Cover Story – It’s time to cowboy up

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National Western Stock Show, Rodeo & Horse Show turns 107

By Rosemary Fetter

Denverites breathed a sigh of relief last November, when National Western officials announced the annual stock show and rodeo is staying put despite financial woes. Recent efforts to move Denver’s favorite winter festival to other locales, including Aurora or near Denver International Airport, raised a storm of protest from loyal fans, who consider it Denver institution. Apparently Denver officials are now looking at other ways to use the 95-acre site to generate funds for maintenance and improvements, along with possible expansion.

Rodeo personnel said facilities are old, substandard and too expensive to maintain, and the Stock Show will go bankrupt in seven years without necessary improvements. One thing is obvious: the event needs a steady revenue stream to continue operating.


Since 1952, the Westernaires have made an annual appearance at the Rodeo.

Dubbed the “Super Bowl of Stock Shows,” the National Western is king among the nation’s stock shows, including Houston, Fort Worth and San Antonio. Thousands of livestock pay Denver a visit for the show, giving ranchers and cattlemen an opportunity to buy and trade. Attendance has topped 600,000, with an economic impact on the city of approximately $100 million.

The National Western became a Denver institution in the early 1900s, but the cow has always been an honorary Coloradan. Many early pioneers disenchanted with mining turned to agriculture and ranching.  Taking advantage of the great open range, fairly mild winters and the availability of Texas longhorns, cattlemen like John Wesley Iliff made a fortune in the cattle industry. Ranchers joined together as early as 1867 to form one of Colorado’s first professional groups, the Colorado Stock Growers Association.

With the arrival of the railroads in 1870, Denver became the end of the trail for cattlemen driving their herds up from Texas along the Goodnight Loving Trail. The city’s first stockyards, known as the Elephant Corral, were located on Blake Street between 14th and 15th streets.  Cattle were shipped to Kansas City and Chicago until creation of the Denver Union Stockyards in 1881. The city became a livestock hub, where Swift, Armour and Cudahy once operated major plants. In 1886, the company moved to its current location, between the South Platte River and Franklin Street and W. 46th and W. 52nd Avenue, with the railroad tracks in the middle. Stockyards included feedlots, slaughterhouses, rendering plants and meat processing plants.

In 1898, the Denver Chamber of Commerce, the Cattleman’s Association and other livestock growers held the city’s first stock show. At the time, Denver was barely recovering from the Depression of 1893, which shattered the economy of the entire state and left many homeless. With misguided public spirit, stock show organizers planned a giant public barbecue, which turned into a free-for all and discouraged further attempts, at least for a few years.

By 1905, the stockmen and Denver were ready to try again. Led by Fred P. Johnson, who ran the Denver Daily-Record Stockman and Elias M. Ammons, Douglas county cattleman, state senator, and later Colorado governor, the newly-united American National Live Stock Association held their first show on Jan. 29, 1906. Streetcars, carriages and special trains delivered the public to a free show that did not include a barbecue, with exhibitions that included fifty loads of feeder cattle, seven loads of breeding heifers, eleven loads of lambs, and five loads of hogs. The Sells-Floto Circus, owned by Harry Tammen of the Denver Post, loaned the cattlemen a circus tent, which was replaced the following year by a 140 x 275 foot monstrosity manufactured by a local canvas company. (Challenged by January winds, the tent fell down once, but fortunately no one was injured.) Stock show enthusiasts made do with the super tent until the 6,000-seat National Amphitheater opened in 1909, the same year livestock growers settled on the name, the National Western Stock Show.

Although the show often suffered the effects of bad weather (the blizzards of 1910, 1913 and 1915 were
particularly devastating), it was only cancelled once, in 1915, due to an epidemic of hoof and mouth disease. By 1920, ticket prices had been raised to $.75 and the show was finally in the red. Seven years later, the National Western Stock Show had become the third largest in the world, bringing some 50,000 visitors to the city. That same year, Denverites began keeping their Christmas lights up in January, a tradition that still continues.

When the National Western Rodeo became part of the stock show in 1931, rodeo riders had an opportunity to win major prizes and large sums along with the accolades. Interestingly, the biggest star that year was not a cowboy but a horse named Midnight, who bucked off every rider who had ever attempted to mount the cantankerous creature. Starring in various rodeos beginning in the 1920s, Midnight eventually retired to a ranch in Platteville. His remains lie in the Cowboy Hall of Fame in Oklahoma City.

In 1940, the National Western initiated a separate junior livestock show that allowed youngsters, many from 4-H groups, to compete for cash and ribbons. The show had become such a popular local tradition that, in 1947, taxpayers passed a $1.5 million bond for construction of the Denver Coliseum, dedicated on Jan. 10, 1952, on the 46th anniversary of the National Western. That same year, the Westernaires, a Jefferson county organization of young riders, made their first appearance. The first show at the Coliseum brought in $323,500. Two years later, Channel 9 covered the closing night rodeo, televised for the first time.

During the 1960s and 70s, stock shows in general lost popularity. Even the granddaddy of them all, the Chicago International Livestock Exhibition, was cancelled in 1975.  By purchasing additional land and expanding the site and its attractions, the National Western survived with the addition of a new Expo Hall and Stadium Hall in 1991 and a $13 million Events Center in 1995.

This year, besides traditional activities, the event features everything from Tractor Races and a Wild West Show to Fiddle Championships, an Art Show and a Llama/Alpaca show. For a complete schedule of events, visit www.nationalwestern.com.


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