Two-time World Champion Team Roper Walt Woodard spent the first 50 years of his life in French Camp, California, which is 25 miles from Oakdale. He moved to Stephenville in 2005.
“When I was young, California is where cowboys came from,” said Walt, who’s 65 now. “They wore white shirts and cowboy hats, and had a pen in their pocket. (ProRodeo Hall of Famers) Sonny Tureman and Ace Berry were rodeo and ranch cowboys, and Phil Stadtler was a legendary area cattleman. I thought those guys were so cool.
“California gets a lot of bad press—in part over politics—but it doesn’t deserve it. If you’re just looking at Los Angeles and San Francisco, you don’t know California. Look at the pictures and get to know the people in places like Oakdale, Woodlake and Cottonwood. California’s the most beautiful state there is.
“Do you want to see the desert? Snow in the Sierra Nevada Mountains? Huge waves crashing into the rocks on the Pacific Ocean coastline? Do you want to eat fresh strawberries? Abalone? Dungeness crab? Salmon? California has it all, salt and sea. What doesn’t California have? It’s gorgeous. I love it there.”
So why the move?
“Before team roping was a standard event, they didn’t have it at rodeos like Houston, San Antonio, Austin and Fort Worth,” Woodard said. “The reason everybody lives in Texas now is because you can rodeo and still sleep in your own bed a lot of the year. Everything is here now. Stephenville is five hours or less from everywhere.”
Not literally everywhere all the time, of course. But there’s all sorts of cowboy action in current Cowboy Capital of the World country. In most cases, Texas is also more affordable than California.
“Where we lived in California costs $50,000 an acre, and when we came to Texas it was $5,000 an acre here,” Walt continued. “It almost felt like free land. I couldn’t buy enough of it. I have 55 acres with three fishing ponds, pastures, oak trees and an indoor arena. There’s no way I could have a place like this in California.
“If I’d wanted to build some sheds on my horse pens in California, I’d have had to hire an engineer and go through a rigorous, expensive permitting process. I was shocked when I needed no permits or permission to build an indoor arena in Texas. An inspector showed up when it was almost done. In California, I’d have had to tear it down, because I hadn’t gone through all the legal hoops. In Texas, the inspector—who was wearing a cowboy hat—said, ‘I heard you were building something really nice, and wanted to stop by and see it. It turned out really nice, didn’t it?’”
Walt laughs about the cultural shift that came with the move.
“When I pulled off of I-20 toward Stephenville, there was a guy driving in front of me pretty slow,” he remembers. “When he saw me coming up behind him, he eased over to the side of the road on the shoulder to let me pass. I was expecting an obscene gesture for going too fast as I was going by him, but instead got a wave out of him.
“People in Texas move to the side of the road to allow a person driving faster than them to pass. I was bracing to get the bird, and had one ready to fire back at him. Instead, I got smiled at almost apologetically for him being in my road. If you’re pulled over on the side of the road in Texas, people stop and ask if you need help. I love it here.
“I miss the fresh fruits and vegetables that are grown and picked fresh that morning in California. In California, you can break the ice on your water trough with your finger the three days a year it freezes, and it’s such a big deal that you run in and tell your family. You can’t break the ice on your trough in Texas with a sledge hammer. There are pluses and minuses no matter where you live. California is a beautiful place. And Texas is a very good place for cowboys in today’s world.”
California native National Finals Rodeo team roper Cody Snow is one of countless young guns who’ve made the cowboy migration to Stephenville. Cody comes from the beautiful old vaquero cowboy country of the California Central Coast in Los Olivos.
“I lived with (fellow Golden Stater) Dugan (Kelly, who since he stopped rodeoing has moved back home to Cali) in Stephenville in 2014,” said Snow, 24, who’s roped at the last five straight NFRs. “When Dugan sold his house in Stephenville, I moved to David Key’s house in 2015. I liked Stephenville, and knew I needed to be there. So I bought my place in Stephenville in 2016.
“There are arenas everywhere in Stephenville and all the surrounding areas. I’ve never seen so many people rope in such a small area. If you drive 10 minutes, you’re going to see at least three arenas with people practicing in them at any given time.
“There are three NFR qualifiers right there on my road—Taylor (Santos), Haven (Meged) and Martin (Lucero). Martin lives close enough that my dog ran off to his house. There are more cowboys per capita in Stephenville, Texas, than anywhere else in the country.”
Why did the cowboy they call “Snowman” make the move?
“I have opportunities every week to make good money roping in Texas,” Snow said. “I miss the long days riding outside and all the branding we get to do in California. My horses don’t get the ranch riding in Texas like they do back home in California, because there are no hills around Stephenville.
“Ranch work is good for horses. Hills make horses pay attention to where their feet are. And you can’t beat the weather in California. It’s nice year-round. But Texas is where the competition is. It’s a pretty small pond of cowboys in California now. These days, there are more people in Texas who can give you a run for your money. I wanted to get better, so I knew I needed to be around the best of the best every day. The level of competition is pretty aggressive in Texas.
“I roped all the time when I lived in Los Olivos. But I get to compete almost every day now that I live in Stephenville. You can rope for money maybe two days a month in California. You can do that every day in Texas, if that’s what you want to do. I moved to Stephenville to get better. Almost everybody who ropes for a living lives within a 30-mile radius, and iron sharpens iron, as they say.”
