Diane Montagner Cottonwood's First Rodeo Queen
By Christy Milan
All Hail the Queen
Story by Christy Milan
Photos by Alexis Leclair
COTTONWOOD is a small town with a big history. It was established in 1849 as a stagecoach town, and the Southern Pacific Railroad built a depot in 1872. Cottonwood has even had Hollywood fame – in 1961, parts of “Hell is for Heroes,” starring Steve McQueen, were shot around the town, and Bob Newhart made his debut in this film. In 1997, “Almost Heroes,” starring Matthew Perry and Chris Farley was also filmed in the little town. It was Farley’s last film.
Today, Cottonwood’s Front Street delights in its history with a number of 19th century buildings lining each side. The wide street allowed teamsters to turn their wagons around with their loads of lumber and farm goods, and hitching rings can still be seen on the high curbs of the streets bordering each side. Given the history of the small town, it is no wonder that the rodeo found its way into Cottonwood in 1963, and it is known as the rodeo that exemplifies the country’s Wild West roots.
Diane Montagner was Cottonwood’s first rodeo queen in 1967. Born in Minnesota, her family loaded up their 1954 Chevy when she was a small child and headed to the San Fernando Valley, where her parents found work running the Bob Hope Ranch. “In some of the movies filmed by 20th Century Fox, including ‘The 10 Commandments,’ our family’s sheep and goats appeared in the movie,” Montagner says. When the Hope family told her she needed to get rid of her dog, she packed up a sandwich and dog food and set out on her own with the dog. She hid behind a big log until Bob’s brother, Jim, found her. The happy ending resulted in keeping her dog.
A few years later, the family moved to Anderson and went to work with Ellington Peek, the man behind the Shasta Livestock Auction yard. Vic Woolery built two houses behind the new auction yard in Cottonwood, and the Montagner family moved into one while the Woolerys lived in the other. “We helped Bob Jones build the rodeo grounds like so many of his other friends,” she says.
Cottonwood’s rodeos, which have always been held on Mother’s Day weekend, did not have rodeo queens until 1967. “We had to know how to ride a horse and sell tickets,” Montagner says. “I knew how to ride because I broke horses for many people, as did my dad. I won the contest, but all the girls I ran against were my friends – some are even still here in Cottonwood.”
Montagner attended Anderson High School and begged to be in Future Farmers of America, since she was in 4-H and wanted to continue like the boys. After meeting with the school counselors and agriculture teachers, they decided to try it. “I became the first girl in the United States to be allowed into the FFA program,” she says. “There were restrictions, though. During fair I showed beef, sheep, hogs and dairy as FFA – but when I sold it, it had to be as 4-H. They weren’t going to let me in all the way. I never got an FFA jacket.”
These days, Montagner makes a lot of yard art for auctions to support Cottonwood’s library, community center and others. “I had the best ag teacher anyone could have, Wes Norton,” she says, adding that she took welding and shop in high school.
“Do what is best for you at the moment because it will never come again,” she says, adding that she gives her grandson, Loren, this advice often. “Life sure would be boring without Loren. Being a grandma to him is what it’s all about.” •