Economic Development Tourism Historic Preservation
Calhoun County, Iowa

Saddle Up for a Short History of Western Days in Lake City

            Sometimes it’s easy to take things for granted, especially if they’ve been around a long time. Consider the Western Days celebration and annual rodeo in Lake City.  

            It all started more than 60 years ago when some locals started talking about forming a saddle club. They hosted a meeting at the Community Memorial Building in Lake City, on Wednesday, December 9, 1959. A good-sized group (52 people) attended the meeting.

            After plenty of discussion, the group elected officers and decided the new club needed a name. A club appointed a committee to propose some potential names by the next meeting. In addition, Bill Winkelman of Calhoun County suggested that the club name not be restricted to Lake City and to include the wider area, but still honor the town and community.

When the new club met again on February 17, 1960, 76 people attended. Names submitted for the new club included Top Rail, Friendship, Ramblers, and Flying Triangle. The name “Top Rail” was approved. By the April 1960 meeting, the Top Rail Saddle Club approved a club flag of white, with green letters.

The club’s first trail ride took place on May 1, 1960, with John Schaffer as trail leader. “We had 48 horses and a really nice ride,” noted the Top Rail Saddle Club’s history book. “Many found that they were not in shape, along with their horses.”

Enjoying square dancing, county fairs and more

 It wasn’t long before the Top Rail Saddle Club began adding new activities. At the June 15, 1960, meeting, Kay Spencer was chosen as the group’s first queen. The saddle club hosted their first fun day on July 10, 1960, with 36 horses in the grand entry. Mose Salisbury judged the events.

Community outreach quickly became part of the Top Rail Saddle Club’s efforts. At the July 20, 1960, meting, it was reported that the Top Rail Saddle Club float made by Mike and Darlene Barthman and Bob and Phyllis Morrow took second place in the Lake View water carnival parade on Black Hawk Lake. Members of the Top Rail Saddle Club also presented a program in front of the grandstand at the Rockwell City Fair on August 14, 1960.

[Editor’s note: back then, there was no Calhoun County Expo. There were two county fairs, including the one in Rockwell City, and another one in Manson, which was first held in 1903. In 1980, the Iowa legislature passed a law giving citizens of each county with two county fairs the right to vote on which one should be declared the official county fair entitled to county and state aid. During the November 4, 1980, election, approximately 4,434 votes were cast for Rockwell City, and 1,542 for Manson.]

Also in August 1960, some members of the Top Rail Saddle Club started discussing the possibility of a rodeo in Lake City. At a special meeting late that summer, members voted by ballot on whether to host a rodeo. It was a close vote, with 15 voting in favor and 14 voting against the idea. Since the motion carried, members decided to host the event on Sunday afternoon, September 18, 1960.

There were 27 entries in that first rodeo, along with six events. About 750 people attended the rodeo. “The eat stand took in $126.70,” the Top Rail Saddle Club’s history book noted. “We had to borrow bleachers from the school. We have come a long way since then.”

The Top Rail Saddle Club didn’t stop with a rodeo. At the January 18, 1961, meeting, members voted to have Mr. and Mrs. Lester Fouts give square-dance lessons. “There was a good turnout at these dances held later on,” the history book noted. By 1962, the Top Rail Saddle Club took a group of young children involved in the club to Ft. Dodge to square dance on TV, thanks to the local television station there.

This wasn’t the first time the Top Rail Saddle Club also reached out to young people. The club sponsored a meeting at the Lohrville Community Building on February 22, 1961, for kids interested in 4-H and FFA pony and light horse projects. “There was lots of interest and talk of classes for the same at the Rockwell City Fair,” the club’s history noted.

The Top Rail Saddle Club offered learning opportunities for adults, too. The group held their first clinic on May 28, 1961, with Leland Campbell demonstrating how to properly groom a horse. Jim True explained the various parts of a saddle.

The rodeo became the Top Rail Saddle Club’s main event. By 1963, the club held their first rodeo under the lights. Through the years, states represented at the rodeo included Iowa, Illinois, Colorado, Wyoming, Arizona, Texas, Oklahoma, Missouri, Arkansas, Kansas, Minnesota, South Dakota, Wisconsin, Nebraska and Louisiana.

By the 1980s, the rodeo had grown into a three-day extravaganza, held in conjuction with Western Days in Lake City. The July 11, 1984, edition of the Lake City Graphic reported that the “rodeo ran three nights, with attendance by more than 3,000 rodeo fans. Cowboys and cowgirls participating in the rodeo events numbered 251 entrants vying for $8,700 in prize money.”

Join us for Western Days 2023

While times have changed, some things stay the same. Lake City will host the 64th annual Western Days celebration during the weekend of June 24-25. There’s something for everyone, including:

Friday, June 23


Saturday, June 24

Sunday, June 25


Please stop by and join the fun!

written by Darcy Maulsby

More Blogs