Summing it up for many, Denver Post columnist Red Fenwick wrote in 1958, “Don’t you just love Stock Show time? Old Denver’s always all a ‘twinkle and Gussied up like a schoolmarm at the Saturday night shindig. It’s wonderful. It’s Western.” This probably how many long time Denverites feel about that their national treasure, the National Western Stock Show, now in its 108th year. According to an online archival history of Denver, Historic Denver, the Stock Show’s history stretches back to the early days of the 20th century, with the inaugural event-taking place in 1906. It was a big hit from the very beginning — attendance was estimated at 15,000 with stockmen visiting from Omaha, Kansas City, Chicago and some eastern cities. By 1909, the Stock Show was attracting in excess of 100,000 spectators. In 2008, the National Western Stock Show & Rodeo recorded the event’s biggest opening-day in history with an attendance of 44,616 and the biggest single-day attendance on January 19 with 68,610. Previous records for opening-day and single day attendance were 41,637 set in 2006 and 68,357 set in 1999, respectively.
The Roots of the Stock Show
At the ending of the 19th century, it soon grew obvious that the West needed a stock show. Westerns lacked huge market to receive their animals. This raised the shipping costs of their cattle, sheep, and hog compared to rivals in Chicago and Kansas City. The ability to raise livestock in the arid and colder West was much more difficult that East which is more humid where livestock would get fat from concentrated corn and grain feeds. Therefore, Denver seemed like the perfect choice as the railroad system helped to build the city and rail wouled help facilitate the shipping. Thus, the perfect solution was found. The Denver-based show would be in a place for improved breeds that could thrive in a more arid region was well as competitive Western meat packing center.
The National Western Comes To Town
On opening day of the “Western Livestock Show”, Monday, January 29, 1906, Denver basked under clear skies and enjoyed a balmy afternoon temperature of 63 degrees. Northeast of downtown at the Denver Union Stockyards, a circus big-top had been erected and the city was abuzz with excitement. The Rocky Mountain News reported that throngs of stockmen were filling local hotels. City leaders urged Denverites to attend the show and lend their support for what was hoped would become an annual affair. To encourage them, “Denver Day at the Stock Show” was declared for Wednesday the 31st. The Rocky Mountain News reported that “The city has declared a holiday, banks and other private enterprises will close their doors and the schools will not be in session.” The paper urged citizens to attend and attend they did- by the thousands. There was a bit of rain that day, but admission was free and Denver’s citizens swarmed over the show grounds, tramping through the mud, milling about the stock yard pens, gawking at blueblooded cattle, sheep and hogs and filling the big tent to watch the judging. When the six-day show closed on February 3, a National Western Stock Show” in 1909. It was an even bigger and more festive event than the first. An admission of 25 cents was charged and folks streamed in by streetcar, horse-drawn rigs and even a few automobiles.
Livestock: The Working Heart Of The Show
Following the 1906 show, articles of incorporation were drawn up for the Western Stock Show Association, Elias Ammons was elected president and an executive committee was formed. The show’s organizers succeeded in both their goals of improving livestock breeds and fostering the growth of a livestock market in the region. Within a few years western cattle breeds had been improved to the point that eastern buyers were now in Denver each January to buy the “hardy, dis-ease-proof strains” from the Rocky Mountains to take home for the improvement of their own herds. In 1913, representatives of the Chicago packing houses arrived by special train and bidding on carloads of breeding stock brought in $1 million in a single record breaking day for western livestock. Stockmen received $2.6 million for their animals at the show.
The year 1910 was a turning point for the show. Until this time only entries from the West (defined as the area west of the 99th Meridian) were permitted and “feeder cattle” meant grass-fed cattle, not animals fattened on grain and corn. But after the 1909 show organizers voted that entries from all over the U.S. would henceforth be accepted and the stock show became a truly national event.
Horses And High Society
Folks at the turn of the 20th Century loved horses as much as we do at the turn of the 21st, and in 1907 an enduring and popular feature was added to the January show. The Denver Gentlemen’s Driving and Riding Club sponsored the National Western’s first horse show that year. Its evening performances filled the big tent and later the National Amphitheater. Cattle judging took place during the day and a parade of prize-winning stock opened the evening horse shows. Seats for the horse shows went for 25 cents and a private eight-seat box could be had for $25 for the entire week.The horse shows were an instant hit with the public. They filled the amphitheater to bursting and on one notorious evening in 1909 the show was oversold. The crowd was so tightly packed that some who fainted from the heat were carried along in the human tide. The following day the Denver Republican observed
Build It And They Will Come
Thanks to the popularity of the horse shows, the National Western secured a steady stream of revenue, monies badly needed as the association struggled to build facilities to keep up with increasing entries and crowds. When it added the rodeo in 1931, the stock show would hit upon a combination of events to guarantee large crowds and gate receipts through the remainder of the century.
The Art of the National Western
Folks in the Coors Western Art Exhibit have literally rolled out the red carpet for Stock Show visitors. A broad swath of crimson leads right to the gallery’s front door on the third floor of the Expo Hall. Crossing the threshold, visitors enter a serene refuge from the hurly-burly that prevails elsewhere on the grounds. More than 200 works of art depicting western lifestyles, cultures, landscapes and wildlife are displayed and lighted just so. Music plays quietly in the background.
The Coors Western Art Exhibit and Sale originated in 1993 in an effort to bring a little culture to the Stock Show. At the first exhibit, organized by executive wives from the Coors brewing firm, invited guests attended a kick-off party for some after-dinner browsing. “We were so afraid that nobody would come or have money to spend,” recalls Janie Hutchison, who organizes gallery volunteers. She needn’t have fretted. The patrons bought over $25,000-worth of art. “It’s worked out very well,” she says.
he National Western Scholarship program was born in 1983 with three $1,000 scholarships for agriculture students at Colorado State University and the University of Wyoming. The program has flourished and each year it now makes a $200,000-plus investment in young people majoring in agricultural science or preparing for rural nursing or medical careers. Sixty-one scholarships ranging from $2,500 to $5,500 each are awarded to students at eight universities, colleges and community colleges in Colorado and Wyoming.
The National Western at 100
When the first Stock Show was held in a tent back in 1906, Theodore Roosevelt was President, sirloin was 10 cents a pound, and the automobile age was just dawning. As the National Western rounds out a century of growth, there are reasons aplenty for celebration. In 2006, well over 600,000 folks will likely attend and 12,000-plus entries will delight visitors while facing the scrutiny of judges and prospective buyers. Some 18,000 wide-eyed school kids will come on field trips and the rodeos and bull riding will attract 700 cowboys and cowgirls. The show will offer over 40-ticketed rodeos, horse shows and other entertainments and there will be banquets, luncheons, breed association meetings and other gatherings in numbers beyond counting. As they have since day one, reporters will converge on the January extravaganza to report on the doings. All of which would amaze and gratify those visionaries who launched the affair a century ago.
For more detailed information about the History of the National Western Stock Show, check out this website.