Thirty-three thousand spectators observed the 1930 Saugus Rodeo — and an estimated 25,000 were turned away for lack of capacity — in a valley that sported an entire population of maybe 3,000. Despite its success, the 1930 rodeo (held April 27) would be the last under Roy Baker's ownership. The Great Depression was on, and Baker, who started the rodeo in 1926 with Bob Anderson, was forced to call it quits. He sold out to Hoot Gibson, star of both the rodeo circuit and the box office.
In fact, the 1930 Baker Ranch Rodeo was co-presented by Baker and Gibson. In the 1930 rodeo program, Gibson writes:
"In the immediate future, I will assume complete charge of the Baker Ranch Rodeo. Messrs. Roy Baker and Bob Anderson have together brought this annual event from its inception to its present success and deserve to be congratulated. It is my earnest aim and ambition to take up their reins and make of it the biggest and most spectacular thing of its sort in the entire world.
"Next year I plan to improve the Baker Ranch Rodeo in every possible way. There will be bigger money prizes. The best riders in the world will be on hand to compete for world's titles. There will be more spectacular races, more hazardous stunts and a show that will be faster and more exciting than any ever attempted heretofore.
"This ranch will co-operate with the Pendleton Round-Up, Calgary Stampede, Cheyenne Frontier Days, Chicago Rodeo, Madison Square Garden, Salinas and other great rodeos, to bring California and the West Coast the very finest riders and horses in the world. Winners of events at these shows will be particularly invited to Baker Ranch to participate for greater cash prizes than ever offered here previously.
"Not only do I promise greater spectacles and more thrills but every effort will be bent to provide for the greater comfort of spectators. There will be three new paved roads leading to this ranch next year. The stadium will be enlarged, covered and made more comfortable. Every convenience and aid to the pleasure of the man in the audience will be anticipated and coped with.
"An airport adjoining the stadium will provide a landing field for private and commercial planes, placing the Baker Ranch Rodeo within five minutes of Los Angeles and within easy flying distance of cities throughout the West and Middle West.
"Suggestions for the betterment of this annual event will be appreciated. Particularly do I invite ideas for a name that may become as world familiar as are such titles are "The Pendleton Round-Up" and "Calgary Stampede." Such suggestions, mailed to me in care of Baker Ranch, Saugus, California, will be treated with every courtesy.
"Here is to a bigger and better rodeo in 1931. I trust today's offerings pleased you and promise that next year there will be much more in the way of thrills and excitement."
Big promises. Gibson made good on some of them. Others, not so much. But he gave it a good run for a few years and brought out his Western film buddies including William S. Hart, Harry Carey, Tom Mix and John Wayne.
Gibson continued to produce the rodeo even after he sold it in 1934, but the Great Flood of March 2, 1938, wiped it out. Bill Bonelli bought the grounds out of foreclosure later that year and introduced auto racing in 1939. He continued to hold rodeos into the 1940s and 1950s, but the dream of turning Saugus into another Pendleton Round-Up or Calgary Stampede was gone.
Click to enlarge.
Rodeo Draws Great Throng.
The Newhall Signal and Saugus Enterprise | Thursday, May 1, 1930.
A crowd sufficient to fill the stadium twice over was attracted to the Baker Ranch, Sunday, to see the rodeo and the Wild West acts that were put on.
At an early hour the seating capacity gave out, and only by holding some of the seats did the management begin to satisfy the crowd that came by train, two specials having been run from Los Angeles. The following is a part of the Times' account of the affair:
"Tumbleweed, named in honor of William S. Hart, former screen star, and said to be the wildest broncho that ever stood on four feet, met his master yesterday at the Baker Ranch rodeo.
"Thirty-three thousand spectators heard the announcer's prediction that the attempt probably would end in failure. A few seconds later the wild steed was released with Pete Knight of Crossfield, Alta, on his back.
"The next two minutes were exceedingly busy for both Knight and his mount, with Tumbleweed trying every trick known to dislodge his rider. He bucked, reared, sideslipped, stood on his hind legs and leaped straight into the air, but the rough-and-ready Mr. Knight was still in the saddle at the finish. For his feat the rider was given a cheer that re-echoed from the distant hills.
