The Third 25 Years: 1956–1980
EDITORS NOTE: This is the third 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
Lots of folks have a special childhood memory from the National Western. For Renee Elkins it’s a bunny in a shoebox. “I was 12 years old and had gone down to the National Western with my grandfather,” she says, her eyes lighting up as she remembers. “We visited all the animal exhibits including the rabbits. I bought one and the person gave me a shoe box and we poked holes in it and I carried the little baby bunny rabbit home on the city bus.” It was the start of a four-year rabbit raising venture and a life long affection for the Stock Show.
Renee, whose business these days includes running horse shows at the National Western, isn’t alone in her fondness for the show. Recalling Denver’s reaction to the January extravaganza in the 1950s, Sandy Dennehey, a longtime horse exhibitor here, says, “The city sort of turned itself over to the Stock Show. Everybody talked about it at school; everybody wore western clothes for a week. It was just really a big deal.” 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.”
One way the city gussied up was by keeping the Christmas lights burning at Civic Center, a tradition begun in 1945 that continues today. The Denver Chamber of Commerce ran special Stock Show trains from Colorado from his family ranch in Springs and Cheyenne and businesses welcomed out-of-town guests with special sales. According to a fanciful news report of the era, local eateries welcomed stockmen by putting more hat racks in the lobby, more shot glasses on the bar and more ketchup on the tables. Chefs cut down on the salads and whomped up more French fries. It was said that the highbooted guests didn’t care about price, they wanted their meat in chunks right off the critter and served thick and rare. For the Stockmen’s Ball, Denverites donned their fanciest western get-ups to mingle with their rural cousins. Inaugurated in 1957 with Montie Montana and Rex Allen entertaining, the ball was a highlight of Stock Show season for 15 years.
Ridin’ the Rails
Sitting on a bale of straw in a stockyards pen and soaking up the brilliant January sun, they smile when they recall riding the rails with their cattle in days gone by. Kenneth Eppers, who began traveling with the Northern Pump Company’s show string in the late 1950s, recalls, “We would load on Saturday noon and the railroad would switch us around until sometime during Saturday night. We were always in the Denver stockyards ready to unload on Monday morning.” Stanley Stout, a top auctioneer at the National Western these days, had a two-day trip from Brookville, Kansas, with C-K Ranch bulls.
Another C-K hand, Rex Seibert, explains the particulars of traveling with livestock. “We always tied the cattle to the right-hand side of the boxcar. That way we could keep the left-hand doors wide open [to keep the cattle from getting too hot]. We just put some boards across there in case the cattle got loose. They couldn’t get out and we couldn’t fall out. We fed in the boxcar, we carried most all of our own grain and some hay.”
An elevated wooden deck at the front of the car provided living quarters for the crews. Stout and his companions, who traveled an extended show circuit, “had an old time icebox that you’d put a chunk of ice in and it would be good for two or three days until we needed another chunk. We even had a gas generator and an electric skillet. We were kind of the envy of the guys on the railroad,” he says with a smile. Seibert’s crew used a car battery to power lights during the long evenings. “We also had our water barrel up there with a faucet so we could water the cattle. We always
carried our own sleeping bag and that’s where we slept. You know, you’d be surprised, you’d ride on them rails and bouncing and everything, it just put you to sleep.”
“Most of the time it was very, very cold going across Iowa and Kansas,” remembers Eppers. Merle Mills, recalls, “Oh, it was just cold in there. You could ride in the caboose, but in a lot of cases it was colder there than it was in the car with the heat of the animals.” Gene Wiese, who railroaded bulls to Denver from his family ranch in Manning, Iowa, recounts the time his crew got caught in a snowstorm in McCook, Nebraska. “It held the train up for a day and that was a cold ride. My brother and I learned an awful lot on that trip. Thanks to a few other people who were
freighting out by rail we were able to get some warm coffee and into a warm place once in a while.” Stanley Stout’s crew brought “plenty of blankets, a very, very heavy coat and a lot of longhandles.”
Some fortified themselves in other ways. “We always brought a half-gallon of wine ‘cause water could freeze if you got in one of them storms,”
says Seibert. “You didn’t want to be without something to drink.” Arrival in the yards was exciting. Rex laughs and tells of a friend whooping it up. “He was up in the engine with the engineer, driving that thing and pulling levers and making it whistle and really making our arrival noticeable.” Outfits that sold all their cattle at the Stock Show could “ride the cushions” going home. Paul Peterson of La Jara, Colorado, recalls
his first caboose ride. “I was just a little boy and it was all night. Oh, I was tired! Those old guys smoking cigars and drinking a little and it was all the old ranchers from down there [at the Stock Show].”
