There won’t be any little piggies or cute bunnies or a stick-horse rodeo this year. In fact, there won’t be a National Western Stock Show (NWSS) and Rodeo. For only the second time in the event’s 115-year history it has been cancelled, this time due to the corona virus pandemic. The only other time it was called off was in 1915 when a hoof-and-mouth epidemic prevented stockmen from shipping their stock to Denver. Through two world wars, the 1918 flu epidemic and the Great Depression, the growers held tight while scaling back in difficult times.
Today’s stock show debuted in 1906 and the rodeo was added in 1931. The first stock show, founded in 1898 as the National Stock Growers Convention, was staged to take Coloradans’ minds off the silver collapse of 1893. It got off to a difficult start. Whipped up by newspaper coverage, the citizenry was in a frenzy over a barbecue scheduled after the show finished its six-day run. The Denver Republican newspaper trumpeted that there would be “six tons of meat,” including quail, two bears, and 150 possum, all topped off with 200 pounds of table salt, 200 pounds of brown sugar, 250 pounds of coffee—and, not incidentally, free beer.
It was supposed to be only for the delegates, but excited Denverites, 30,000 of them, flooded the barbecue grounds. Looters overpowered the staff and took barrels of beer, knives, cups, pails and whatever else they could lay their hands on.
The stock show has become an annual trek for area-school kids loaded onto buses and herded out to the grounds to get a whiff of Western culture. Little cowboys and cowgirls, outfitted in pink hats, fringed vests and ill-fitting boots, tour the animal pens and listen to hawkers hustling vegetable graters, miracle cleaners and farm equipment. The children’s usual reaction to the stock pens—“Ew! This place smells like poop!” That, my dears, is the smell of money. I asked my kids, now adults with children of their own, what memories they have of their visits. “I just remember that long hallway from the Coliseum to the barns and education hall,” said Valerie. “I was so short all I saw was people’s butts.”
As one who grew up in a Los Angeles suburb, the only horses I saw raced at Santa Anita. But when we moved to Denver in 1968, my wife, Mary, an accomplished equestrian who was raised in Denver, thought it would be exciting to take our kids, Kevin and Valerie, to see the animals. We petted the pigs, looked at the bulls and llamas, and the kids rode ponies. As part of the day, we attended an auction. Among the items put up was a vial of Appaloosa semen for $150. I left to go to the restroom and when I came back I couldn’t find Mary and the kids in the crowded arena. As I looked around, I saw Mary waving. The auctioneer took that as a winning bid. I said, “Let’s get out of here before they come around to collect.” I didn’t go back for 30 years, fearing someone might recognize me.
The NWSS has become an annual event, drawing more than 700,000 attendees and adding almost $120 million to the local economy a year through the sixteen-day run that now includes a huge rodeo. It has become more of an urban event—there are sales of hats, jackets and boots, a Western art show, kid-related events like a petting farm, pedal-tractor races, and the ever-popular mutton bustin’, where small children are put on the backs of sheep and generally tossed off. Cash prizes and ribbons are handed out for winning steers, bulls, pigs and even chickens. One competition sure to not make an appearance is the 1914 “best baby” event where naked two- and three-year-olds paraded across the stage for admiring judges.
The show’s organizers haven’t stood pat. The livestock pavilion opened in 1909; the Coliseum, site of the rodeo, was dedicated in 1952, and the Hall of Education opened in 1973. A multi-million-dollar expansion of what is now called “the campus” is under way just north of I-70, which is why traffic jams greet inbound commuters.
Even Gov. Jared Polis, as a good parent, takes his children to the show—“We bring our kids in proud support of ranching in Colorado.”
Kevin and Valerie and I still go to the show every January but now we go straight to the Cowboy Bar for a Coors or two and not to the petting zoo. We’ll miss our annual trip this year, but we plan to be there when the NWSS returns Jan. 8-23, 2022.