"It was estimated by officials of the show that 25,000 persons were turned away for lack of seating capacity. Every inch of standing room was occupied, and spectators overflowed into the arena. At 3 p.m. the road from San Fernando to Saugus was blocked with cars three abreast and many were turned back by county motor police.
"Only one accident marred the program, when Fred Hunt was thrown. His injuries were not serious.
Other results of the day follow:
"Broncho busting contest, first, John Slater; second, Earl Thode; third, Ed Woods; fourth, John Schneider.
"Bulldogging contest, first, Clay Carr; second. Earl Thode; third. Richard Merchant.
"Steer riding contest, first, John Schneider; second, Kenneth Cooper; third, Charles Hannon.
"Bareback broncho contest, first, Tex Chase; second. Morris Weidman; third, Charles Biscarro.
"Calf roping contest, first, Richard Merchant; second, Eugene Pardee; third, Fox O'Callahan; fourth, Hugo Strickland."
The return to Los Angeles was not marked by any particular traffic jam owing to the efficient handling of the crowd by the officers, who kept everything moving. An hour after the close everything was clear except the usual heavy Sunday evening movement.
The future Saugus Speedway was built originally as a rodeo arena in 1927 by Roy Baker, brother of shoe magnate C.H. Baker.
Roy Baker purchased the 40-acre property east of Bouquet Junction in 1923 for the purpose of breeding and selling show and pleasure horses.
To that end he imported saddle brood mares from Kentucky and studded them with a pedigreed, chestnut-colored saddlebred stallion named Peavine McDonald (b. 1910),
which sired five pedigreed mares and four pedigreed colts between 1920 and 1936.
Baker advertised that he had 2,500 acres of grazing land and also offered training and boarding services for outside horses.
Probably to attract horse buyers to his ranch in faraway Saugus, Baker staged rodeos. Some references suggest he
built a 12,000-seat arena in 1924, but this is dubious. (Promoter Bob Anderson organized a local rodeo in 1924, but its exact location is unclear, and it wouldn't
have had grandtands.) Anderson did hold the annual rodeo on Baker's property in April 1926. That December,
Baker and Anderson started construction on a new stadium, complete with partially covered grandstand seating and a quarter-mile oval track.
When it opened May 1, 1927, it seated 18,000 fans, and thousands more had to be turned away for lack of room.
Over the next decade, ownership of the arena
would change hands three more times.
As with a majority of the American populace, Baker was hit hard financially by the Great Depression of 1929 and was forced
to sell the stadium to cowboy actor Hoot Gibson in 1930. Gibson continued to hold rodeos at the stadium and drew a Hollywood crowd
including famous actors such as William S. Hart, Harry Carey, Tom Mix, and John Wayne. He also used the stadium as a movie set
or leased it to other companies for film making.
But Gibson felt the effects of the Depression, as well. In September 1933 he appeared in a Los Angeles courtroom and pleaded poverty,
saying he had no assets with which to repay a $2,500 loan. He testified that he owned a one-third interest in Hoot Gibson Inc., which owned
the Saugus rodeo, and that it was in arrears.
In 1934, Gibson sold the stadium to Paul Hill, owner of the Western Livestock Stockyards, who continued to call it the Hoot Gibson Rodeo.
As with his predecessors, however, the stadium brought
Hill financial hardship when it was hit by the Great Flood of March 2, 1938. Heavy rains that year caused a river of water to flow down
Soledad Canyon and filled the ranch home and arena with mud and debris. As reported in the Los Angeles
Times, the "old buildings ... collapsed during the March floods" and the arena was built anew.
Nonetheless, Hill lost the ranch sometime after the April 1938 rodeo. According to Reynolds,
the property was repossessed by
the bank. In 1939, ownership passed to William Bonelli, and it was renamed Bonelli Stadium.
Bonelli, a professor of economics at Occidental College,
continued the annual rodeo tradition
for a number of years but introduced auto racing in 1939 on a more frequent schedule; ultimately auto racing became the primary draw and Bonelli
renamed the arena Saugus Speedway.
Occasional rodeos and circuses continued until at least the late 1960s, auto racing until 1995. The facility was sometimes used for
concerts before the grandstands were removed in 2012 (the originals had been replaced in 1955). The venue continues to host an outdoor swap meet.