In spite of the rigors, Gene Wiese says, “it was still a lot of fun and I’ve loved the railroads ever since.” Stout sums it up for many of those young men when he says, “These guys on the roads today never got to do that and I’m very fortunate that I did. It was a free spirit way to travel.”
Busy Times in the Yards
About the first thing long time exhibitors will tell you is how big and busy the stockyards were half a century ago. “These yards were really loaded,” recalls Paul Peterson, who’s been coming to the Stock Show since he was a boy of 10. Perry Blach, another veteran, says “When I started bringing bulls to Denver in 1952 there would be from 2,500 to 3,000 head come in for private treaty sales.”
Denver was “the place to be,” for the Wiese family, who have been selling at the Stock Show for 55 years. “This is where business took place and that was the purpose of coming– to conduct business.” Gene calculates his family has sold over a million dollars’ worth of cattle, semen and embryos here. Three generations of Mark Mills’ St. Francis, Kansas, family have sold Hereford bulls at the show. “We’ve missed only two years since 1920, and since 1930 we haven’t missed a year.” he says proudly. “Nobody down here can touch that.” They brought big strings, with a single-year high of 98. Ranch records show they sold over 1,700 bulls at the Stock Show between 1942 and 1983 alone.
Some outfits loom large in stockyards lore. The ones to beat in those days in the carlot [judging] was the Wyoming Hereford Ranch out of Cheyenne,” says Rex Seibert. “For five or six years they had grand champion loads.” Rex worked for the C-K Ranch of Brookfield, Kansas, another legendary competitor.
Then there was John B. Holly’s Northern Pump Company. Holly got his start making bombs and bullets for the Navy in World War II, but it was stumpy cattle that got him into the Hereford business. In the 1940s and ‘50s the goal was to produce animals with short legs so less growth was wasted on unmarketable body parts. Holly was appalled by the occasional dwarfism that resulted. Kenneth Eppers, who showed bulls for Holly at the National Western for 20 years, explains: “He bought some heifers and took them to a little bitty farm he had next to the ordnance plant in Minneapolis and got several dwarf calves. He decided that he was going devote his money and lifetime to ridding Hereford cattle of dwarfs.” Holly bought a larger spread in Illinois and it was soon clear that Northern Pump meant business. Their first two carloads of yearling bulls came to Denver in 1957 and one placed seventh among 62 carloads. Northern Pump showed until 1977, winning two carload grand champions, one of which was the first from east of the Mississippi, and many other honors as well. “The National Western was our basic,” says Eppers. “That was the only place that we showed carloads.”
Bull buyers at the National Western ran the gamut from modest, family-owned ranches to gigantic corporate operations. “In those days the ranchers would come in with their calves or yearlings for the market and after they got their money they’d come down and buy their bulls to take back home,” explains Seibert. At the other end of the spectrum were the heavyweights. “The yards were where you’d see the big ranchers from Texas, Colorado and New Mexico,” says Stanley Stout. In yards lore, a gentleman from the Lone Star State towers over all other buyers.
The Man From Texas
E. Paul Waggoner was the most influential bull buyer in the 1950s and ‘60s. When he came to Denver his entourage occupied an entire floor at the Brown Palace. “He was very much a character,” recalls Eppers. Roger Tuell, longtime exhibitor and chairman of the Fed Beef Contest, agrees. “He was a classy dresser. He wore a scarf with a diamond stickpin right in the middle of it. Silver hair.” Another bull man smiles, “I wouldn’t say he dressed clear out of this world, but he didn’t wear bib overalls, put it that way.”
The Waggoner Ranch in Texas was the nation’s biggest spread under one fence and when the larger-than-life Waggoner arrived, it sent a wave of excitement through the yards. The National Western was the only show where he bought bulls and at $1,000 each, he typically took home 100. He set the market and it was everybody’s dream to sell to E. Paul Waggoner. He arrived in Denver early, toured the pens and bought all his bulls the day before the show opened. According to Tuell, “His son-in-law John Biggs looked after him, and them two, whatever they wanted, you did, ‘cause you wanted to sell. We’d sell 30, 40, 50 bulls in one whack and everybody wanted to get Mr. Biggs and ol’ Paul Waggoner into their pen.”
“He wanted to be the first in the pen,” says Perry Blach of Yuma, who often sold to Waggoner. “If you’d sold one bull out of the batch, he wouldn’t even look at the rest.” Consequently, most outfits wouldn’t sell anything until Waggoner had been through; a lesson Merle Mills learned the hard way. “One time he came down and he made us an offer for a dozen or something like that and we didn’t think it was quite what we wanted, so he left and in the meantime we sold 10 or 12 out of what he was looking at. He came back about an hour later and says, ‘Well, I guess I’ll just take them.’ When we told him we’d already sold those he was angry and he wouldn’t buy nothing then. The next year he forgot about it,” says Mills, who sold bulls to Waggoner for years and speaks well of him.
