The Second 25 Years: 1931–1955
EDITORS NOTE: This is the second in a series of four articles recounting the colorful history of the National Western Stock Show, Rodeo and Horse Show, which celebrated its 100th birthday in 2006.
By Keith and Cheryl Chamberlain
When he sold his first 4-H club calf at the National Western in 1945, 10-year-old Bob Dorsey of Eaton, Colo., said to himself, “Geez! I’ll never see that kind of money again!” Showing livestock in the second quarter-century of the National Western was a family affair and the Dorseys’ experience was typical. “When we began showing in the 1940s, we were little guys without a lot of fancy equipment,” Bob recalls. “We brought our cattle to the show in an old farm truck. We just had little old curry combs, Scotch combs they were called, and you had to stand in line forever to get into the wash racks.” Grooming show cattle was different in those days. “The more hair the better,” according to Bob. “ We didn’t clip anything except the head and tail.” They were really moving up in the world when they brought mom’s hair dryer to the show to fluff up those woolly Herefords. Of today’s elaborate grooming practices Bob says, “Now days it’s just like a woman at the beauty shop.”
Bob and his brother showed calves often. They each collared a struggling critter one year in the Catch-A-Calf contest and won ribbons with them the next January. The family stayed in Denver during the Stock Show but the boys made fast trips home to compete in shipping restrictions. Under solid leadership, the National Western never faltered and when the post-war boom arrived it would usher in the best years the January event had yet seen. This is the story of the Stock Show during the eventful years from 1931 to 1955.
Grizzled Ranchers and Bulls at the Brown
Cattle have always been at the heart of the National Western, and breed improvement has been one of its major contributions to the livestock industry. Hereford, Angus and Shorthorn were the only bovine breeds appearing at the Stock Show from 1931 to 1955 and Hereford was the powerhouse breed, winning grand champion steer honors 19 times in 25 years. The familiar red-and-whites, natives of England, were first imported around the turn of the last century. Along with Angus and Shorthorn, they quickly shouldered aside the traditional Longhorn, which was as tough on the table as it was on the trail. “You had the Hereford and Angus cattle over there that specialized in marbling and good carcasses,” says Dan Green, publisher of the Record Stockman, a top livestock industry newspaper. “The western U.S. was largely settled with Hereford bulls, the East with Angus bulls,” he says, hence, the dominance of Herefords at the National Western.
The founders of the National Western tried to promote cattle that could thrive to produce top quality meat in the arid West and they succeeded. By 1955, the Rocky Mountain News reported that, “Denver packers get more choice cattle than any other major market in the country. In the six months ending Oct. 31, 1955, government graders rated 76.4 percent of the Denver killed beef as choice.” The founders had also hoped to foster a market in Denver where western stock growers could sell their animals and here again they were successful. Livestock valued at $1.7 million was sold in just two days at the 1931 show and the Denver Union Stock Yards processed over three and a half million head of stock that year, 1.9 million of them from Colorado. That number reached four million by 1933 and held steady through the Depression. By the end of the decade, the Denver Union Stock Yards advertised that, “Livestock Production and Fattening is the West’s Largest Industry.” The numbers rose further during World War II. In 1944 alone, the stockyards handled 70,000 carloads of cattle, up from 2,500 in 1881. In the early 1950s, $270 million worth of livestock was sold annually in the state, about a million dollars worth for each market day. Agriculture and meatpacking accounted for nearly half of Colorado’s income in 1952.
Cattle at the Stock Show fall into two broad categories: commercial livestock and breeding animals. Feeder and fat cattle comprise the commercial sector. At Stock Show time in January feeder steers are approaching one year old and weigh around 500 pounds. Commercial feed lots and 4-H clubs are major buyers of these calves. During the 1930s and ‘40s, Colorado Herefords consistently won the class, and a few big cattle industry names appear often on the list of winners, among them Fred DeBerard, William Sidley and Josef Winkler, all of Colorado.
Fat cattle are about two years old at Stock Show time and ready for slaughter. After a good run in this class from 1931 to 1937, Angus gave way to Herefords, which won every year except two until 1955. A.H. Schmidt of Missouri and Karl and Jack Hoffman of Iowa took home two-thirds of the blue ribbons for fat cattle during those years. These prime cattle often attracted quite a bit of attention and in 1934, the Linder Packing and Provision Company of Denver bought the grand champion carload of fat steers and sent 20 pounds of prime rib to President Franklin Roosevelt for his White House birthday dinner.
In the breeding animal divisions, bulls were often the big stars. Stock Show bulls sold for more than new automobiles in 1939, but a notable pair at the 1945 sale topped them all. Describing the sale, the Rocky Mountain News reported: “In the smoke-filled sales pavilion crowded to the rafters with Hereford buyers from 18 states, spectators caught their breath as Dan Thornton of Gunnison, broke an all-time world record with sale of a bull TT Triumphant 29th for $50,000.” Minutes later, Triumphant’s son, TT Regent, also crossed the block at $50,000.
