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Sweethearts of the rodeo

By Jane Gargas
Ellensburg, Washington (AP)

Cooking supper every night for the crew, hauling horses, bulls, chutes, gates, hay and grain, juggling saddles, stirrups and bridles – you collect a lot of living in 30-plus years.

And when you’ve been married nearly twice that long, you live a lot of collecting, too.

Those two milestones will converged at the Ellensburg Rodeo when Frank and Charlot Beard celebrated 34 years in the rodeo business and 60 years of marriage.

This is the year that the Beards, whose Beard Rodeo Co. has supplied stock – bucking horses and bulls – for rodeos since 1973, are retiring from the business.

Meanwhile, the Ellensburg Rodeo, which just completed, celebrated an anniversary of its own. This is the event’s 75th year.

It’s fitting that the Beard’s hometown rodeo was one of their last, with friends and family planning to salute the couple on the Sunday of the rodeo, the day before their 60th anniversary, with an old-fashioned ice cream social. Their five children planned the event.

“It’s one of the last of the wild and woolly rodeo romances,” says son Kelly.

Normally, the Beards, who are both 79, would be moving quicker than a barrel racer before the rodeo, readying horses and bulls for cowboys and cowgirls to ride – or try to ride.

But they recently sold their contracting business to a Colorado couple, which means Frank will be working the next few rodeos as a consultant, not as a supplier.

That will be a big change for the couple, who are used to climbing in their trailer and riding the rodeo circuit year-round, from California and Idaho to Oregon and Washington, about 20 rodeos a year.

“It doesn’t matter to me if it’s a big one or a small one, if I take the money, then I do the best I can do,” says Frank.

Along the way, the Beards also have supplied stock for the National Finals Rodeo in Las Vegas. It’s a prestigious accomplishment since only a handful of the 70 or so rodeo contractors in the country are asked to bring stock to nationals.

Year after year, the Beards consistently brought stock to what they call the Big 4 rodeos, in Ellensburg, Pendleton, Lewiston and Walla Walla. As well as a sentimental favorite, Toppenish, where Frank was raised.

In fact, Frank’s bloodline of horse people harks back to his grandfather, John Beard, who twice drove 100 head of horses from Toppenish to Arkansas during World War I.

Frank started riding in rodeos when he was 16. It was a proverbial school of hard knocks for what would become his future business. Riding bareback and saddle broncos, he took his share of tumbles.

“I broke my arm, I broke my leg, I broke my ribs,” he recalls.

But it led to a job in Sunnyside, trying out bucking horses for rancher John Van Belle. Just 19, Frank already knew how to discern if a horse would be good for the rodeo circuit.

He also knew enough to marry the boss’s daughter. He and Charlot Van Belle were both 19 when they wed and moved into a trailer on her parent’s ranch.

“Our first home was a one-room, homemade travel trailer, 8 by 15 feet,” remembers Charlot. “That’s where we started.”

Frank’s first business venture was running a horseshoeing operation in Outlook. But in 1973, the Beards leapt into the rodeo stock business, and there hasn’t been a regret since.

“It’s what I like to do,” says Frank. “If I had my life to live over, I’d do the same. It’s been good.”

Charlot served as the company’s secretary, treasurer and cook. Clothes ironer, too, making sure their crew of cowboys had freshly pressed and starched shirts before every rodeo.

Through the years, the Beards developed expertise on what makes a good rodeo horse.

“First,” says Charlot, “you want it to buck pretty good.”

Frank agrees, although he laments that times have changed in rodeos a bit. “Cowboys like rider-friendly horses now,” he says.

But not the spectators. They want to watch a lively ride with lots of bucking, he says.

“People in the stands want to see the horse go across the arena like a skipper (rock) on water,” he maintains.

The Beards aren’t just known for high-quality livestock, points out Bill Lowe, a member of the Ellensburg Rodeo board of directors.

“They’re really good community supporters, raising money for scholarships and working with student rodeos,” says Lowe.

“They’re good people and always willing to fix supper for anybody,” he adds.

Even though the Beards are leaving the rodeo supply business, they’re keeping 70 horses and eight bulls for their livestock operation to raise future rodeo bucks and bulls.

And the family won’t be out of the rodeo business entirely since the Beards’ son, son-in-law and several grandsons raise rodeo horses.

Frank and Charlot will still attend plenty of rodeos, but as spectators without all the hauling and stress. And Charlot intends to hit lots more yard sales to build on their burgeoning collection of American Indian artifacts.

She admits she’s to blame for all the largesse around the house.

“I bought my first (American Indian) beaded purse when I was 15, with money from cutting asparagus,” she says.

From there, the collection has grown into an impressive array of blankets, beaded moccasins, cedar baskets and dishware.

Frank has added cowboy boots, dozens of spurs, some more than 100 years old, and horse bits and bridles.

He’s particularly proud of a bridle used by a cowboy who rode with Yakima Valley pioneer Ben Snipes at the turn of the last century.

No, Frank and Charlot won’t ever be far from rodeo life, they’ll just be relaxing and enjoying it more.

After all, notes Frank, “All I’ve ever done is be around horses.”