Former Waggoner Ranch manager
G.L. Proctor of Vernon, Texas, says, “He didn’t just buy from one feller. He’d kind of split it up and get different breeding in his bulls. We got our pick of whatever we wanted. He always wanted to be first at anything he done, but he was a pretty nice old feller.” Proctor adds, “The old man that run the ranch ahead of me, Tony Hazlewood, was quite an old cow man and he knew his cattle pretty good. So he would go with Mr. Waggoner before me so he had pretty good trainin’.”
Kenneth Eppers recalls, “He had four or five commission men that went with him and they would recommend what bulls for him to look at and they’d drive them out in the aisle and he’d take a quick look and just say ‘yes’ or ‘no.’ Make an offer and that was it. It was no big dickering deal with him. He knew what he wanted and what he was going to pay.” Tuell adds, “If you could get E. Paul in to look at your bulls, you never wanted to tell him what you wanted for them or anything. You didn’t want to ask him any questions– just open up and run them out and let him look at them. You didn’t try to convince him. Nope. If anything I believe it would probably tick him off a little if you tried to persuade him on things.”
One day in the early 1960s Waggoner came into Perry Blach’s enclosure after a visit to the C-K Ranch pens and sat down on a bale of straw. “He sat there just stewin,’” recalls Blach. The C-K, another of his regular suppliers, had raised their prices. With the miffed Texan fuming, Blach gently suggested, “’I’ve got 52 bulls here and there’s not a bad bull among ‘em. He wanted to see ‘em out in the alley,” says Perry, whose heart must have skipped a beat along about then. Blach had a couple of herd prospects he hadn’t intended to sell but Waggoner wanted one in order to clinch the deal. “Of course, he picked the best one,” chuckles Blach. Waggoner bought 51 bulls. “As far as I know, I still hold the record for selling the most bulls to one buyer at the National Western,” says Blach. An era ended when Waggoner departed Denver’s yards for the last time in 1965.
Arm Twisters and Hay Shakers
In the 1950s and early ‘60s, the yards show had to be squeezed into the Denver Livestock Market’s already-bustling operation, which stayed in full swing until just two days before the show opened. Then, pens were emptied and cleaned and aisles were washed down. By Thursday, show cattle, which had been temporarily stalled in outlying pens, were brought up to display enclosures nearer the Livestock Exchange Building.
Buyers were so eager for a look at the year’s offerings that many showed up on Wednesday or Thursday. The yearling bull show on Saturday opened the Stock Show. “That was the main event in those years,” says Kenneth Eppers. “That carload Hereford bull show was just where everybody went. Then on Sunday, the calves and the champion bulls were shown.”
Another highlight came about half way through the show’s nine-day run when ranchers brought in their steer and heifer calves for the commercial cattle show and sale. Feedlots bought the larger ones, about half the total, while the lighter animals went to outfits that took them home to grass pastures for more growth. The carload feeder calf sale was known as the Bellringer for the practice of ringing a bell when the auctioneer brought the hammer down. Lee Sheard, who was a livestock agent for the half-dozen railroads shipping from Denver, remembers an especially big one. “Forty double-deck carloads of feeder cattle, 90 head to a car, went out of here in one night after a Bellringer,” he recalls.
Most bulls changed hands in private arrangements between seller and buyer after some gentlemanly negotiation. Francis Rogers, who along with his wife Mary has been selling Angus bulls at the show for over half a century, says, “You just try your best to be a salesman and brag up everything you’ve got and hope you can make a sale. But,” he adds with a wry smile, “you don’t get ‘em down and ‘rassle ‘em.” Merle Mills describes the haggling this way: “You’d say what you wanted, and they’d say, ‘Well, I just can’t do that,’ and next they’d say, ‘Well, maybe if I buy another 10 head what would you do?’ or they’d say ‘I have a neighbor that’s going to be in here in a day or two and I want him to look at these, too.’ Then the two of them would get together and try to buy 20 or 30 from you. You pay attention pretty quick, because there’s a lot of difference in selling 10 and selling 30.”
The hectic pace sometimes led to embarrassing goofs. “The worst thing I ever did,” Francis Rogers admits with a sheepish smile, “was one time a buyer came in and I sold him three or four bulls and I didn’t write it down. I thought I could remember.” Another rancher came along and Rogers sold him one of those same bulls. To patch things up with the first fellow, Rogers says, “I gave him another bull and he’s been buying from me ever since.”
