By Ruth Nicolaus
Since he was 24 years old, Cotton Rosser hasn’t missed a year of the Red Bluff Round-Up. And that’s saying something, since the rodeo legend is now 89 years old.
Cotton, who is the patriarch of the famous rodeo family, the Rossers, is well known throughout California and the nation. As owner of Flying U Rodeo Co., the Rossers put on rodeos across the Golden State and the country. And one of those rodeos is the Red Bluff Round-Up.
Cotton was a rodeo cowboy in 1948 the first year he came to the Round-Up. At the time, he was a college student at Cal Poly in San Luis Obispo, Calif., and competing on the rodeo trail. He rode saddle broncs, steer wrestled, and roped calves. Three years later, he moved to Red Bluff after marrying his first wife, a Red Bluff native and a former Miss Red Bluff Round-Up. He continued to compete while he worked on the Charlie Stover Ranch, rodeoing on the weekends and working during the week.
After he broke both legs in a tractor accident with a posthole digger, Rosser’s competition days were over. But he had another plan. In 1956 he bought a stock contracting company (a business that owns bucking horses and bulls for rodeos), the Flying U Rodeo Co., and started producing rodeos. At one time, he and various partners had three stock contracting firms and provided livestock for rodeos on the west coast, from San Diego to Vancouver.
Red Bluff was one of his first rodeos, and in 1957, Rosser brought livestock to the Round-Up. He has never missed bringing horses and bulls to the Round-Up since then.
Rossser, his son Reno, and the Flying U Rodeo Co. are renowned for their flamboyant and creative openings. Rosser believes in satisfying the fans. “If you don’t keep the audience entertained, they’ll go somewhere else.” His openings have included such entertainment as a big boot in the arena, with a scissors lift in it and a horse standing on the scissors lift, which raised seventeen feet in the air. Rosser also put a horse on a turntable in the arena, presenting the American flag. For the Round-Up’s 75th anniversary, he designed a memorable opening: a paper horseshoe, with the Round-Up’s logo painted on it. Rosser’s daughter Cindy, Cindy’s niece Linsay Rosser Sumpter and a third cowgirl rode black horses through the paper, as a confetti gun shot colored paper into the air. The picture is still on the side of the Flying U tack trailer. It was
Rosser’s idea, now copied by rodeos across the nation, to fly the American flag in on the back of a sky diver.
One of the most memorable spectacles Rosser has dreamt up is something that takes place at the Round-Up on the final rodeo performance each year. The Wild Ride was begun by Rosser seventeen years ago, and involves about eight to twelve cowboys, dressed in what might be called Halloween costumes, riding bucking horses. The cowboys dress up in everything from Flo from the Progressive Insurance commercials to the Statue of Liberty to characters from the Sons of Anarchy. The cowboys love it, and love to wow the crowds with special effects like baby powder that creates clouds of dust while they ride, or silly string sprayed on each other. The Round-Up awards the winner of the Wild Ride with a saddle and $1,000, and the fans love it. “It’s just the wildest ride,” Rosser said.
Rosser and the Flying U Rodeo Co. has always been progressive in not just fan entertainment but in animal care as well. He created a special trailer, modified to transport injured or sick animals at the rodeo. Other rodeos have rented the animal care units, as they are called, including the Wrangler National Finals Rodeo, providing the best care possible for the animals.
Four of Rosser’s five kids: Lee, Cindy, Brian and Reno (his youngest child is Katharine) competed at the Round-up, and his wife Karin, daughters and son Reno are part of the family business. Rosser has been recognized for his contributions to the sport of rodeo: he’s an inductee in the PRCA’s Hall of Fame, the Cowboy Hall of Fame in Oklahoma City, the Hall of Great Westerners, the California State Fair Hall of Fame, the PBR Legend Hall of Fame, the Western Falls Hall of Fame, a recipient of the Ben Johnson Award, and the Molalla, Ore. Rodeo Hall of Fame.
And he still loves Red Bluff. Even though he moved to Marysville in the late 1950s, Red Bluff holds a special place in his heart. “It’s a cowboy town. It’s western, it’s cowboys and ranching, and it has a lot of wonderful people. The Round-Up is a rodeo’s rodeo.”
The Red Bluff Round-Up takes place April 20-22 at the Tehama District Fairgrounds in Red Bluff. Tickets are on sale and range in price from $14-$30 (plus a handling fee for online sales) and can be purchased online at www.RedBluffRoundup.com, at the Round-Up office (530.527.1000) or at the gate. Performances begin at 7 pm on April 20, 2:30 pm on April 21, and 1:30 pm on April 22. For more information, visit the website at www.RedBluffRoundUp.com.