigning eight-time PRCA Bullfighter of the Year; Polhamus is a four-time Announcer of the Year; Sandy Gwatney is the 2016 Secretary of the Year; Hilton won the inaugural Music Director of the Year in 2017; and Sosebee was the barrelman at last year’s NFR – he will be the featured clown/barrelman in Bellville this October.
“That rodeo wants to be the best, so they hire the best,” John Gwatney said. “That’s the commitment they’ve made over the last few years. They’ve also increased the prize money, and they have steer roping there, which a lot of rodeos don’t have. It adds to what they want to do to have a professional rodeo in Bellville.”
It’s also one of the first rodeos for the 2019 season, so it’s an important stop for contestants to kick start their chances of having a successful campaign just two weeks after the existing regular season concludes.
“This is a good setup, and the crowd is really good,” said Audy Reed, last year’s bronc riding champion who went on to compete at the NFR for the first time. “You have great hospitality, plus, it’s in Texas, and you can’t beat that.”
Southeast Texas is beautiful in October, with mild temperatures and a chance to be part of a community event. That and the $4,000 in committee money that’s added to the purse in each even are drawing cards for rodeo’s greatest starts.
“We draw top contestants for a lot of reasons, but part of it is because it’s one of the first rodeos of the new season,” John Gwatney said. “A guy can win a big piece of money there and set him up for next season.”
But it goes beyond that. The hard-working committee is made up of volunteers who donate their time and their resources to make the Austin County Fair’s rodeo a big deal, not only to the local fans but also to the contestants that compete for a living.
“One of the biggest things I’ve seen in my time is that they redesigned the arena to make it better for the cowboys and the livestock,” John Gwatney said. “They want to make it better, and they work hard to make it better.
“They used to worry about losing part of the crowd to Friday night football, but they don’t anymore. It’s that good of a rodeo. The school schedules away games on that Friday night, so it just helps the county fair.”
It’s a community that comes together for a common cause, and it reflects in the showcase that is Bellville’s rodeo.
“In the past, I never missed it,” said Richard Durham, a two-time NFR qualifier in team roping-heeling. “It’s just a great rodeo. The committee is great, and it’s a great setup.”
And that’s why there’s a buzz about the Austin County Fair’s rodeo being one of the best events in ProRodeo.