CHEYENNE – Without the workforce of some 2,500 to 3,000 volunteers, Cheyenne Frontier Days wouldn’t exist at the scale that it does today. That commitment to volunteer service was established long ago by a group formally known as The Heels of Cheyenne Frontier Days.
“I like to call them the original volunteers of Cheyenne Frontier Days,” said Cindy Braden, the current Leather Heel and Rubber Heel – aka the president and vice president – of the Heels. “In my eyes, they are the ones who started the volunteer movement.”
The Heels trace their roots to 1935, when a group of citizens came together after one of the rodeo performances that year to discuss ways to keep costs down during the Depression. The goal was to curtail expenses for the “Committee” – that is, the leadership putting on the rodeo, or another name for what is now known as the General Committee.
It was determined at that meeting that this group of citizens would offer to perform whatever task the committee needed to operate the rodeo, thus replacing much of the paid help and bringing down costs. The group decided then and there that anyone who wasn’t willing to give their free time to ensure the success of CFD would be labeled a “darn heel,” according to the Heels’ website. Someone in the group picked up on the name and thus, the Heels were born.
“I just love the tradition about the Heels,” Braden said.
The name took on even more significance at subsequent meetings, when many of the volunteers started feeling like the committee members “had their noses a little too high in the air,” according to the Heels’ website, and the volunteers were treated like, well, heels.
In August 1935, 13 charter members gathered to establish the Heels’ official name and its purpose as an all-volunteer group that was recognized within the CFD organization. The following year, Leather Heel Ed Storey wrote the first set of bylaws by hand on Frontier Days letterhead. The bylaws have changed some through the years, but in essence those bylaws established the following:
- The leadership would be known as the Leather Heel (president), Rubber Heel (vice president) and Run-Down Heel (secretary/treasurer).
- The number and term of active Heels. Currently, the organization keeps 125 active members. Once a member reaches his or her 10th year, they become a senior member. Senior members become silver members after 40 years.
- Election into the Heels.
Braden said the path to becoming a Heel begins with good work on a volunteer’s “home” committee. There are 10 service committees that make up the CFD organization (Concessions, Contract Acts, Grounds, Indians, Military, Parades, Public Relations, Rodeo, Security and Tickets). A nomination committee accepts suggestions from the service committees, and then an election is held to fill the number of open seats among the 125 active members. This year, 14 new members were elected.
Braden said her home committee is the Rodeo Committee, but this year she’s not doing as much for it since she’s serving as the Rubber Heel and the acting Leather Heel. She is the first woman to hold the title of Leather Heel, and she hopes to be the first woman elected to the job in October, unless she “really messes up this year,” she joked.
But all joking aside, she said it’s a big honor to be selected to lead the Heels.
“They’ve entrusted me with taking care of their money, keeping the system rolling, keeping things moving,” she said. “They’ve given that duty to me, and I take it as quite an honor.”
A lifetime of service
Gus Fleischli is one of several silver members who epitomize what the Heels are all about.
Fleischli has been a CFD volunteer for 63 of the 93 years he’s been alive, and he’s been a Heel for 61 years. He was one of two volunteers chosen for active membership in 1958; the other is Buddy Hirsig, the father of current Frontier Days CEO Tom Hirsig. Their initiation: Getting doused with a bucket of water.
“That was one of the annual things that happened with the new Heels,” Fleischli said.
That tradition has grown since Fleischli’s day. Now, new Heels are initiated in a 550-gallon horse tank.
“Sometimes they’re thrown in, sometimes they gently step in. It depends on their committee people,” Braden said.
Once a volunteer becomes a Heel, it’s up to the members of that volunteer’s home committee to make sure they get wet, she added.
Fleischli said he held many jobs through the years as a Heel. He said he loved to be around the rodeo, and still tries to attend every performance he can. He got involved because that’s what you do when you live in Cheyenne.
“I had just always been close to the horses. I had a pony, I’d go to the parade, and it was just one of those things,” Fleischli said. “If you’re in Cheyenne and you’re 5 years old, or 10 or 25, you can help out at the Heels club.”
He said his first jobs included making sure every cowboy competing at the rodeo had a stall and a place to sleep. He also took care of the committeemen’s horses and the various chores that come with caring for livestock.
“Working with animals, you just get busy doing things with them,” Fleischli said.
He became part of the in-arena rodeo crew, riding his horse for 20-plus years during the bucking bronc events to pick up the flank straps after each ride.
Fleischli said he greatly enjoyed the two years he spent leading the Executive Committee as its chairman from 1966-67. He signed one of the early night show acts of CFD history when he brought in the characters Doc and Festus, played by actors Milburn Stone and Ken Curtis, from the popular TV show “Gunsmoke.”
After his stint at the top, Fleischli said he went back to “being a Heel,” where he helped out wherever was needed, including in the arena to pick up those flank straps.
Dedication to the job from those silver members is a big motivating factor for volunteers today, Braden said. The recognition and camaraderie that comes with being a member of the Heels is something many of those 2,500-plus volunteers strive to achieve.
“I think every new volunteer who comes on … their goal is to become a Heel,” Braden said.