The headline-making bulls took lodgings at the Brown Palace Hotel, which rolled out the same red carpet trodden by royalty and other tony guests to welcome the father and son pair. Hotel manager Harry Anholt explained that the idea “was to give the folks who can’t visit the Stock Show a chance to look at $50,000 worth of bull.” The News had fun with the story. On January 20th, readers found a photo of a wary-eyed TT Triumphant being lead into the hotel by Thornton, while the hotel’s manager held the door to welcome the bovine. “Good gosh,” quipped a rancher quoted in the paper, “I couldn’t get a reservation at this hotel, but a bull can.” Another replied, “Well, it takes a lot of bull to get in here.”
Their stay was a mere eight hours. Unlike other guests, the critters couldn’t slip out of their fur coats and the hotel atrium was just too hot for bulls attired for Gunnison’s winter nights. They were soon back at the Stock Show and the Brown escaped with only a soiled oriental rug. When the TTs left Denver, they took up duties in Maryland and Michigan, proof that the National Western was making big contributions to breeding programs far beyond the West. Other bulls also went for high prices that year, with one carload of 103 Herefords fetching $85,000. By 1955 the show boasted the largest number of prize bulls for sale of any show in the country.
A close look at Dan Thornton’s bulls reveals an interesting detour in beef breeding: the short reign of the “belt buckle” Hereford. How this craze for stumpy legs came and went is a case study in the role of stock shows. Beginning in the 1940s, trend-setting breeders promoted animals that were “closer and closer to the ground,” according to Dan Green. “You have leg of lamb but you don’t have leg of beef,” so breeders figured if they could genetically select for short legs, less of an animal’s growth would be wasted on its non-edible legs. Lead by Quaker Oats’ Wyoming Hereford Ranch, they selected bulls that would throw short-legged offspring. The style caught on and by the early 1950s show cattle had a decidedly dwarfish look.
Ranchers eventually put an end to the fad. “In western range country, which is where the real big numbers in the cattle industry come from, you’ve got all kinds of cactus and sagebrush and garp out there and those low slung animals get hung up on that stuff and get diseases and everything under the sun,” says Dan Green. “The final arbiter of the trends is what works out on the western range. The grizzled ranchers who come to the Stock Show can look at an animal and say, ‘That one’s too close to the ground. He’s gonna’ drag on the sagebrush and be sick all the time,’ or they’ll say, ‘That one’s way too big, he can’t make it out on the range on my ranch.’” Putting fashion aside, by the mid-1950s ranchers were buying longer-legged bulls from breeders who had stuck with the traditional-sized animals. Prize winners began getting higher than a stockman’s belt buckle again.
“Our Place is Just a Farm.”
Livestock fashions may come and go but young people have been a big part of the National Western from the start. In 1906 students from Colorado Agricultural and Mining College in Fort Collins, now Colorado State University, took grand champion steer honors. Over the next 30 years, Colorado A & M, the University of Nebraska, the Kansas Agricultural College and the University of Illinois all won blue ribbons with their steers, hogs and lambs. Youth divisions at the National Western were inaugurated in 1919 in response to federal laws encouraging young people to seek livelihoods in agriculture and stock growing. In the 1930s, the National Western began to incorporate 4-H Boys and Girls Clubs into the show and in 1941 included the Future Farmers of America and created the junior livestock show. It has been key to the Stock Show’s educational mission ever since.
The top quality steers that are shown by the kids at the National Western today occupy a middle ground between expensive breeding stock and more moderately priced commercial cattle. The 4-H clubs buy promising feeder calves at the show and the kids spend the next 12 months preparing them for the ring. When they return they command a lot of attention and capture headlines like this one from the Rocky Mountain News in 1947: “$200,000 in Prize Money Pocketed by Kid Farmers.” Plump, well mannered and curried to perfection, the steers are paraded by their hopeful owners who have trained in showmanship. Even though they’re bound for slaughter, prices for these steers can rise into the stratosphere as bidders vie for the honor of buying top animals.
Bidding for the grand champion steer at the 1931 show was furious and when it was over, 14-year-old Masa Matsutani of Paxton, Neb., had sold his steer, Stubby Maru, for 85 cents a pound. “Japanese Lad, King of the Show, Modest over Honors,” proclaimed The Denver Post. “When crowds throng to the stall where Masa sits on a bale of straw, guarding his prize winner, the lad smiles modestly, answering questions with monosyllable politeness,” the Post went on. “We don’t live on a ranch, our place is just a farm,” Masa said. Peanuts, an Angus steer shown by Frank McKenney of King City, Mo., took top honors the next year, while in 1939, another Angus, Flash, captured the blue ribbon. Top price for any grand champion steer during the period went to a Hereford shown by the kids from Father Flanagan’s Boy’s Home of Omaha, Neb. Their prize winner brought $3.40 a pound in 1953.
In 1935 the National Western inaugurated the 4-H Catch-A-Calf Contest and the event quickly became a perennial crowd pleaser. That year, 10 calves and 20 boys (girls didn’t get in on the fun until 1974) were turned loose in the arena and the ensuing mayhem provided guests with the “spontaneous humor unique to unrehearsed events.” Contestants had to catch a calf, halter it and lead the balky critter to an exit. Then the real work began. Over the next year the boy fed and cared for his growing calf, kept financial records and reported by monthly letter to the sponsor who had donated it. When the boys returned the following year their calves were judged on how well they had grown. A prize ribbon proved that the lessons of animal husbandry had been learned and conferred serious bragging rights. In 1955 the “Heifer Wrangle” was added for youngsters belonging to the Future Farmers of America.
