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Garfield County Frontier Fairgrounds

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Burwell Rodeo Ground
1922–1970s. Southeast edge of Burwell on Hwy 91.
  • View southeast (Photograph by Peter Olshavsky)

Situated on the southeast edge of Burwell, the Garfield County Frontier Fairgrounds is a forty-acre tract that accommodates both the annual county fair and Nebraska’s Big Rodeo, the oldest continuous rodeo in the state. Burwell, located in the sparsely populated Sandhills region of Nebraska, is the only incorporated town in the county and its livelihood is closely associated with the livestock industry.

In 1921, a local businessman, Homer C. Stokes, conceived the idea of a permanent rodeo in Burwell after attending a rodeo in Kansas. A year later the first rodeo held in Burwell, intended to celebrate the ranching heritage of the region, attracted national interest. By the 1930s it had become one of the major shows on the rodeo circuit. Today although there are rodeos throughout the United States, the Burwell event is distinguished by its longevity and by its outdoor setting in a small town located in the midst of true ranch country.

This nationally recognized event evolved from late-nineteenth-century recreational activities associated with working cowboys. When the round-ups were completed they would entertain themselves with games derived from the skills associated with their daily work, such as riding and roping. Initially these events drew a small number of spectators from nearby ranches but as rodeos grew in popularity they drew crowds numbering in the thousands.

Located on the northwest corner of the fairgrounds, a walk-in gate provides a largely symbolic entrance to the site. Built in 1922, the frame structure features an arched opening flanked by square towers crowned with pyramidal roofs. Paintings on either side of the towers portray animated bronco and bull riders. The central features of the fairgrounds are the racetrack and grandstands surrounding the arena area. The original grandstand, built in 1922 on the north side of the racetrack, is a frame structure supporting raised benches and covered by a steel shed roof. Seating was expanded in the late 1970s with additions attached to either side of the original. The arena area is bounded on the west and east by grandstands built in the 1930s. The south side of the arena area contains corrals, ten wooden bucking chutes, and a roping and dogging chute, all built in the late 1920s. In addition to the grandstands, the site retains most of the original structures, numbering over two dozen, including animal barns, exhibit buildings, and miscellaneous support facilities.


Spencer, Janet Jeffries, “Garfield County Frontier Fairgrounds,” Garfield County, Nebraska. National Register of Historic Places Inventory–Nomination Form, 1985. National Park Service, U.S. Department of the Interior, Washington, DC.

Writing Credits

H. Keith Sawyers
Peter Olshavsky
H. Keith Sawyers
Peter Olshavsky



  • 1922

  • 1930

    Construction west and east grandstands
  • 1970

    Expanded seating


H. Keith Sawyers, Peter Olshavsky, "Garfield County Frontier Fairgrounds", [Burwell, Nebraska], SAH Archipedia, eds. Gabrielle Esperdy and Karen Kingsley, Charlottesville: UVaP, 2012—,

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