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'Rodeo royalty' share their stories with Cowboy Hall of Fame

Press Photo by Bryan Horwath Rodeo greats Alvin Nelson, left, and Brad Gjermundson share a conversation Monday at the North Dakota Cowboy Hall of Fame in Medora. The two cowboys were on hand to record segments for a project the Hall of Fame is putting together with the help of Ken Howie Studios.

MEDORA — When it was suggested Monday that he was born to be a rodeo star, Brad Gjermundson simply shrugged.

“Growing up, we had ponies to ride and that’s all we really knew,” Gjermundson said. “We played rodeo all the time and, once we got old enough, my dad would take us with him sometimes when he went to rodeo.”

Reared in Marshall, Gjermundson said he dreamt of becoming a rodeo champion — he and his two brothers plastered their walls with posters rodeo greats such as Larry Mahan and Jim Shoulders — but few could have predicted the kid from western North Dakota would go on to win four saddle bronc riding world championships.

Both members of the North Dakota Cowboy Hall of Fame, Gjermundson and fellow North Dakota resident Alvin Nelson were on hand at the Medora facility to record footage for a project being put together by Ken Howie Studios and the Hall of Fame.

Hall of Fame executive director Kevin Holten said he and the hall’s staff are working to expand the treasure trove of history and stories pertaining to the strong North Dakota rodeo tradition.

“It’s a special day because these two guys are rodeo royalty,” Holten said. “Our main job at the Hall of Fame is to increase the value of our product. We’re going to continue to educate people about North Dakota’s great history of rodeo, ranching and Native American traditions. It isn’t every day that you have a king of rodeo like Alvin and probably the best saddle bronc rider ever in Brad in the same place talking about their experiences.”

A South Dakota native, Nelson was 16 when he rode in his first rodeo in 1950. In 1953, Nelson moved to North Dakota and began rodeoing with Jim and Tom Tescher and his career took off, leading him to far-away cities — including New York City’s Madison Square Garden for the world finals — and earning him numerous championships and honors.

In 1956, Nelson bought a ranch along the Little Missouri Badlands near Grassy Butte. A year later, he became the first North Dakotan to win a saddle bronc world championship. A year later, he married his sweetheart, Kaye Van Dyke. She was a rodeo queen.

“We were married in Watford City on Alvin’s first leave from the Army in 1958,” Kaye said. “It’s been a pretty exciting ride. The American dream really is alive and well because Alvin has lived it. We both have because, growing up southeast of Watford City, it was always my dream to marry a cowboy and live on a ranch.”

Alvin, 79, said he doesn’t get out and ride anymore, but he does watch a lot of rodeo on television. With a twinkle in his eye, the legendary cowboy spoke Monday of the trials, tribulations and glory of life on the burgeoning professional rodeo circuit in the 1950s and 60s.

A sample of Nelson’s many stories included the excitement of the first “impressive” rodeo he attended as a youth in 1946, the time he was rolled over by a horse — leading to his worst injury as a rider when he said doctors surgically removed several feet of his intestines — and a time when he was a passenger in a small plane that ran out of fuel, causing the pilot to engineer an emergency landing in a field.

Though he said the rodeo stars of his day wouldn’t need to take a back seat to anyone, Nelson said a difference he’s seen on the rodeo circuits of today is the sheer number of talented competitors.

“One of the big differences today is there are so many more guys who are tough,” Nelson said. “Some of the breeding programs have made an awful lot of difference, too. Some of the stock from years ago were as good as what they have today, but we didn’t have as many. They’re getting these bulls bred-up nowadays to where, if I was a bull rider, I might want a different occupation.”

Both members of a number of different halls of fame, Nelson was inducted into the North Dakota Cowboy Hall of Fame in 1998 and Gjermundson was enshrined in 2009.

After winning North Dakota high school championships in 1976 and 1977, Gjermundson — who today operates a ranch in Marshall — moved on to compete at the collegiate level at what was then Dickinson State College, where he went on to win a national title.

He went on to win PRCA titles in 1981 and three consecutive from 1983 to 1985.

“I’m honored to be able to give out of the information that I have,” Gjermundson said. “The Hall of Fame is a few years running now and it just keeps getting bigger and bigger and having more donors and sponsors and it needs all that. We have some really good programs and youth rodeos in our area from the youth levels to DSU.”

Bryan Horwath
A Wisconsin native, Horwath has been covering news in the Oil Patch of North Dakota since 2012. Horwath currently serves as the senior agriculture and political reporter for The Dickinson Press and, despite the team's tendency to always let him down, remains a diehard Minnesota Vikings fan.
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