The show included more than just cattle. Swine and sheep breed shows were an integral part of the Stock Show during its second quarter-century. Among the porkers were Poland Chinas, Berkshires, Hampshires, Durocs and Chester Whites. Sheep breeds at the show included Southdown, Rambouillet, Corriedale, Columbia, Hampshire and Suffolk. These smaller animals were perfectly suited to young exhibitors living on family farms and 4-H kids in particular did very well with fat hogs and lambs.
Purebreds, Cow Ponies and a Curious Weddin’
When the National Western was born, every ranch and farm ran on horse power. The working horse was the backbone of the livestock and agriculture industries. By 1931 that was all changing as the working horse was being pushed to the sidelines. Farm and ranch machinery powered by the internal combustion engine was a novelty back in 1906, but such contraptions were revolutionizing the industry when the Silver Jubilee rolled around. Purebred Percherons and Belgians, as well as grade draft horses without a pedigree, were shown in Denver until 1941, then disappeared, though they would return in later decades. Mules had gone into eclipse even earlier, being dropped after 1931. They would one day stage their own comeback to the delight of mule enthusiasts and the public.
Though blue-collar horses were on leave of absence for a time, fancy show horses that never pulled a harrow or worked a steer continued to be a big part of the program. Show horse classes featured saddle horses, harness horses and hunters and jumpers. Saddle classes showcased horses suited for pleasure riding along bridle paths or country lanes and many featured three- and five-gaited horses. Harness horses included roadster and trotter classes pulling carriages and buggies. Style, grace and an “easy way of going” were essential to success at the show. Audiences were treated to many a fancy turnout as fine harness horses drew varied conveyances around the arena at a lively clip. Hunters and jumpers from the fox hunt and steeplechase tradition provided thrills for audiences as the big horses circled the arena, clearing jump after jump.
In 1944, these stylish equines moved over to make room for the working cow horse when stock horse classes became a regular event. Such horses “must be useful for stock yard work, shown at gaits necessary for such work and it will be necessary to open and close the gate” advised the program. Stock horse reining and cutting contests were also popular with audiences.
The horse breed shows that are such an important part of the National Western today began in this period. Palominos were first shown in 1938 and Quarter Horses arrived in 1944. This popular breed is shorter but more muscular than Morgans, Arabians or Thoroughbreds and the Quarter Horse can really fly for short distances. The jackrabbit starts make it “very well suited for ranch-type work where you’re gathering and cutting cattle,” according to Randy Witte, publisher of Western Horseman Magazine. Arabians and Thoroughbreds joined the show not long after the “stock horses” and by 1952 there were 250 horse show exhibitors participating in more than 80 classes.
In 1931 show organizers arranged an unlikely marriage. The society maiden perched sidesaddle on her satiny purebred was betrothed to the denim-clad cowboy who straddled a hoss of uncertain lineage. They were hitched in the grandly decorated Stadium Arena on the evening of January 19, 1931, with 5,000 close friends in attendance. The families of bride and groom mingled amiably as bronc riding, steer wrestling, fine harness and five-gaited saddle classes intertwined like rose vines. The crowd approved and the newspapers achieved new heights of hyperbole, focusing on the dissimilarities of the bridal couple. This from The Denver Post : “The princely thorobreds of saddle and harness are beautiful and refined, but it takes the unshorn warhorse with the red-hot hoofs and rolling eyeballs to crash the gate, pack the grandstands, hang up the S. R. O. sign. The elite of society filled every box in the diamond circle, and the exhibit of high-stepping saddlers and drivers was excellent, but the palm of popular victory must be accorded to the buckaroo, the broncho and the big, romping steer that fairly loves to ‘rassle.’” Urging patrons to maintain at least some measure of decorum as events whipsawed between wild and woolly and refined, the program suggested that “applause from the audience is appreciated by the management but loud disapproval of the judges’ choice is unpleasant for spectators and judges.”
This marriage of contrasts lasted for decades and by all accounts was quite a happy one. True, horse show partisans now and then fondly recalled the days when they had the arena to themselves and rodeo enthusiasts did sometimes allow as how they found horse show classes a bit tame. “The horse show is nice amusement, but to some extent, it must be admitted, it lacks the punch of a knock-down and drag-’em-out rodeo,” opined a Western Farm Life writer who was definitely in the latter camp. The occasional bout of colic ruffled the marital bliss, as at the 1953 show when rodeo clown Buddy Heaton commandeered a blooded jumper and rode the pricey mount over an impromptu course, clearing every rail. Horse show folks were not amused, but calm was restored when Heaton apologized and promised henceforth to confine his clowning to the rodeo side of affairs.
