BURWELL, Neb. — Neil Salmond is the type of guy who shrugs at pain. His cousin Rene is the kind who laughs at it.
For these legends of Canadian chuck wagon racing, life-threatening crashes and injuries that never fully heal are just part of everyday life. For the past 18 years, Burwell has been one of the only places south of the Canadian border where Americans can get a glimpse of their world.
Every year, the Salmonds lead a small convoy of chuck wagon teams from Saskatchewan down to Burwell for Nebraska’s Big Rodeo. It’s a long way to haul their 500-pound wagons and teams of racehorses — 1,700 miles — but they keep coming back.
“We get received quite well here,” Neil Salmond said. “It’s a great group of people and a great rodeo.”
For the locals and regulars at the rodeo, the Canadians are something like rodeo rock stars.
“We’re very lucky to have them,” said Ronda Weber, a member of the board that oversees Nebraska’s Big Rodeo. “Really, they’re like family.”
In its 97th year, the rodeo again is drawing thousands to Burwell, a ranching town with just over 1,200 people — except during the rodeo, when that number typically exceeds 10,000. A week’s worth of events surrounding the rodeo ends Sunday. One of the things that makes the rodeo unique among American rodeos, Weber said, is the number of nontraditional events. Some, such as the chuck wagon races and wild horse races, are rare in the United States.
In addition to being a boon to the local economy, Weber said, the rodeo plays a huge role in the cultural heritage of Burwell.
“We really pride ourselves on staying true to our Western heritage,” she said. “We have really deep roots in cowboying, and this rodeo shows that. It’s rustic and authentic.”
Like many in this town, Weber has lived her whole life in Burwell and has never missed a rodeo. Charlie Smith, another Burwell resident, said the rodeo is hard to miss for locals.
“You can’t do nothing else in this town while this is going on,” Smith said.
While he said he sometimes gets irritated by the chaos the rodeo brings to town, Smith said the economic boost that Burwell gets from the event makes it worth the fuss.
“This is huge for us,” he said. “Every hotel is booked, you can’t get a room anywhere, and every business is just busy.”
Kory Ostrand, 32, said he and his wife, Danielle, and their four kids come to the rodeo every year from their home in Mason City, Nebraska, about 50 miles away.
“It’s not just a rodeo,” Ostrand said. “They have so much other entertainment. They just have a lot of activity — there’s never a dull moment.”
Neil Salmond said Burwell has become a break of sorts from the high-stakes world of chuck wagon racing in Canada. The Salmonds have never had a crash at Nebraska’s Big Rodeo, something they can’t say about many other places they have raced.
“Let’s just say Neil can’t go through airport security easily,” said Weber, who was standing nearby. “He’s got a couple of plates.”
Salmond grinned and shrugged. “Oh, I’ve got one in my eye socket, and a few other places,” he admitted.
A moment later, Rene Salmond rubbed a spot in his left arm to show there were no bones there.
“Got run over by a wagon,” he said, laughing. He said he has known at least 10 men who had been killed in races during his 49 years driving chuck wagons.
Even so, Neil Salmond balked at the idea that chuck wagon racing might be dangerous.
“I’ve raced for 43 years and probably only had five or six major ambulance accidents,” he said dryly. “So it’s fairly safe.”