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Who Was Harry Rowell?

Known as the Rodeo King of the West, Harry Rowell has left an indelible footprint in our community.

As the annual Rowell Ranch Rodeo and its accompanying events approach (this Friday through May 22), it’s fitting to reflect on the man after whom it is named.

Who was Harry Rowell?

People who knew him personally say he was an excellent businessman who was honest, gruff, unafraid of just about anything (except flying) and very serious about the rodeo business. 

It’s hard to live in this area and not be familiar with his name. We see it every time we drive through Eden Canyon and spot the Rowell Ranch Rodeo Park or when we cruise down Castro Valley Boulevard and see the with its well-known, lifesized horse statue always perfectly posed in front.

I can’t help but think it would please Rowell to see the perpetuation of what was so important to him—the annual rodeo and all of its accompanying hoopla. If you’ve never done it before, head over to Rowell Ranch during and get a taste of what his world was all about.

Here's the story of Harry Rowell:

As little as 60 years ago, much of Castro Valley and the surrounding areas was ranches and farms, rolling hills and open land. 

One of the many ranches was Harry Rowell’s. It originally consisted of 3,000 acres and included the current Rowell Rodeo site, Pleasanton ridge, and Dublin Canyon. The old family home is in the area adjacent to  the current rodeo park.

The current renters claim that it is haunted and that they can sometimes hear Harry Rowell walking around, according to Janet Lemmons, a partner at Rowell Saddlery.

It’s probably just the creaking of an old house, but it does make for good stories.  

Much of the original property was acquired by the state during the construction of Highway 580, but if we close our eyes and use our imaginations (not when we are driving on 580, of course), perhaps we can envision what the original Rowell Ranch property must have looked like in its day—with rolling farm lands, cattle, cowboys and the restful sounds of farm animals and birds.

Harry Rowell was born in England in 1891. Many years later he visited the United States as a member of the HMS Royal Navy. It is said that he jumped ship (there are variations to this story).

What we do know is that once he reached the Bay Area, he never looked back. After his arrival in California, Harry Rowell held many diverse odd jobs—including boxing, raising chickens, and milking dairy cows.

He went on to own one of the largest slaughterhouses in the area, and opened and operated a saddlery where horse people could buy supplies.

The saddlery has moved from its original spot on Redwood Road to its current site on Castro Valley Boulevard. It is

Rowell eventually became known as the biggest rodeo stock contractor in the West, supplying rodeos with cows and other animals for their events. 

In 1941, he was the stock provider and also the arena director for the Bay Area’s very first Grand National Rodeo, which was held at the Cow Palace. He continued in that capacity until 1952. Over the years, he was a cattleman who showcased his stock at 25 different rodeos that he promoted throughout the West—which of course included the at his own Rowell Ranch.

He died in August of 1969 at Camp Bertha—a second beautiful ranch of rolling hills in the Sunol area that was named after his wife. It is said that the funeral was huge, with many attending on horseback—a fitting goodbye to the Rodeo King of the West, as he came to be known.

Rowell was posthumously inducted into the Professional Rodeo Cowboy Association Hall of Fame in Colorado Springs, CO, in 1979 and into the National Cowboy Hall of Fame in Oklahoma City in 1985. His legacy includes three descendants who are also in the Cowboy Hall of Fame—one of the few—if not the only—families in America that can claim that honor.   

But perhaps what would mean the most to Harry Rowell is that we honor his memory every time we drive through Eden Canyon on 580 and see the Rowell Ranch Rodeo Park set in the heart of what was once his 3,000-acre ranch.

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