Things also got a little lively when the occasional rodeo bull took a wrong turn in the alleyways of the shared barn. “This one bull just crashed right through the gate and he’s running around in the horse show barn and all these people are trying to get their horses ready for the show. It was just chaos. Everything is flying and people are jumping up on the walls,” recalls Sandy Dennehy, a long-time competitor in jumping events during the combined shows. But overall, she says, it worked. “You know, in a way it was fun because it was an experience that none of us had the rest of the year. We got to know a few of the guys that did the rodeo and we always enjoyed the bucking horses and bulls.”
Rodeo and all, Society Night continued to be an annual highlight. Denver’s elite filled flag draped boxes in the Stadium Arena, adding glamour and high fashion to the show. They held box parties as photographers’ flashes popped and journalists filled their note pads with fashion details. The Rocky Mountain News reported in 1931 that, “Maids and matrons, debutantes and dowagers and their escorts filled the flag-decked boxes. Riding togs and sport attire, formal evening frocks and tall silk hats, made a colorful panorama. The horse show ... is the event that ushers in the spring hats. Last night there was an abundance of smart straw chapeaux in all colors of the rainbow, draped with soft curling little plumes.” There were satin and velvet gowns and plenty of fur, including mink, ermine, gray squirrel, fox, muskrat, beaver, seal, skunk, sable, leopard and caracul.
Changes in dress styles at the show mirrored society at large and an informal trend began in the ‘40s with some even donning blue jeans on Society Night. A News article in 1950 declared that “Society women still are clinging to their wartime casualness in fashion ... and they did not wear their brightest spring hats, as was their custom in prewar years.” The dramatic entrance had apparently lost none of its cachet, however, as “society parties thronged in 10 minutes late, as is their usual custom. They found their seats just as the exciting and noisy grand march came to a climax” reported the paper. Mink coats and jeweled hats still mingled with blue jeans and Stetsons in the early ‘50s when fans settled in to watch the horse show and rodeo.
Dynamite, Bedspringsand Jumping Beans
With legendary announcer Abe Lefton at the microphone and such greats as Earl Thode and Pete Knight scrunching down their hats to climb aboard wily broncs, rodeo came to the National Western in 1931. “A yip-ee-ee, yip-ee-ee, which must have been heard as far north as old Cheyenne and as far south as Monte Vista, merrily awakened long-slumbering echoes in the big stockyards arena Saturday afternoon. It came from the leather lungs of a bow-legged, tougher-than-rawhide wrangler astride the hurricane deck of a four-legged devil disguised as a horse,” reported The Denver Post. That rider was aboard a bucking horse from the string of stock contractors Verne Elliott and Eddie McCarty, whose top stock put Denver on the cowboys’ annual round of house calls. Elliott continued supplying rodeo stock for the National Western until 1957. Rodeo events that first year would be familiar to fans of the sport today. Cow waddies competed in bareback and saddle bronc riding, calf roping, steer wrestling and Brahma steer riding. Yes, steers. Those gnarly Brahma bulls weren’t on the dance card until later.
Purses were paltry during those Depression years. Bareback bronc riders and steer wrestlers competed for an $840 pot, with winners in the daily contests risking their necks for a mere $35. Saddle bronc riders and calf ropers vied for a chance at first place day money of $100, and divided $1,875 for the entire show. Purses actually shrank during the “Dirty Thirties,” as businesses struggling through the Depression reduced their contributions to Stock Show events. Things eventually improved and by 1946 The Denver Post could declare, “Rodeo Winners to Whack up $18,000 Cash Saturday Night.” In 1955 purses were $5,400 plus added money from contestants’ entry fees.
The National Western joined a five-city western rodeo circuit in 1939, a move that gave its rodeo greater prominence. Being the first major rodeo of the year had certain advantages according to Jim Shoulders, a rodeo superstar who competed here in the 1940s and ‘50s. In a recent interview he pointed out that, “Bein’ the first, you had time to kind of heal up from the fall. All the good hands and an awful lot of the others, even the middle of the road contestants, were always at Denver ‘cause they hadn’t run out of money yet. You felt like if you won some money in Denver it would help you get set up for the year.” Then he modestly added, “and it was always pretty handy ‘cause I won a little,” something of an understatement from a five-time All-Around Champion, four-time Bareback Riding Champion and seven-time Bull Riding Champion. Championship saddles, belt buckles and trophies for the previous year’s competition were presented at the National Western Rodeo and between 1949 and 1959 Jim Shoulders carted enough of those out of town to fill a barn.
For all these reasons, Denver attracted the top professional cowboys, among them All-Around Champions Earl Thode, Homer Pettigrew, Gerald Roberts, Casey Tibbs and Bill Linderman, in addition to Jim Shoulders. As it gained prominence, the National Western’s rodeo grew. From around 100 entries in its early years, the rodeo grew to 125 contestants in 1940, jumped to 200 at war’s end, then shot to 350 by 1955.
“Every trade has its own peculiar vocabulary and none is more picturesque and colorful than that of the cowboy,” a program feature entitled “The Lingo of the Cowpoke” explained. Grabbin’ the apple was clutching the horn of the saddle to keep from being thrown, a definite no-no. A dog-fall is the steer wrestler’s term for putting a steer on the ground with his feet under him. The throw is not complete, the tutorial explained, until the steer is flat on his side with all four feet out. “Hoolihanning- leaping forward and alighting on the horns of a steer in a manner to knock him down” without having to “twist the handlebars” was a cardinal sin. Every buckaroo, “from the Spanish, Vaquero, meaning cowboy,” hoped to romp on a high roller, a horse that leaps high into the air when bucking. Finally, no serious rodeo fan wanted to be a tenderfoot. “That’s what you are if you did not know the meaning of these words,” the program chided.
