by KRISTEN CATES
AUGUSTA — When Tina Freeman was going to college in Washington in the 1970s, she told a friend that she was moving to a tiny town in Montana with her new husband — a town called Augusta.
"He told me he spent the best three days of his life there the year before," Freeman said. "I thought, 'what am I getting myself into?'"
Known for years as a rough-and-tumble event where most of the weekend was spent in a drunken haze, the 75-year-old Augusta Rodeo has cleaned up its act a lot in the last 20 years, said Freeman, who runs the American Legion Auxiliary concession stands at the rodeo.
"I would not let my girls up town then — too many cute cowboys," she said.
Now the Sunday afternoon event is catered more toward families and even the out-of-town crowd.
Students from the Rocky Mountain School of Photography in Missoula have become regulars at the event over the last few years, and most of them come from out of state.
The students can be seen sitting along the gates of the arena with their cameras and long lenses pointed toward the action — some dressed up in their best Western gear.
"I've never laughed so much," said Karah Sambuco of West Virginia. "I love the commentary."
Never having been to a rodeo in her life, Sambuco said she assumed a rodeo was just about bull riding, so she was pleasantly surprised when it involved calf-roping, saddle bronc riding and more.
"This is a totally different experience," she said. "My camera is going rapid fire."
For the last five years, American Legion volunteer Larry Atchison's job has been taking tickets at the general admission entry into the arena.
"I think its one of the more family-oriented rodeos I've been at," he said.
Sure, things have calmed down. But there's still a great deal of camaraderie, he said. Although he enjoys a good rodeo, Atchison said he'd rather be in the crowd.
"I prefer to work it," he said. "I get to see more people."
But 93-year-old C.H. "Pete" Cummings wanted to be as close to the action as possible.
The longtime Sun River resident is one of the few people still alive who competed in the Augusta Rodeo during its first years in the 1930s. He came in 1938 and competed in the saddle bronc event.
Over the years, Cummings always made sure to have a day job, but he considered himself sort of a "weekend cowboy" and competed in amateur rodeos around the area. He doesn't claim to have ever done well.
"I ate soup and the champions ate steak," he said.
He took a break from the rodeo action when he enlisted during World War II, but hasn't missed many Augusta Rodeos since.
"It's just the biggest and the best around," Cummings said.