The Jacksonville Rodeo Association was less than 10 years old when the Jacksonville Centennial was celebrated. It recently marked the 61st annual event. In the fall of 1962, the idea of "bigtime rodeo with entertainers" was born and plans were rapidly made for the first show in July of 1963. Much work had to be done such as building an arena, hiring stock producers, music people, entertainers and lots of other jobs.
All of these jobs fell to volunteers from the Jacksonville Riders Club and the Jacksonville Lions Club. When the Rodeo Association was formed, it drew 12 directors from each club to make decisions for the association. By July of 1963 all was in place and Michael Landon of the television show "Bonanza" was hired to entertain all four nights. He turned out to be the most popular star ever. Landon died just prior to the rodeo one year and the association, the only time ever, presented a $1,000 scholarship to a high school graduate, in his memory.
So many entertainers came to the rodeo. Jacksonville's own Neal McCoy entertained three times, as did Jon and Jim Haggar from Hee Haw Show. Several others came twice. Stars included were Rex Allen and his horse Koko, Eddy Arnold, Clu Gulager, Peter Breck, Ken Curtis, Jerry Lee Lewis, Carl Smith, Don Cherry, Tommy Overstreet, and Red Steagall.
The Oak Ridge Boys were so popular both on and off the stage. Joe Bonsai, tenor for the group, was a heart throb for the girls who nick-named him "Smiley". The group and their band came to town in an old tour bus and every time they started to leave the arena or the hotel someone with a strong battery had to "jump the engine" to get it going. They were a happy bunch and a real crowd pleaser. Shortly after their local performance, their recording "Ya'll Comeback Saloon", reached number one status and the rest is history.
Other stars were Joe Stampley, Moe Bandy, Johnny Rodriguez and Lee Greenwood, who introduced what would become his signature song, "God Bless the USA". Greenwood returned the next year and closed his show with a magnificent performance of his song. Arena lights were off, only a spotlight trained on a very spirited black horse circling the arena with its rider holding the American flag as Greenwood sang "God Bless the USA." It truly was a beautiful sight.
Other stars included Steve Wariner, Gene Watson, Eddy Raven, Mason Dixon, Mel McDaniel, John Schneider, Keith Whitley, T. Graham Brown, Billy Joe Royal, Asleep at the Wheel, Lynn Anderson, T.G. Sheppard, The Noblemen, Charly McClain and Wayne Massey.
Garth Brooks, new to entertainment, entertained a sold-out crowd, as did Brooks & Dunn. More stars were Jo-El Sonnier, Gary Stewart, Lionel Cartwright, Doug Stone, Sammy Kershaw, Janie Frickie, McBride and the Ride, Aaron Tippin, Shenandoah, Doug Supernaw, Boy Howdy, Rick Trevino, Woody Lee and George Ducas.
More stars were Wade Hayes, David Lee Murphy, Chely Wright, David Kersh, Ty England, David Allen Coe, James Bona my, Lee Ann Womack, John Conlee, Jerry Jeff Walker, Kenny Chesney, Rhett Adkins Chad Brock, Mark Wills, Perfect Stranger, Dianna Littlepage, Kentucky Headhunters, John Anderson, Ricky Lynn Gregg, Los Rivales, Blake Shelton, Tommy Shane Stiener , Starskey & Johnson, Billy Currington, Brooks Atwood, Pat Green, Chris Cagle, Stoney Larue, Randy Rogers Band, Branded Duo, Zona Jones, Larry Mahan, and several others.
Several young women from the area were honored as Rodeo Queen including Phyllis Darby, Bitsy Goforth, Jane Tipton, Fancy Shank, Frances Stover, Jan Woolery, Doty Phillips, Cathy Bolton, Mary Beth McGee, Tracey Holcombe and others.
The 16th rodeo featured a new format with the forming of the Western Week Committee. This group planned activities for every day of the week, starting with the ever popular Monday night street dance in the downtown area, and continuing with a dog show, children's activities, parade, chuck wagon lunch and much more. The rodeo has provided entertainment, fun and excitement through the years and has seen many changes in the way it operates and the people who make it possible. Funds from the event have been used for educational and charitable endeavors in the community through Lions Club, Riders Club, Career Women's Civic Club, Jaycees, Project Graduation and numerous other organizations.
Several directors of the rodeo board have been awarded the John Justice Standard of the West award for their outstanding volunteer work. At least ten directors have been recognized by the Jacksonville Chamber of Commerce as Outstanding Citizen of the Year. Byron Underwood has served as president for several years and the Cowboy churches have had a great hand in its production for several years.