Would-be rodeo stars might have been encouraged to read in the program that amateurs were allowed to enter as long as “they show class and dress in full cowboy or cowgirl costume.” “Rowdyism or quarreling with judges or officials” was forbidden and “undesirable characters” need not apply. Practice would have been more important than wardrobe and manners put together. According to Jim Shoulders, “Buckin’ stock’s not supposed to be real gentle,” and when the gate swings open, “You don’t have time to think ‘I’ve gotta turn my toes out, I’ve gotta squeeze the riggin’ with my hand and squeeze with my legs and move my body as the horse moves.’ You try to get all that to come natural, kind of automatic.” Easier said than done, probably. As to what else to expect, Shoulders adds, “Well, sometimes it’s fun, sometimes its hell. It all depends on the shape you’re in and the animal you’re ridin’. If everything’s right, why, it’s fun but if anything’s wrong, it ain’t much fun.” Then he cautions, “If you get to the outside of the spin on a bull, or down in the well on the inside of a spin ... you’re in trouble.” Another bit of understatement. For the contestant thinking how long can eight seconds be, a final note from the champ: “If you’re ridin’ ’em easy and good, why, it don’t seem like it’s very long. But if you’re in a storm, that eight seconds can get to be a long time. When you’re layin’ under one and he’s trompin’ around on you, that seems like it takes a long time, too.”
Newspaper writers also did their part to discourage amateurs. After hearing Jim Shoulders’ advice, any armchair cowboy with a lick of sense would have ditched what remained of his aspirations when he read this headline: “Riders Smeared All Over Arena as Broncos Kick Open Rodeo Here.” Perhaps as good as anything in the fanciful genre of the newsie, however, was this mirthful passage by a Post writer describing the regimen of one famous bucking horse: “Five-Minutes-to-Midnight has been doing a little training ... by adhering to a diet of dynamite, old bedsprings and Mexican jumping beans.”
A Cayuse Named Midnight
The most popular personality at the 1932 Stock Show wasn’t a grand champion steer, a society belle or a cowboy- it was a bucking horse named Midnight. Foaled on the Cottonwood Ranch in Alberta, Canada, in 1914, he was the son of a Thoroughbred mare and a Morgan/Percheron stallion. He grew to a robust 15 1/2 hands and in fighting trim tipped the scales at 1,300 pounds. Ranch owner Jim McNab figured him for a cowhorse and broke him to that line of work. One day the horse threw McNab, then returned to work as if nothing had happened. Things seemed just fine for a few days, then he had another bucking fit. He’d gotten the pitching idea into his head. Midnight found himself out of work after he threw one of McNab’s top hands and knocked him unconscious. When the cowpoke came to he promptly quit. It was starting to dawn on McNab that this horse just didn’t care for ranch life. It was clear, however, that he had other talents. Word got around that Midnight was quite the bucker and cow waddies started showing up at the ranch wanting to give him a try. It wasn’t long before he was a regular at local bucking contests where he honed his skill.
Midnight’s life as a professional entertainer began in 1924 when McNab sold him to a rodeo stock contractor. He worked for the Alberta Stampede Company until they went broke in 1928. Maybe it was the medical bills. In an irony that must have had the horse chuckling to himself, his next owner was a Wild West Show. If wild was what they wanted, Midnight gave it to them. He busted up so many cowboys that he worked himself out of a job and was sold again. Under the guidance of his new employers, Verne Elliott and Eddie McCarty, he soon had the same drawing power as Jack Dempsey or Joe Louis. One rodeo historian figured “probably no other bucking horse that ever lived packed as many people in the seats ... as did Midnight.” His career path was leading toward Denver.
Midnight rode a tide of good press into town in January of 1931. Local headline writers dubbed him the “Devil Horse” and a “Champion Bucker.” He delivered all the show’s promoters could have hoped for, grabbing headlines, thrilling audiences and filling the Stadium Arena at rodeo after rodeo. Movie actor and rodeo rider Jack Ireland drew Midnight for the first saddle bronc event. “Where is this here outlaw, Midnight? When I get through with him, he’ll think it’s tea time, ” he boasted on arrival in Denver. Midnight disposed of Ireland on the first jump out of the chute, tossing him in one second flat. Paddy Ryan drew the horse the next day and fared no better. Dusting himself off, he declared “If I ever draw that hoss again at a rodeo, I’m going to get on the first train out of town.” The next day, Bill Till made it to the second buck but was carried out on a stretcher with a twisted spine. Mel Stonehouse managed to stay aboard for three seconds, besting the combined times of his three predecessors. In a matinee performance on day five, Fernie Hubbard was tossed in one second and carried away unconscious.