Most of the larger outfits had herdsmen to care for their show string. They called themselves hay shakers, turd pitchers and brush hands, but herdsmen were crucial. They rode the rails with their cattle and lived with them at the show, putting in days that began well before sunup and sometimes ended in the wee hours of morning.
Early mornings, before the yards got busy, saw a parade of bulls driven up and down the long alleys for exercise. The animals constantly needed fresh water and feed and the pens had to be bedded with straw and kept clean. Not many outfits did much grooming in those days, but for those that did there was extra work. “It didn’t make any difference how cold it was, you still had to wash the bulls and get them cleaned up,” says Rex Seibert. Cattle from the Western Slope arrived with soot on their backs from the ride through the Moffat Tunnel and needed a wash job. The days were full and evening brought another round of chores: feed and fresh water, a final cleaning of display pens after the animals had been led to nighttime tie outs.
When the herdsmen could finally kick up their heels a bit, the Exchange Bar in the Livestock Exchange Building was a popular spot. A place for a hot cup of coffee and a warm-up during the day, it got livelier when darkness fell. Frank Padilla, a livestock judge at the National Western now, started out showing carloads of Hereford bulls here in 1972 and recalls a special customer in the bar. “There was a group talking and pretty soon this fella’ from Nebraska disappears and next thing you know he’s got a Hereford bull coming up the stairs. He brings the bull in, everybody tries to buy the bull a drink and we kind of hooted and hollered for a little bit and then he leaves with the bull.”
Sleeping arrangements were often a bit casual. “We had our bedroll and we slept in the pens,” recalls Stanley Stout. “After you tied your cattle out at night, you’d redo their stall and bed down yourself right there in the straw.” Others found lodging on the Hill. “We slept in the barn where the show animals were tied,” recalls Kenneth Eppers. “It wasn’t so cold.” The show barns on the Hill were gathering places at all hours, he says. “In those days, it seemed like you could go through those barns until ten o’clock at night and sit down and talk to cattle breeders and people that worked with cattle. Everybody just spent their time there. You sat in the barns and that’s all you talked about, fitting cattle and the cattle business.”
Although frigid Stock Show weather is more myth than reality, the wintry clime sometimes made for tough sledding. “I can remember one year out here, the warmest it got in the daytime was 10 below zero,” says Rex Seibert. Bob Milligan may be recalling that same year when he says, “I sold to Waggoners one year and it was 10 below zero. They took those bulls out of the pen and put them through the dipping vat ‘cause all the bulls going to Texas had to be dipped. I saw them coming down the alley, ice hanging off of them and one bull had broke a horn off. You wouldn’t even recognize them.”
Until 1967, sales and judging were conducted in the long alley running the length of the yards. “We saw bull sales out there and it would be snowing so hard you couldn’t see from one end of the yards to the other,” recalls Milligan. Stanley Stout remembers cattle shows in the yards when “they paraded them down before the judges with snow on their backs and on the fur coats of the ladies that owned them.” Cattle sales finally came indoors when the Livestock Center, with its 500-seat auction arena, opened for the 1967 show.
In the 1960s the livestock industry was undergoing a drastic transformation that brought changes to the Stock Show. Denver’s packinghouses moved away and business in the once-bustling yards slowed. Commission firms and the venerable Denver Union Stockyards Company went bust. The historic pens fell silent for good in 1978. Without facilities to handle the cattle carload show the National Western would be “just another stock show,” so the association started buying the vacated yards. It began in 1969 with a three-acre purchase on the Hill and within a decade the National Western owned much of the former livestock market. In the mid-’70s the old yards got a $100,000 facelift that included 1,750 gallons of red, white and blue paint. Packing House Road became National Western Drive.
Affairs in the stockyards continue to be a big part of the Stock Show and each January they once again fill with cattle. The buzz of activity offers visitors a window on a historic era and rekindles memories for folks who knew the yards in their prime.
The Continentals Arrive
Nearly half the cattle shown when the National Western celebrated its Golden Anniversary in 1956 were Herefords and the breed enjoyed a big lead over Angus and Shorthorns in Stock Show championships. Angus accounted for nearly four of ten cattle exhibited and Shorthorns were a distant third. Had those plump Herefords, Angus and Shorthorns peered a few years into the future, they might have snorted in alarm. By 1981, cattle exhibitors would increase five-fold and they would be showing a dozen breeds. (Nineteen breeds are appearing at the National Western this year.) The change brought a new look to the cattle show and, through crossbreeding, new vigor to the livestock industry.
The Big Three moved over in 1966 to make room for the first of the Continental breeds, so called because they hail from places like France, Austria, Switzerland and Italy. