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May 21, 2008 > History: Harry Rowell's Legacy Lives On

History: Harry Rowell's Legacy Lives On

By Marcess Owings

The old west is alive and well in Castro Valley. At least it is every third weekend in May. Steer wrestling, bucking brocs, and team roping all hark back to when ranch living was commonplace in the Hayward area. This year marked the 88th anniversary of the Rowell Ranch Rodeo, an event that brings back the area's small town roots.

The Rowell Ranch Rodeo's founder, Harry Rowell, came to California in 1912 at the age of 21 as an English sailor. Rowell and a shipmate jumped ship in Canada after flipping a coin. They flipped it one more time to see who would stay in Canada and who would go to California. Obviously, Rowell got California and he would eventually come to be known as the "Rodeo King of the West." Rowell got his start in California milking cows at a Berkeley dairy, but earned extra money as a heavyweight boxer. Later, he quit milking to take a new job at the West Coast Soap Company driving a tallow wagon. This gave Rowell an opportunity to visit the ranches of Alameda and Contra Costa counties and sparked Rowell's drive to make a living on his own.

Rowell started in Castro Valley as a chicken rancher, raising chickens and selling the eggs. After a truck accident smashed Rowell's chicken dreams, he went into the horsemeat business, supplying clients like Oakland's Calo Dog Food Company. His slaughterhouse, located on Mattox Road in Hayward, grew. With his profits, Rowell acquired land in Dublin Canyon in 1924. Eventually, his holdings grew to 20,000 acres, which includes the rodeo grounds. Not all the horses that came to Rowell's slaughterhouse were used for meat however. Some of the ranch hands tried out the horses to see if they were "buckers," making the ranch a training ground for up and coming rodeo stars.

In 1921, Rowell had put on his first cowboy show for some ranchers on the athletic field at Burbank School in Hayward. The Hayward Rodeo, as it was called prior to 1978, was held every year at the school until 1925 when Rowell moved the show to his ranch. Rowell was not the first to bring the rodeo tradition to the Hayward area though. As early as the 1830s, rodeos in Hayward were a result of fiestas that involved branding and cutting cattle that belonged to Don Guillermo Castro. Indian and Mexican vaqueros displayed their skills while neighboring rancheros watched. The American rodeo gained popularity in the twentieth century as the daily use of horses dwindled thanks to advances in motorized transportation.

A week before the event, Rowell had announced that there would be a ranch warm-up, and more than 150 people came for a barbeque. This was the beginning of Hayward's "Western Week," a pre-roundup party that culminates in the rodeo itself. The Saturday prior to the first day of the rodeo, Hayward became a Wild West town. Streets were closed and decorated in banners while everyone had the opportunity to show their cowboy spirit in a parade. Young women competed for the honor of being named rodeo queen. Bandannas replaced the necktie. Men laid down their razors for recognition of the scruffiest fuzzy adornment. Events included a dance, steer wrestling, barrel racing, team roping, and wild cow milking. Nowadays, the pre-rodeo events are held in Castro Valley.

Haywardites rated their rodeo number one and the Rowell Ranch Rodeo became a popular stop on the Professional Rodeo Cowboy's Association tour. Well known rodeo celebrities often competed, including Perry Ivory, Buster Ivory, Bill Ward, Gene Rambo, Carl Mendes, Burel Mulkey, and Pete Knight. The rodeo gained success and grew steadily.

Harry Rowell died August 23, 1969. Following her husband's death, Maggie Rowell was dedicated to continuing the rodeo in Rowell's memory. Maggie found lots of help from various groups and individuals for running the rodeo. She knew she was ill and wanted to make sure that the rodeo would continue even after her own death. Evident of her generosity and determination, following her death in 1975, the Hayward Area Recreation and Park District took over the reins of running the rodeo. In 1978, the Hayward Rodeo was renamed Rowell Ranch Rodeo in honor of Harry and Maggie.

Marcess Owings is a curatorial assistant at the Hayward Area Historical Society (HAHS). To learn more about Hayward's diverse history, visit the downtown museum at 22701 Main St. in Hayward. For more information on current exhibits and programs, visit their web site at

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