Built in 1910, the rodeo arena at Chief Joseph Park in Harlowton, Montana, stands as an enduring monument to agricultural life and is a frequent gathering spot for residents of this small town nestled on the plains near central Montana’s Judith Mountains. From rodeos to funerals to church services, the arena has seen it all, welcoming residents, and out-of-town guests to this centerpiece of rural Americana.
Central to the arena is a covered grandstand that serves as an oasis from the elements for the many Harlowton faithful who have graced this venue for more than a century. But time and nature can be cruel, and exposure to the elements aged this shelter until it was no longer safe to accommodate the large crowds that gathered there.
“It’s been here since 1910 and it’s a big part of our community, I mean, it’s been here forever,” said Katherine Parks, DVM, a local veterinarian and member of the Harlowton Rodeo Committee who spearheaded the grandstand rehabilitation project. “We weren’t sure if we could actually save it [the grandstand], but it was really important if we could.”
As preliminary engineering assessments for the project got underway, Harlowton was faced with not knowing if the original grandstand could be saved – renovated – or if it would have to be replaced. But when word came back that the grandstand’s main foundation and pillars were intact, Harlowton breathed a sigh of relief.
So, in 2016, community leaders started work with USDA Rural Development to secure two Community Facilities Grants to help finance the cost of the project. These funds are designed to help small rural communities build or replace essential facilities, like the grandstand.
But with the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic, the project was delayed until in 2021. So, when construction finally began, efforts were undertaken to strengthen the grandstand’s foundation and make the improved structure more weather-resistant by replacing the aged wood bleachers with newer aluminum ones and installing aluminum covers over the main pillars.
“It was a long process, but by the time it was all done, it was worth it,” said Adam Jones, a Wheatland County Commissioner and fifth generation Harlowton rancher and resident. “USDA was also gracious enough to let us finance the loan through a local bank so we could help stimulate our economy.”
Completed in 2022, the grandstand was once again ready to host Harlowton’s signature annual events including the Memorial Day high school rodeo, a late-summer youth fair, and the July 4 rodeo which doubles as an annual reunion weekend for the town. This much-anticipated July 4 event, which recently marked its 73rd anniversary in 2023, draws thousands of friends past and present from near and far to re-unite in celebration of life in rural Harlowton.
“Without the fairgrounds, it would just leave us more a dot on the map instead of a destination, which is what we want to get to,” said Jones. “I’ve grown up here, my family’s been here since Harlowton originated. You just can’t beat this community.”