At that evening’s rodeo, organizers announced that Midnight had a minor injury and couldn’t appear. “A roof-shaking boo went up from 5,000 throats,” according to one news account, and organizers quickly reconsidered. Leo Murray probably wished they hadn’t. He stayed up for five seconds before biting the dust. Midnight got the next day off and when the final rodeo came around, the tally for the week stood at Midnight six, cow waddies zip. When the gate swung open that night Cliff Helm was aboard, but not for long. He lasted five seconds and was knocked unconscious for his trouble. Midnight left the arena undefeated, his seven would-be riders for the stock show having racked up total saddle time of only 17 seconds. To cap his week, Denver’s biggest celebrity was awarded a “jewel-encrusted halter” by Frederick Bonfils, publisher of the Post.
Unlike many other great buckers, Midnight used power instead of tricks to throw his riders. As Denver audiences saw, many were blown out of the saddle on the first jump when Midnight came down with a spine-jolting thud on his forefeet and executed a double kick with his hind quarters still high in the air. It was the second kick that did it. The cowboys were punched in the belly one moment and slapped from behind the next. The next thing they knew they were eating dirt.
Midnight was a good sport about it all. He occasionally approached a fallen cowboy and gave him a sniff, as if to say there were no hard feelings. He stood quietly for saddling and anyone could go safely into his stall. He seemed especially fond of Mrs. Elliott, wife of stock contractor Verne Elliott, happily taking the lumps of sugar she offered. He posed for a photograph with a Denver woman looking more like an amiable old stable horse than a fearsome outlaw. Like many a traveling sports star, he was particular about his roommates and might kick the stuffing out of any horse besides his pals Invalid or Five-Minutes-to-Midnight. When one of these bosom friends checked into an adjacent stall he would “snort and squeal and kick until he broke out and got to his pal’s side.”
Midnight was actually nearing the end of his career when he appeared in Denver. A bone disorder in his front feet began to rob him of some of his snap and two or three top cowboys began to qualify on him. Rather than see him ridden down, Elliott retired the horse with his pride intact. He was put out to pasture at Platteville, Colo., where he died in 1936. The Horse Show and Rodeo program for the 1937 Stock Show featured a full page tribute to Midnight. “There is a note of sadness in this rodeo. In the hearts of those cowboys performing in the arena there is the memory of a dead horse. He was the greatest bucking horse of them all. Cowboys both feared and loved him. In his prime, no man ever conquered him. He was a sportsman through and through. May he rest in that Nirvana, where great horses must go.” The crowd observed a minute of silent tribute to Midnight at the opening rodeo performance of the 1937 Stock Show. The remains of the legendary bronc, a nine-time champion, rest today at the National Cowboy and Western Heritage Museum in Oklahoma City.
Free Ponies, Ten-cent Hotdogsand No Vacancy Signs
On January 11, 1931, The Denver Post had exciting news for young readers: the paper was going to give away a pony. “A beautiful live pony, with a made-to-order saddle and a fine bridle, will be the main award for the best cowboy or cowgirl costume. He is named Noon Edition, after the early edition of THE DENVER POST. And he is just about the prettiest, smartest little fellow you ever saw. Cowboy hats, shirts, spurs, lariats and a lot of Baur’s famous candy will be among the other awards. Also, every boy or girl who appears in a creditable costume will be given a FREE TICKET to the mammoth rodeo at the Stock Show.” The Post further instructed, “Wear any sort of western costumes you like. You will be judged for the appropriateness of your garb, spurs, guns, etc.” The article concluded with this encouragement: “That’s the whole story, kids, You don’t have to register or go thru any red tape. Just get your costumes ready and be on Champa Street in front of THE POST promptly at 10 o’clock next Saturday morning.”
For days before the big contest the paper ran photos of western-garbed youngsters under the headline “They Hope to Win Ponies.” Professional cowboys in town for the rodeo were the judges and their toughest task was weeding out dude outfits. Levi pants and jackets, plaid shirts, boots, leather chaps, Stetson hats and spurs were deemed most typically western. Sidney Unwin of Lafayette, Colo., took Noon Edition home to become the first of many tickled youngsters who rode away on prize ponies. At the 1949 contest, nine-year-old Patsy Sandifer of Evergreen trumped even the Post’s imaginative publicists. After six-year-olds Jimmy Lee Sheard of Kremmling and Bonnie Christie of Rocky Ford were declared the winners, Patsy stepped out of the crowd to give one of her own ponies to runner-up Rosanne Wright of North Denver because she was so impressed with the six-year-old’s courage in defeat.
The Post’s junior rodeo is but one example of the enthusiastic support accorded the Stock Show by the Denver press. A crescendo of news coverage swelled in the weeks leading up to the January extravaganza. Recognizing the Stock Show’s importance to the city, the Post in 1931 editorialized, “Denver is privileged this week ... to be host to the Stockmen and their families. In expressing the city’s delight at entertaining such fine people, THE DENVER POST’S only regret is that they don’t visit us often enough. THE POST hopes the Stockmen won’t hurry away when the Stock Show is ended, but that they will stay with us for a visit and come to see us often. For whatever benefits the Stockmen benefits Denver, Colorado, and all these Rocky Mountain states.”
