It was 10 — maybe even 15 — years ago when Cal Ruark decided it was time to change his life’s focus.
He’d been a fire crew boss, a rancher and done custom haying, but he’d always had been drawn to the rodeo lifestyle.
Back then, the Darby Rodeo arena was still standing, but it certainly wasn’t thriving. When Ruark looked at it, he saw nothing but potential.
“When I look back to when this first started compared to now, it’s like a whole different planet,” Ruark said a couple days after learning the Darby Rodeo Association had been awarded a $113,809 grant to purchase and install two new sets of bleachers, including one that is disabled accessible.
It was the first time the association had ever written a grant.
They were one of 22 community projects selected by the Montana Department of Commerce for funding.
“When you look at that list, we’re the second from top in the amount we received,” Ruark said, proudly. “I think that’s pretty special for our first try and it’s a testament to what’s happening here.”
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The grant will allow the arena to increase its seating from about 2,150 to 2,500. The association also won’t have to spend $8,000 to rent bleachers from the Lewis and Clark County fairground every time there’s a big event.
Most importantly, from Ruark’s point of view, the new bleachers won’t change the intimate experience for spectators who feel like they can almost reach out and touch the action happening in front of them.
The arena, where some of the country’s best bronc and bull riders compete, will remain 150’ x 150’.
“That’s what creates the great atmosphere that we have here in Darby,” Ruark said. “It was something we didn’t want to change. The only way to get more seating was to go up.”
The new bleachers will cost about $200,000.
Ruark already has an idea on how to encourage folks to donate the remaining amount. The plan is to design a large sign that will go along the back of the new bleachers that includes an etching of the mountains that create the backdrop for the arena. People and businesses that donate will have their names written there for everyone to see.
Plans call for having the new bleachers installed this spring, well before the event that’s put Darby on the national rodeo radar screen.
Darby’s annual Riggin’ Rally brings the best bareback riders in the world in June to compete in what’s been billed as the world’s richest bareback riding event.
“I had a dream when this all started,” Ruark said. “I like to dream big but it took some time to get there.”
"We started out using lumber from the old mill site because we didn’t have any money,” he said. “There were lots of wrecks and near wrecks and times of being broke. The normal growing pains when you try to do something big in an itty-bitty town like Darby.”
“I knew if we had the right connection, it could all come together,” he said.
Ruark found that connection in a chance meeting in the parking lot of Hamilton’s Murdoch’s store.
World-renowned, world-champion bull rider and rodeo promoter Bobby Steiner just happened to walk close enough to Ruark to notice his Darby Rodeo Arena jacket.
Steiner asked Ruark if he had anything to do with that little arena. His grandson was starting to ride broncs and they needed a place to practice.
“We just talked rodeo,” Ruark said. “I can remember the last thing he said was, 'Wouldn’t it be neat if we could put on some kind of special event in that little arena.'”
Ruark agreed as they parted ways.
Later that summer Ruark got a call from a Texas number. It was Steiner on the phone.
“He asked me what I thought about putting on a bareback event at the arena,” Ruark remembered. “He said he thought he could get the top 25 bareback riders to come. In the back of my mind, I thought this couldn’t be true.”
But it turned out to be just that.
This year the arena will host its third Riggin’ Rally in June. Last year the Cowboy Channel televised the event to the largest audience it ever had for a live event.
“Things have been a lot different since the Riggin’ Rally happened,” Ruark said. “Attendance at our other events has really jumped since then. We really haven’t changed anything. We want to keep it western and the real deal for people to enjoy.”
The Darby Rodeo Association is planning on hosting a new event on the day before the Riggin’ Rally this year that will include music and an opportunity for fans to see the new bleachers.
“It’s going to be a whole new look,” Ruark said. “The Riggin’ Rally has opened up a new world for us. It’s put us on the national rodeo map.”
And Ruark is already thinking down the road for the next grant opportunity.
“Wouldn’t it be cool if we could put a roof over one set of those bleachers?” he said. “You have to always be thinking forward on ways to make this even better.”
“For me, this has been like a life after life,” Ruark said. “I’m doing something I really enjoy. I’d say 99 percent of the people I meet are rock solid. It’s the rodeo lifestyle that I like. I turned 75 this year … This is what keeps me going.”