ProRodeo Hall of Famer and World Champion Team Roper Jerold Camarillo is a California lifer. Like Snow, he and his late and legendary brother, Leo, grew up in the rich ranch country on California’s Central Coast, where dad Ralph ran ranches. Jerold moved to the original Cowboy Capital of the World right after he graduated from high school in 1965, and never plans to leave.
“Oakdale is cowboy country, and Oakdale started it all,” said Jerold, who’s 74 now. “It was the first home for all the cowboys who came here to layover during the spring rodeo run. That month of April was all about California—Oakdale, Red Bluff and Clovis. (Oakdale has traditionally been held in April, but was pushed by COVID to August this year. Stephenville will help send out the regular rodeo season the end of this month.) Everybody hung out here, and we all helped area ranchers during the week while we were in town for entry fee money.
“The main guy we worked for was Fred Valenzuela, who ran the Rancho de Stanislaus right there by Knights Ferry. Fred was kind of (ProRodeo Hall of Famer) Ace Berry’s second dad when Ace’s dad passed away, and Ace lived on the ranch and helped Fred. When I came along and Ace was in his prime and off rodeoing, Fred would come get me at 2, 3, 4 in the morning to help him on the ranch.”
Just as you might run into Hall of Famer Ty Murray at the Mexican restaurant in Stephenville, there was a time you would say the same about the likes of Hall of Fame Steer Wrestler Harley May or bronc riding great Bill Martinelli at the coffee shop in Oakdale.
“The boys (Leo and cousin Reg) went to Oakdale first, in 1963, right out of high school,” Jerold said. “I would go stay with them there, then go back home to Santa Ynez to catch up on homework, and go back to Oakdale. Oakdale was the hub—the cowboy hangout. It was centrally located for a lot of rodeos and ropings, so it was convenient for cowboys.
“When I first got to Oakdale out of high school, most of the cowboys stayed at the Live Oak Hotel. A lady named Flossy owned it, and I think it was $6 a night or about $100 a month for a room. As we won money, we got an apartment. The first one was across the tracks, then we were living high on the dollar.
“Harley May talked me into buying this place where I live now in 1971. He told me to invest some of that money I was making when we were on top, so I didn’t end up day-working like some of the cowboys who mismanaged their careers. He said, ‘Buy a place, so your money doesn’t go down the tubes. That place in Oakdale will be worth a fortune someday, and you can go retire in Mexico.”
There’s a sign that hangs over the gate into Jerold’s arena that reads “Camp Jerold.” He’s helped a lot of aspiring young cowboys and cowgirls on his slice of original Cowboy Capital country.
“We have the best climate,” Camarillo said. “Sure, we have a few hot days. But it never snows, so we can rope year-round. Little old Oakdale has grown up since the days when it was a sleepy little cow town. But it’s still beautiful here. There are five or six lakes in this area, and beautiful mountains. We’re not far from Yosemite. Property taxes are tough here, and it’s expensive to buy land. Cowboys like (Hall of Fame Bull Rider) Ted Nuce and even (Hall of Fame Bulldogger) Jack Roddy moved to Texas.
“I’m not going anywhere. I know everybody in Oakdale, and they all know me. It’s still a cowboy town, and all the ranchers meet up at the H-B (Saloon). I open it up every morning at 7:30 and make the coffee (Jerold’s cup typically contains a splash of brandy), then my roping lessons start at 9. I love Oakdale. It’s a cowboy friendly community, and it’s home.”
NFR tie-down roper and steer wrestler Ryle Smith has the rather rare distinction of living in both Cowboy Capitals. He was raised in Oakdale, then moved to Stephenville to attend Tarleton State University. He now lives in nearby Comanche, Texas, about 30 miles from Stephenville.
“I had just won the calf roping at the (National) High School Finals (Rodeo) in the summer of 2005 when I started college in Stephenville that fall,” Smith said. “Tarleton had just won the men’s and women’s college team titles, with Ryan Watkins, Bray Armes, York Gill and my cousin Blake Texeira on the men’s team, and Jackie Crawford on the women’s team.
“I wanted to learn more and get better at calf roping, and (NFR tie-down roper) Raymond Hollabaugh was the assistant coach at Tarleton then. The only person I knew in Stephenville was my cousin Blake, but away I went. Oakdale and California are great, but I had more help there with my team roping and bulldogging, and my real passion was calf roping. I wanted to be around people who were more in line with my goals.”
How does someone who’s literally bicoastal when it comes to living in both Cowboy Capitals handle the conversation when this sometimes sensitive subject comes up?
“Oakdale was the first Cowboy Capital, and as time has gone on, Stephenville has taken the torch,” Smith said. “That takes nothing away from Oakdale, which will always have the distinction of being the original. But more rodeo people live in Stephenville now. I think it started when Ty Murray moved there (from his native Arizona).
“The cost of living’s better in Stephenville, and whatever you need is within a 10-minute drive. If you need your living-quarters trailer worked on, you want to practice or go to a jackpot, or you need hay, feed or ropes, it’s all right there in Stephenville. There are a ton of good vets and horseshoers there, too. Stephenville’s just a very convenient place to live if you’re a cowboy.”