The Collegiate Peaks Stampede Rodeo Grounds southwest of Buena Vista was built in 1940 using funds from the Works Progress Administration. The rodeo grew out of Buena Vista’s annual Head Lettuce Day celebration and gradually developed into a two-day event considered one of the top small-purse rodeos in the region. The rodeo grounds—which consist of a racetrack, rodeo arena, grandstand, and other facilities—have been updated since the 1990s but retain the look and feel of a small-town rodeo.
Origins in Head Lettuce Day
The Collegiate Peaks Stampede Rodeo grew out of Buena Vista’s annual Head Lettuce Day celebration, which was first held on September 4, 1922. Dreamt up by three locals, the one-day event marked the end of the growing season for head lettuce and other vegetables, whose cultivation was booming in the Upper Arkansas Valley in the years after World War I. The first festival featured a picnic, barbecue, baseball tournament, stock show, and horse and foot races. It was successful enough for the organizers to turn it into an annual event and establish the Head Lettuce Day Rodeo Association.
The Head Lettuce Day celebration expanded in 1925, when it was held along with the Chaffee County Fair. To accommodate the larger event, organizers leased land from a golf course about a mile southwest of town, which became the early Head Lettuce Day rodeo grounds. Over the next fifteen years, the rodeo and horse races became the central events at Head Lettuce Day. The rodeo gained a reputation as the top one-day rodeo in Colorado, with local cowboys coming to town to participate and local ranchers donating beef for the barbecue and livestock for the competitions.
By 1940 the rodeo had grown so much that it needed expanded seating and more facilities. To help construct the new rodeo grounds, Buena Vista applied for a grant from the Works Progress Administration (WPA), which funded many outdoors and recreation projects in rural Colorado during the Great Depression. The application was approved, and construction started in May 1940 at a twenty-acre site across Gregg Drive, just southwest of the existing rodeo grounds. With a crew of about two dozen workers and a budget of just over $12,000, the project provided a boost to Buena Vista by providing employment and pumping cash into the economy. To save on the cost of materials, workers salvaged parts of the old rodeo grounds and used logs donated by local ranchers.
Completed in September 1940, the new rodeo complex featured a half-mile racetrack, rodeo arena, and grandstand. The oval racetrack had a north-south orientation, with the rodeo arena occupying about an acre on the west side of the racetrack’s interior. The grandstand stood on the west side of the racetrack and could hold about 400 spectators on rows of painted board seats. It had a small concession building tucked under the seats in its northwest corner. A central balcony allowed judges to keep a close eye on the horse races.
The cultivation of lettuce in the Upper Arkansas valley declined after World War II, but the rodeo retained the Head Lettuce Day name into the 1950s. In 1956 it was renamed the Collegiate Peaks Stampede, when it returned to local control after a brief affiliation with the Rodeo Cowboys Association. It included a horse parade through downtown Buena Vista, a square dance performed on horseback, and plenty of rodeo events and horse races. By the 1960s, under the leadership of the Buena Vista Lions Club, the rodeo developed into a two-day event regarded as one of the top amateur rodeos in the state, with bull riding, bareback riding, steer wrestling, roping, barrel racing, and mutton busting. To draw larger tourist crowds, the rodeo was moved from September to June.
By the middle of the 1990s, the Collegiate Peaks Stampede Rodeo focused solely on rodeo events. Horse racing was dropped because it proved too difficult to continue, and the horse parade stopped in deference to the Buena Vista Chamber of Commerce’s new July Fourth parade, held just a few weeks after the rodeo. The Collegiate Peaks Rodeo Association took over the organization of the rodeo, which became affiliated with the Colorado Rodeo Cowboy Association.
Starting in 1993, the rodeo received crucial financial assistance from the Buena Vista Lions Club and American Legion, which gave $6,000 each to help improve the rodeo grounds. Inmates at the nearby Buena Vista Correctional Facility built new corrals, outbuildings, a practice arena, and metal fencing. Bleachers were placed on the east side of the rodeo arena to increase the seating capacity by about 270; before that, people who could not fit in the grandstand had simply parked their trucks on that side of the arena to watch. In the late 1990s, lights were added to make night events possible, and in 2013 a new announcer’s booth was built at the south end of the arena after the original booth was destroyed by wind. A new concession stand opened east of the bleachers after the old concession stand tucked under the grandstand was condemned as a fire hazard.
In 2016 the Collegiate Peaks Stampede Rodeo Grounds was listed on the National Register of Historic Places. Today the rodeo attracts about 1,500 spectators over two days and is often named the best rodeo on the small-purse circuit in Colorado and Wyoming.