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Generations of family ties to World's Oldest Rodeo in Prescott

This article appears in the June 21st edition of the ProRodeo Sports News, the cowboy's choice since 1952. 

Prescott might be home to the World’s Oldest Rodeo. But before the gate cracks on the 126th edition of Arizona’s Prescott Frontier Days, an annual Cowboy Christmas tradition that this year runs July 1-7, I’d like to introduce you to a family who is now seven generations strong into this rodeo and ranching area’s history books. 

Our tour guide into the cowboy branches of this fate-filled family tree is 2002 Wrangler National Finals Rodeo tie-down roper Rick Kieckhefer, now 35, who’s also made 10 appearances at the Ram National Circuit Finals Rodeo as a talented Turquoise Circuit timey, including nine in the tie-down roping and a steer roping debut in 2013. “Ricky,” as he’s called in the family, and his brother, Johnny, a two-time RNCFR steer wrestler who won the 2003 Prescott bulldogging title, spend every Fourth of July at the World’s Oldest Rodeo. Johnny, 38, stopped entering a couple years ago, but Rick will again compete in the tie-down and steer roping, and his barrel racing wife, Sarah, who’s also mom to their 2-year-old daughter, Kodi Gwen, will run barrels. 

The Prescott Frontier Days is their hometown rodeo, and they wouldn’t miss it. But as much of a dynasty rodeo family as the Kieckhefers are, they are ranchers—and cowboys—above all else. Ricky, Johnny and their dad, John Kieckhefer, run the K4 Ranch about 40 miles north of Prescott. Rick had his best chance ever to win the tie-down roping title at last summer’s rodeo, until the skies broke loose and he and everybody else up that day got drenched. The rancher’s soul in him figured that rain meant more—in terms of watering the home pastures—than any buckle could have.

John Kieckhefer roped calves and bulldogged in his rodeo prime, but stuck close to his circuit to tend to the ranch, which he took over from his own dad at 25. He also started a ProRodeo stock contracting company, Arizona Pro, with his father-in-law, ProRodeo Hall of Famer Chuck Sheppard. Chuck, who died in 2005, was Dad to Johnny and Ricky’s mom, Lynda. John and Chuck sold the stock contracting outfit in the 1970s, about the time Rick was born. 

The Kieckhefer/Sheppard partnership produced such Arizona rodeo classics as Prescott, Phoenix, Yuma and Globe. It was a true family operation, with John handling flankman and chute-boss chores, Chuck picking up and Lynda serving as secretary.

Earlier in that 1970s decade, the classic rodeo movie “Junior Bonner” was released, starring Steve McQueen as a veteran rodeo star who returns to his hometown rodeo—Prescott Frontier Days. “As Junior Bonner, Steve McQueen was like Larry Mahan or Ty Murray—the king,” Rick says. “(ProRodeo Hall of Famer) Ben Johnson played the rodeo producer in the movie. They showed Junior Bonner going through the ups and downs of rodeo, and it all takes place at the rodeo in Prescott. They filmed it there during the rodeo on the Fourth of July, and that’s when my family was producing the rodeo. They filmed extra scenes after the rodeo as needed, but the parade and everything else about it was real.”

McQueen/Bonner pulled a two-horse trailer in the movie that he borrowed from the Kieckhefer family. When Johnny and Ricky grew up and left for college at the University of Arizona in Tucson, they took that trailer with them. They called it Junior Bonner, and still use it—and call it that—on the ranch today.

Johnny and Ricky’s Grandpa Chuck was the 1946 world champion team roper, and had a huge influence on their young cowboy lives. A legend at both ends of the arena, Sheppard won the Prescott saddle bronc riding title in 1949 and ’54. Sheppard was one of the first—if not the first—bronc rider to ride without a saddle horn. 

“My grandpa had a huge left pinky that turned the wrong way,” Rick remembers. “He told me he kept whacking it on the saddle horn, so he finally just went and cut the horn off of his saddle.”

More than one cowboy icon bragged on Chuck Sheppard, including his fellow ProRodeo Hall of Famer friend Casey Tibbs. “Casey used to stay with my grandpa when he was in Prescott,” Rick recalled. “One year he came to town to be the grand marshal of the parade, and he was telling me and my cousin Charlie (Lewis) some old rodeo stories. He told us, ‘If Chuck Sheppard had been 10 years younger there would have been no Casey Tibbs.’

“My grandpa and I were pretty tight (it’s fitting that Rick’s middle name is Charles after Grandpa Chuck). He loved being a cowboy more than anything, and he was a cowboy from dawn ’til dark. I’ve never wanted to do anything different, either. My grandpa quit rodeoing in 1955 or ’56, went to work for my dad’s grandpa (J.W. Kieckhefer) in 1957 and worked here on the ranch the rest of his life.”

