Come one, come all

Published 12:00 am Saturday, March 20, 2010

What started as a simple event to attract people to the Parkmore restaurant has grown into a nationally recognized event and is still going strong 50 years later.

Next weekend, the city of Opp will sponsor the 50th annual Opp Rattlesnake Rodeo, in which Mayor H.D. Edgar expects some 40,000 people to pack Channel-Lee Stadium on March 26 and 27.

And that’s a big difference from just 500 people in the early years, Edgar said.

“The idea came from Dr. Howell over in Geneva County,” Edgar said. “He hunted with J.P. Jones, who is the granddaddy of the rodeo. He had some bird dogs that were getting bit by rattlesnakes, and so they decided to hunt them.

“J.P. Jones introduced the rodeo here. He had a zoo out behind the Parkmore restaurant. He had animals such as rattlesnakes, black bears, bobcats and other animals.

“The Jaycees took it and turned it into a citywide event and eventually added entertainment,” he said.

Much has changed during the last 50 years. Attendance was slight due to the lack of organized activities and bad weather.

In 1964, a new, revitalized plan for the rodeo was instituted. It was the first year for cooking rattlesnake meat, and it was considered a “dare” to eat the meat.

The Rattlesnake Rodeo pageant was added in 1965 and brought girls from Alabama, Georgia and Florida to compete to be the city and rodeo representative. In 2010, the pageant was brought back after many years in absence.

Opp merchants got on the bandwagon in 1968 and aided in bringing snake activities to town.

Rodeo goers got a treat in 1971, when Omar the Snakeman came to town – a day Edgar said he remembers well.

“He literally buried himself under dozens of live rattlesnakes,” Edgar said.

“To my knowledge he didn’t get bit.”

The rodeo made its move from the Parkmore to the stadium in 1974, which incidentally is the same year the “Rattler 100” stock car race got under way in Kinston.

In 1988, the Jaycees introduced the first Rattlin’ Country Concert and attendance hit 50,000 people.

Since then, organizers have prided themselves on bring “first-class musical entertainment” to the area. In 2005, the city of Opp took over the rodeo and country music artists Blake Shelton and Sugarland came to town.

In t­he years that followed, other big names have made their way to Opp, including Joe Nichols, Rockie Lynne and Craig Morgan.

This year Luke Bryan will hit the stage Friday at 8 p.m. and Billy Currington will take the stage Saturday at 8 p.m.

“In honor of the 50 years, we went to a second night of entertainment,” Edgar said. “That’s the main thing we’ve done. We had a lot of things we wanted to do, but we have not been able to follow through due to timing.”

But how does the city get some of Nashville’s hottest stars to come to south Alabama?

“The entertainment search begins immediately after this year’s rodeo is over,” Edgar said.

“We have volunteers who watch videos and make suggestions. We ask the young and old whom they like and then we contact our agent in Montgomery. The agent contacts the singers’ agents, and then we get a list of who is available and how much they will charge. Then we decide.”

Edgar said the city has been extremely lucky to get good talent.

“It’s really kind of hit or miss, but we look for someone who will draw a crowd,” he said. “We know if we can get the girls to come, the guys will, too.”

Edgar said the economic impact on Opp and Covington County is huge.

“There will be 40,000 people in Opp. All the motels will be full in Opp and Andalusia,” he said. “It brings in a lot of money to the city and county.”

But, Edgar said the city wants to be able to keep the prices down so that everyone can afford to come.

“We want every family to be able to afford to see quality entertainment,” he said.

Admission is $10 per person, per day to the event, which will include the Luke Bryan concert and snake show on Friday and local entertainment, snake snow, greasy pole climb, buck dancing contest and Billy Currington concert on Saturday.

Gates will open at 3 p.m. Friday and 8 a.m. Saturday.

So, what’s in store for the rodeo in the future?

“I would like for the rodeo to continue to grow,” Edgar said.

“For it to grow, we need to locate some land to build a recreation facility with an amphitheater. We are limited at what we can do because we are about to capacity at the stadium. We do have long-range plans.

“I envision 100,000 people coming to town for this event,” he said.

“I’d like to see something at the level of Branson (Mo.) – a two to three day event with a lot of entertainment.”

The mayor also said he’d like to work on getting additional attractions to the event.

“I’d like to get things that people do not normally get to experience,” he said.