FANNIN COUNTY, TX -- A 58-year Fannin County tradition kicked off tonight. The Kueckelhan Rodeo. But, it's the first year without its icon and founder. Haynes Kueckelhan passed away last week, and tonight family, friends and fans honored him.
For nearly six decades, thousands of spectators, cowboys and more pack the Kueckelhan Ranch Arena. Thursday was opening night, but it's founder, the man who started it all, Haynes Kueckelhan wasn't there to see it.
"Kueckelhan Ranch Rodeo was my dad, and Haynes Kueckelhan was Kueckelhan Ranch Rodeo. His legend lives on through this rodeo and we're gonna carry that tradition on," Marty Kueckelhan said.
Haynes Kueckelhan died June 19 from an injury he sustained in a fall.
Thursday, a lone horse walked the arena in remembrance of the man who started it all.
"I think he's up there smiling. I really do," DennyTaylor said.
Denny Taylor says he's been coming to the rodeo for at least 52 years because it's family owned.
"I think what makes it unique is the Kueckelhan family," Taylor said.
This rodeo is the oldest family owned rodeo in the U.S.
Rodeo announcer Anthony Lucia has traveled to rodeos all over the country. He says many rodeos today are based on profit, but this one's different.
"The Kueckelhans, they produce this rodeo because it's the tradition. They don't produce it to get rich off of it," Lucia said. "They might make a little bit of money, but when it comes down to it, they do it for the community. They do it for the cowboys."
Marty says it's tradition to pack this arena with more than 5,000 people each night. He says that's a tradition he hopes will live on.
"It'll be around as long as somebody's driving the train. And my family is set in the future. So, it'll be around a long time," Kueckelhan said.
350 cowboys and cowgirls will compete in this arena through Saturday night. The gates open at 6 p.m and events kick off at 8 p.m.