Like his grandson, Sheppard made the transition from the ranch to the rodeo arena and back to the ranch.

“My grandpa had the greatest rodeo stories,” Rick said. “He used to tell me that when he rodeoed he always ate chicken. When he did good, he ate the meat. And when he did bad, he ate the feathers. When my grandpa was inducted into the (ProRodeo) Hall of Fame, he said, ‘I guess I was hungry, and I tried pretty hard.’ He had a way of putting things.”

Rick’s great granddad, J.W., invented the trifold tops used to open milk cartons today, and as patriarch and president of the Kieckhefer Container Company (which in 1957 merged with Weyerhaeuser to form a corporate powerhouse) moved his family from Wisconsin to Prescott after putting together a few ranches in the 1940s to form what is today the K4 Ranch. J.W.’s grandson/Rick’s dad, John, took over the ranch, and with Sheppard ran the ranch and rodeo company, and also partnered on the stud Driftwood Ike and some racehorses. 

“My grandpa was quite the character and he was friends with everybody,” Rick says. “If people were willing to get out of bed and work hard, he’d give them anything he had. He was just a pretty unique guy. He roped until he was in his 80s, and he taught us about being cowboys.”

J.W. Kieckhefer’s son, the late Robert, (who was John’s dad, and Johnny and Ricky’s other grandpa) served as president of the American Quarter Horse Association in 1976 and raised several American Quarter Horse racing stakes winners. Robert Kieckhefer, who served on several AQHA committees and at one time chaired the judges committee, was inducted into the American Quarter Horse Hall of Fame in 1994. 

All the way back to before the first rodeo in Prescott, there was a rancher by the name of Jerry Sullivan who owned a lot of pasture land in the greater Prescott area in the 1800s. To this day, some of the pastures on the K4 that once belonged to Sullivan are called “the big Sullivan” and “the little Sullivan.” Local lore has it that the first-ever Prescott Frontier Days Rodeo was held in one of the Sullivan pastures that now make up the K4 Ranch.

“There was an abundance of cattle and flat ground, Jerry Sullivan had the livestock right here on the ranch, and they pulled all their vehicles out there and made an arena out of them,” Rick said. “It was such a success that they moved it closer to town the next year, and that’s where it stayed.”

That first-ever Prescott Frontier Days Rodeo was held in 1888, and Rick and John’s great-great grandfather on their mom’s side, Jim Carter (who would have been Chuck Sheppard’s grandfather-in-law, as he was Chuck’s wife, Gwen Sheppard’s, grandfather), was entered. Jim Carter went on to win the Prescott steer roping championship in 1901, ’04 and ’05. 

Ready for another twist to this historic cowboy-family tale? Jim’s dad, Tom Carter, settled at Walnut Creek—where the K4 Ranch is today—in 1873. But he only stayed two years before deciding it was too cold and moving his family about 100 miles south to Walnut Grove, near Wickenburg. “Sixty or 70 years later, a completely different family from the other side of our family tree came to the exact same spot, when my great granddad J.W. Kieckhefer settled on this ranch where we live now,” Rick said. “Then my dad, who was J.W.’s grandson, married my mom, who is Jim Carter’s great granddaughter. I don’t know what the odds would be that all that would have gone the way it did, but 140 years and five generations later, that makes my daughter, Kodi, the seventh generation to live here on this ranch.” 

In addition to the K4, the Kieckhefers run another ranch down by Mexico and one that’s located about 15 minutes from the Clovis Rodeo grounds out in California. All told, they run about 2,100 mama cows and 4,000 yearlings. “We spend most of our time in the saddle,” said Rick, who will provide the roping calves at the Prescott Frontier Days and the California Rodeo in Salinas later next month. “Ranching is everything to me. It’s what I do every day. I was fortunate to get to go to the rodeos when I was younger. I enjoyed it, and I learned a lot. I obviously still care about the sport, but I’d be pretty close to happy to never go to town. 

“When I was younger I had a great opportunity to rodeo. We had cattle, and I surrounded myself with guys who roped good. I feel really fortunate to have been around my grandpa, for one. His demeanor, his attitude and his knowledge were priceless. He knew how to win. I’ve turned my attention to the cattle business now, so that’s my focus. But I made a lot of great friends in rodeo—guys like Brent Lewis, Jerome Schneeberger and Clay Cerny—who helped me a lot and are just great guys. The ranch is home, but the rodeo in Prescott will always be home the week of the Fourth of July. It’s really traditional and unique, with the team ropers both coming from the heeling box and deep boxes. They start it with a shotgun, and the whole rodeo is pretty special to watch. I hope that 126 years from now they’re still having a rodeo in Prescott, and that my family is still involved.”

PHOTO: Hall of Famer Chuck Sheppard winning the bronc riding at Prescott in 1954. R.L. Pound Photo Courtesy of Rick Kieckhefer
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