National Western General Manager Court Jones pointed out in a 1931 press release that “The generous support of the press in this region makes the show possible, as there never is a fund sufficient to make the show a success without large attendance.” It’s likely area residents would have come out without much coaxing. The cattle, hogs, sheep and horses have always fascinated city folks but there was much more at the show to help banish the mid-winter doldrums than just the critters. There was the horse show and rodeo, the bustle in the stockyards, the exhibits of farm and ranch equipment and plenty of colorful people watching.
At the horse show and rodeo there were specialty acts like rodeo clown Dave Campbell and the Denver Mounted Police drill team. There was world champion horseshoe pitching and trick and fancy riding. John Lindsey and his bull Iron Ore were there, as were Ken Boen and his Ol’ Gray Mare. Jacky the police dog performed an exhibition of police work. “When he spots his man there’s real excitement,” the program said, due perhaps to the fact that Jacky was a Doberman. Pony and draft horse hitches pulled fancy wagons as the Stadium Arena resounded to music of the Denver Junior Police, Burlington Railroad and Shrine brass bands. The most popular specialty performer in the 1930s and ‘40s seems to have been Homer Holcomb, the cowboy clown. A string of trained animals accompanied Homer to town, including Ferdinand the bull and a trick-mule named Parkukarkus. He also brought Mae West, though the program failed to specify what sort of critter she might have been.
If folks were hungry, the programs advised them to “Pay No More” for concessions than the prices printed. In 1931 soda pop, lemonade, Cracker Jack, hot dogs and hamburgers cost 10 cents. The barbecue plate lunch was 50 cents and a turkey dinner could be had for 75 cents. Prohibition was repealed in 1933 and thirsty patrons the next January might have been delighted to read in the program that “Visitors to the Denver Stock Show this year can again, for the first time in years, enjoy the thrill of a drink of genuine Coors Beer - either the popular 3.2 or the stronger Repeal Beer.” In 1941 a bottle of the suds went for 20 cents at the show. Even with the rise in prices that set in after WWII, soft drinks and Cracker Jack still cost only a dime. Hot dogs, alas, had gone up, prompting this wry observation from the Rocky Mountain News in 1947: “With more than a half-million pounds of beef on display, people were wondering why they had to pay a quarter for a hotdog.”
There was a deeper economic relationship between the people of Denver and the National Western than concession prices. City folks turned up at the gate to pay their admission in spite of hard economic times and they filled the seats in the Stadium Arena for ticketed performances. Exhibitors’ entry fees were usually consumed by the premiums paid to prize winners, so gate and ticket income was vital to the show’s balance sheet. The Denver Chamber of Commerce chipped in for livestock premiums and was joined by the Denver Clearing House Banks and a consortium of hotels with contributions to rodeo purses. The city of Denver and the state of Colorado also made annual appropriations to the show. Such contributions were often the difference between red ink and black for the show.
The Stock Show repaid the city handsomely with a big spike in business every January. Within a few years of its debut, the show was injecting $2 million into the city’s economy each year. By 1955 the show was drawing so many out of town visitors that hotels were filled to capacity and reservations had to be made up to a year in advance. January’s hotel bookings rivaled those of August, the peak month of the tourist season, and equaled June and July put together. Thanks to the nine-day show, Denver hotels made enough in January to pay their taxes for the entire year. Rooms were so tight that the Record Stockman urged readers who had friends in the city to stay with them during the show so hotel rooms could be released for less fortunate visitors. The convention and visitors bureau put out a call for Denverites with extra space in their homes to take in Stock Show visitors.
January ranked third in sales for the city’s retailers, exceeded only by the Christmas season in November and December. As the Record Stockman reported just before the1943 show, “Denver’s merchants, businessmen and professional men extend a hearty welcome to visitors to the great exhibition. Shelves emptied by the record-breaking 1942 Christmas buying season have been refilled and a special effort has been made to have the newest and best merchandise available for the host of Stock Show visitors. Many special sales have been planned for next week which should provide savings for out-oftown purchasers.”
In the late-1940s the relationship between the National Western and the people of Denver helped solve a long-standing problem at the Stock Show: crowded and inadequate facilities. The papers reported that another city was trying to lure the Stock Show away with a $5 million stadium. “Lack of Space Perils Denver Stock Show,” trumpeted a Rocky Mountain News banner headline in 1947. A bill was introduced in the legislature to increase the state’s annual appropriation to the National Western.
“We Could Have Sold Tickets at Any Price.”
The National Western had been pinched for space since 1906 and the reason was a chronic lack of funds. Expenditures had a nasty tendency to eat up revenues and too often a year when the show broke even was considered a success. During its second quarter-century, the Stock Show continued to receive regular assistance from the Denver Union Stock Yards for operating expenses and new barn and exhibit space. A milestone for the National Western was reached in 1945 when the ever-reliable company sold the Lamont Pavilion, the 1909 Stadium Arena and the cattle wash house to the show for a token price. For the first time, the National Western had clear title to part of its facilities.
The Stadium Arena was still the only venue for ticketed performances by the late 1940s and it was packed for every horse show and rodeo performance. Box seats always sold out long before opening day. In a typical headline, The Denver Post proclaimed “140,000 See 1949 Stock Show As Cry Goes Up for More Space.” Thousands were turned away during the ticket sale, the paper reported. “We could have sold tickets at any price - if we’d had them,” lamented National Western General Manager John T. Caine, III. “The space problem has driven us almost to distraction.”
