The ad in the Las Vegas Optic had a slight note of desperation.

“WANTED to rent.”

“Good riding horse for Cowboys’ Reunion Parade.”

“Willing to pay unreasonable price.”

Ad buyer Larry Ilfeld knew this was not just any Western parade.

The Centennial Cowboys’ Reunion parade coming up Aug. 1 in Las Vegas, N.M., will be a once-in-a-lifetime event. Ilfeld is determined to ride in it along with more than 200 other mounted cowboys and cowgirls who already have signed up. The parade launches a week of events — from a ranch rodeo to poetry reading — celebrating all things cowboy.

The Cowboys’ Reunion is about the men and women with well-worn boots, work-hardened hands and sweat-rimmed hats that still keep ranches going. It celebrates the practical ranch skills with horses and livestock that shaped a distinctive character of rural New Mexico and the West, still romanticized today in movies, music and professional rodeo.

Ilfeld, who moved to New Mexico from the East Coast, said his distant relative Ludwig Ilfeld owned a hardware store in Las Vegas, was fire chief for years and helped launch the original reunion rodeo and parade. “I just thought it would be a kick to ride in the parade because of the connection with my family,” said Ilfeld, with a hint of a Boston accent still in his voice.

But he doesn’t own a horse.

Most of the parade riders will be on real horses, the kind that require Boy Scouts dressed as rodeo clowns to bring up the rear, picking up whatever the equines leave behind. A few dozen young cowpokes will ride stick ponies that are cheap to feed and easier to control.

Motorized vehicles won’t be allowed in the parade. But there will be carriages and covered wagons from all over the state.

One will carry Dolores Montaño, the Cowboys’ Reunion rodeo queen in 1951.

Montaño, who was 17 when she was crowned, grew up attending the reunion alongside her ranching family. She rode horses a lot, helping with cattle roundups and branding. “I was a real cowgirl,” she said.

She’s missed the reunions, which haven’t been celebrated since 1967, and is excited about this one. “I wish those old days would come back again,” said Montaño, now 82, who still has three horses. “There’s nothing like it now. Nada.”

Gov. Susana Martinez said she plans to ride in the parade along with the first gentleman.“My husband, Chuck, and I love to ride horses, and this is a wonderful opportunity to visit Las Vegas and celebrate the community’s contributions to New Mexico’s proud Western heritage,” Martinez said.

Like Ilfeld, the governor will borrow a horse. “Elaine and I found her three horses to choose from,” said Ron Querry, an event organizer.

Celebrating a way of life

In 1915, cowboys from around New Mexico began gathering in Las Vegas to celebrate their way of life. For the next half-century, they held a reunion every year with a parade, ranch rodeo, dances, likely a few bar fights and a whole lot of fun. Members of Theodore Roosevelt’s Rough Riders held their own reunion at the Cowboys’ Reunion a few times.

Among the cowboys highly involved with the reunions in their early days was George “Dogie” Jones. Call him Dogie. “It is kind of an insult to call me George,” said Jones, 89. “If someone introduces me as George Jones, I have to explain I’m not the country singer.”

Jones gained his nickname from rodeo promoter Tex Austin’s son Lee, who allegedly saw him at the hospital as a newborn and exclaimed, “I’ll be damned, he looks just like a dogie.” (An underfed, motherless calf, for you greenhorns.)

The ranches around Las Vegas and the West were large in those early days, covering tens of thousands of acres each. There was little to do for entertainment and relaxation between the hard work of operating ranches at the turn of the 20th century. The Cowboys’ Reunion was an event that brought people together, said Jones and others.

Jones still operates the family’s Hashknife Ranch, 20 miles north of Las Vegas in Watrous, which was started in the mid-1800s by his great-grandfather William Krönig, an U.S. Cavalry Scout.

Jones’ father was one of the Cowboys’ Reunion founders. Jones carried on the tradition, competing in bareback bronc riding and bulldogging, now called steer wrestling, in his younger years. “I found out I had a little more talent calf roping and team roping,” Jones said.

Jones’ rodeo competitor days are behind him, but he remains a devoted fan by buying season tickets to the National Finals Rodeo with his wife every December in Las Vegas, Nev.

Elaine Querry, Ron’s wife and the other event organizer, had a grandfather and great-uncle who helped with the cowboy reunions in the 1920s. Her great uncle Dee Bibb was a champion bulldogger, back in the day.

A parade fades, then revives

Eventually, the costs of organizing the rodeo, the lack of new organizers and a decline in attendance spelled the end of the Cowboys’ Reunion in 1967, according to a history of the event by Pat Romero in Cowboy Reunions of Las Vegas, NM (The History Press, 2012).

At its core, the reunion was about much more than a professional rodeo, Romero wrote. “It was a reunion of like-minded folks” and “the play of the working cowboy.”

“For close to half a century, the Cowboys’ Reunion provided a way for ranchers to get together and ‘neighbor’ again,” Romero wrote. “It drew artists and writers of all genres and provided countless subjects for their creative efforts.”

“When Elaine found out two years ago that the centennial of the reunion was coming up, she said, ‘let’s do something,” Ron Querry said from his home in Las Vegas.

The Querrys were only aiming to find 30 horseriders or so for the parade. Someone suggested 100 for the centennial year. “It was tongue-in-cheek. We never thought we would get that many,” Ron Querry said. “I stopped counting at 200 horses.”

He’s expecting more riders on parade day, since registration isn’t required. “There will be people who will simply show up,” Querry said.

So far, Querry has received parade registrations from riders in Montana, Mississippi, Texas, Oklahoma and all over New Mexico. “It will be something that many people living will never have seen and may not see again,” he said.

The parade will be followed at 2:30 p.m. by the Working Cowboy Ranch Rodeo at the Santa Fe Trail Event Center in the Zamora arena near the Las Vegas airport. Ranch rodeos have a few events not found at professional rodeos, like timed steer doctoring and trailer loading.

Elaine Querry has organized a showing of panoramic photographs, 1 foot tall by 4 feet long, of reunions from 1915 through the 1920s. The show will be in the Thomas C. Donnelly Library at New Mexico Highlands University beginning Aug. 1.

Other events include two dances, a Dutch oven cook-off and more.

As to Larry Ilfeld’s search for a trusty parade mount?

“His ad was the talk of the town,” Querry said.

The ad generated about a dozen offers to Ilfeld from willing horse owners. He chose one owned by a team roping cowgirl. He declined to say how much he paid or if the price was “unreasonable.”

He probably won’t try the horse before the parade, he said.

Does he know how to ride? “Oh, yes,” he said.

Still, he said, “the horse is probably a lot better horse than I am a rider.”

Contact Staci Matlock at 986-3055 or smatlock@sfnewmexican.com. Follow her on Twitter @StaciMatlock.