Oakdale is synonymous with cowboys. It has been home to the Oakdale Saddle Club Rodeo for nearly seven decades. It’s where the California Dally Team Roping Championships declared its home more than 60 years ago. Ah yes, the Cowboy Capital of the World, a slogan that has gone hand in hand with Oakdale for as far back as, well, anyone can remember. Many don’t even know how that slogan came about; it’s a term that we’ve always used and a true description of our historic foundation. Here’s a little background.
Oakdale was a vital ranching community in the 1930s. In fact, some people referred to Oakdale as a “CowTown.” There were two sets of livestock corrals in town. One was located on Sierra Avenue near “J” Street and another on Sierra Avenue near Citizens Cemetery. Other corrals were located at Claribel and Waterford Highway to the South and on 26-Mile Road at Valley Home Road to the North. In the fall, feeder cattle would be unloaded from the Southern Pacific Railroad to these corrals and then driven by cowboys to the ranches east of town to fatten up on the range and be sold in the spring. It was not unusual to see a herd of cattle being driven down Sierra Avenue or across the bridge to the northern ranches. Cattle buyers would arrive in the late spring, gathering around Oakdale establishments to bid on the fattened steers.
Two Time World Champion Steer Roper and 1936 All-Around Cowboy, John Bowman made his home in Oakdale in 1936. In 1948, Bowman along with John Markham leased the rodeo grounds from the Oakdale Saddle Club where the first Oakdale professional rodeo was held. Bowman’s prominence in the area attracted other cowboys to relocate. Harley May came to visit John Bowman after the Red Bluff Rodeo in 1955 and loved the town so much, he stayed.
“After the 1958 Cow Palace Rodeo, a group of businessmen in Oakdale, headed up by Clark Pace and including Red Craft, Sam Marchetti, Nick Zito, Monty Montgomery, Frosty Woods and Judge Sawyer all got together and treated the Oakdale Cowboys to a night of revelry in Modesto,” recalled the three-time World Champion Steer Wrestler and former Oakdale resident, Harley May during an interview in 2008. “It was John Bowman, Sonny Tureman, Sherman Sullins, Bill Hartman, Jim Charles, Bill Martinelli, Ross Dollarhide and me. That’s when we started calling Oakdale, “The Cowboy Capital of the World.”
The word was out – Oakdale was a cowboy friendly town, rich in ranching heritage, work for the cowboy was plentiful and Oakdale’s Central California location made it a great place to live and rodeo from. Rodeo Cowboys from Oakdale and the surrounding towns in the Central Valley made a significant contribution to the sport of rodeo, bringing over 25 World Champion Rodeo Titles, countless National Finals Rodeo qualifications and 15 Hall of Fame titles home.
“It was nothing to see World Champion Rodeo Cowboys in the branding corral. Gold Buckles helping in the day to day ranch work,” said Harley May.
Although there are other places with high concentrations of cowboys and nearby rodeos, none can match Oakdale in the heart of the cowboy or the community.
In 2008, a friendly competition was held between Oakdale and Stephenville, Texas, a town also called the “Cowboy Capital of the World,” to settle the score of who could lay claim to the title. Citizens of each town were asked to sell raffle tickets for a chance to win a side of beef. When the dust settled and the tickets counted, Oakdale was the winner and the sole owner to “Cowboy Capital of the World” title.
Oakdale, an agricultural community rich in ranching and rodeo cowboy heritage. It’s where the Cowboy Spirit will live on forever in “The Cowboy Capital of the World.”
(Editor’s note: This is a slightly revised version of an article first contributed by Christie Camarillo for the 2015 special section for the Oakdale Rodeo. The 2021 edition features competition on Saturday evening, Aug. 14 and Sunday, Aug. 15 at the Oakdale Saddle Club Rodeo Grounds.)