Between the spotlights, the professional announcer, the cheering crowd and the shiny belt buckles, it's easy to spot the top riders at Georgia's Shady Dale Rodeo. But, they aren't the real winners here. Those are the children at the Masonic Home of Georgia.
For 37 years, the Masons of Jasper County have hosted the rodeo, raising more than $1,000,000 to help national and local charities such as the Masonic Home. Here, children with speech and hearing difficulties, or families who depend on the local food bank know that someone has their back. Money is also used for scholarships to offset expenses for college or trade school.
"Our money goes to kids. You're supposed to help people who can't help themselves," says dairyman and rodeo committee member Charlie Lane.
The inaugural event was the idea of Kenny Wright, then manager of Shady Dale Farms, a horse and cattle operation.
A rodeo announcer, Wright encouraged his local Mason friends to put it on as a fundraiser. They agreed, but the Masons' lodge in Shady Dale is so small, they decided to reach out to the Masons in neighboring Monticello for help.
In 1984, members set fenceposts, pulled wire, built an announcer's stand, ran water lines and rented bleachers so they could hold the rodeo in a pasture on Shady Dale Farms. Under the leadership of Mason Merrill Clark, they quickly outgrew that pasture after two years and moved to a permanent arena in downtown Shady Dale.
The Masons continue to maintain and improve the facility with a portion of the funds raised during the two-day event. They've added permanent aluminum bleachers and a sturdy concession stand. Overhead is kept low with an all-volunteer team made up of local Masons, families and friends who run the event. Only the stock contractor and his crew are paid.
A BIGGER PURPOSE
For the local community, this rodeo is all about coming together. The Farm Bureau office runs the baked goods concession. The Shady Dale Community Club pitches in as needed. City officials help with traffic for the two nights of the year when the rodeo brings in as many as 5,000 people to the tiny town of 242.
"The people in the community bend over backwards to help us," says Janie Morris, a volunteer and wife of Wade Morris, a longtime rodeo committee member.
Thanks to all the volunteers, the Masons can usually donate around $30,000 from the annual event, held the first full weekend in June.
"I don't think we've turned down any of the kids who have applied for one of our scholarships," Wade Morris says. That includes in 2019, when both nights of the rodeo were rained out; and 2020, when COVID shut the event down completely.
"The committee is made up of a bunch of selfless men," says Robin Brooks, who has been the stock contractor since 2011 and participated in the first rodeo as a bareback rider.
TOP OUTDOOR RODEO
The Shady Dale rodeo may largely be a volunteer effort, but there is nothing amateur about it. This past January, it was voted one of the top five outdoor rodeos in the U.S. and Canada by the International Professional Rodeo Association.
"We put in extra money to draw the good cowboys and cowgirls," Morris says. The Masons and Brooks also work hard to keep a kid-friendly, family atmosphere. As many as 200 children show up for the calf scramble, as well as to watch from the stands.
"They have an event that people want to be a part of," Brooks says. "There are more people standing around visiting with friends than there are in the stands."
Jim Henderson, also a committee member, says: "The people in the community trust us. They know it is going to be a family atmosphere and a good rodeo."
There is also the certainty that the rodeo supports the best of causes. The law enforcement deputies on duty during those nights even take the leftover food from the concession stand to local people who need it.
"The reward is knowing we do it to help somebody," Henderson says. "If you could see the looks on those kids' faces when we give them their scholarships ... or feel what it is to know that some kid is at the Shriners Hospital getting cured. That's our payment."
SO, YOU WANT TO HOLD A RODEO?
If you're part of an organization that wants to raise money for charity, the Masons who put on the Shady Dale Rodeo have demonstrated a rodeo can be a darn effective way. Be forewarned, though. To do it right takes time, and lots of it.
"Most folks don't want to put in the time it takes," says Wade Morris, committee member of the Georgia event.
Preparation for the June rodeo starts the previous August. The rodeo committee meets to critique the last rodeo and decide on scholarship recipients from the money raised, as well as the other charities that will benefit from the donations.
In January, they start meeting on a regular basis, and by March, they are spending hours selling ads for the rodeo program, which is the main fundraiser. After the local FFA alumni use the rodeo arena for their fundraising tractor pull in March, arena prep for the rodeo begins in earnest.
In addition, there is always grass to cut, buildings and fences to paint, gravel to spread, touch-up welding jobs, food to order, you name it.
The week of the rodeo, committee chairman Rusty Bullard takes off from his day job as a professional land surveyor to tend to rodeo preparation full time.
"The actual two nights of the rodeo are the easy part," says Janie Morris, one of the many spouses who support the event. She says they get to the grounds around 3:30 to 4 p.m. for the 8 p.m. event, and they don't leave until after midnight. It may be near dawn before they close the arena.
Janie, who works in the concession stand, laughs, "I haven't actually been able to watch the rodeo in years. It's pretty amazing to see so many people come together to work on this every year. It's really selfless."
Along with all the volunteers, a good stock contractor is crucial to making it all come together.
"You've got to put on a good show, and you've got to put up enough money to draw the good cowboys," Janie continues.
Robin Brooks, stock contractor for Shady Dale, says for anyone running a rodeo, it's important to try to make it a little better every year. Don't let it go stale.
Wade adds, "I like to watch the cowboys, but the general public talks about the bulls, the clowns and the specialty acts."
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