It wasn’t only human visitors who were crowded. A huge circus tent housed the first show, and canvas continued to provide shelter at the National Western for decades. Overflow cattle, 4-H and junior show and horse show entries were routinely quartered in tents. “It is a rotten shame to house these valuable animals in tents, exposed to pneumonia and cold. Thousand-dollar show animals had to be housed in drafty tents, ” the local dailies despaired. Denver area farmers and stockmen took in show animals to help ease the shortage of stalls. The show built metal Quonset huts to house livestock, hardly an elegant solution.
The desperate need for new facilities was a perennial topic at meetings of the National Western’s board of directors, and in the mid-1940s livestock exhibitors began contributing a portion of their sale proceeds to a building fund. Then National Western President Wilson McCarthy and Union Stock Yards President L.M. Pexton enlisted the support of Denver Mayor Ben Stapleton to place a $1.5 million bond issue for construction of a huge new building before the voters. The road to opening night in the Denver Coliseum was strewn with funding hurdles, political wrangling and construction delays but the combined efforts of Stock Show supporters, Denver taxpayers, and private business overcame them all.
Denver’s business and community leaders joined in the campaign to pass the bond issue and the Post and News urged taxpayers vote yes. When they arrived at the polls on May 20, 1947, voters were greeted by 4-H club kids wearing insignia arm bands. The hint probably didn’t change the outcome, but it may have added to the margin of victory. The taxpayer-backed bonds were approved 49,523 to 35,659. At last, it seemed, there would be sufficient money to build the Stock Show’s first new venue in 40 years.
Then a snag. Quigg Newton was elected the new mayor on the same day the bonds passed and he believed Denver taxpayers should have a multi-purpose facility that could be used year-round, not just during the January show. Such a structure would cost a lot more than the amount approved by the voters. To help defray the additional cost, the city agreed to chip in another $510,000 worth of engineering and labor. Even so, $700,000 more would be needed. No bonds would be issued, Mayor Newton said, unless livestock interests raised it.
A committee of National Western leaders, show exhibitors, meat packers and Union Stock Yards officials was formed to raise $750,000. A city drive would raise $500,000, primarily from business contributors, Stock Show exhibitors would be responsible for $150,000 and the Stock Yards group would raise $100,000. The railroads, which had long given discounts to exhibitors shipping livestock to the show, joined in as well. The Colorado & Southern Railroad donated the land on which the Coliseum would sit while the Union Pacific Railroad gave land for a vast parking lot. This was to be a truly cooperative venture among the many interests who valued the Stock Show.
Ground was broken in September of 1949 while fund raising was still underway. The project was massive for the times. The Coliseum would encompass almost three acres centered on a 30,000 square-foot arena surrounded by seating for up to 11,000 spectators. The arched roof required 5,400 tons of concrete and the plywood for the forms would have built a small town. With construction delays, it wasn’t until 1951 that the structure was completed and the city quickly put it to use for ice skating shows and sports events. In a final political twist, the city council named it the Denver Coliseum. Stock Show folks had hoped for a moniker incorporating “National Western” or “Stock Show.”
The National Western threw a real bash for its own opening night in the new facility on January 10, 1952. Two huge floral horseshoes, one made of 1,000 Hawaiian orchids and another made with 7,000 Colorado carnations, greeted arriving guests. Four brass bands enlivened the festivities, dignitaries entered in horse-drawn surreys and pop music groups and TV and movie personalities performed. Following a dedication address by Mayor Newton, “Denver’s Salute to the Soil” got underway. Organist Edna Hynes played her original composition of that name during a 14-float parade. The livestock float highlighted Angus, Hereford and Shorthorn cattle, while hogs, sheep and wool were represented by others. Sugar beets, broom corn, peaches, flowers, pure seed and potatoes were the themes of six more floats, and there were others on forest and timber products and marketing and gardening. FFA and 4-H kids and the Colorado A & M College were represented. Palominos, Arabians and Quarter Horses paraded and the Shrine Palomino Patrol put on a riding exhibition. The Coliseum provided a real boost to the National Western. Now 50,000 more people could be accommodated during the 17 ticketed performances. Income from ticket sales shot up 61percent during the 1952 show. With completion the next year of a large barn for rodeo stock and show horses west of the Coliseum, 500 more stalls were available. Half again as many breeding cattle, sheep and hogs as before could be accommodated during the show. Vendors of consumer and farm and ranch products filled booths along the promenade surrounding the arena, swelling the number of commercial exhibitors’ booths to 112 and adding more income.
Taxpayer contributions to the Coliseum marked an important passage for the National Western. After decades of financial support, Denver dropped its annual appropriation in 1953 and was followed soon after by downtown businesses. A year later Colorado also eliminated its annual contribution. The show was on its own as it approached its 50th birthday, but with the Depression and World War II behind it and the spanking new Coliseum open, it was better prepared than ever before to meet the challenges that lay ahead.
Read about our third quarter-century.
Download The Second 25 Years at the National Western: 1931–1955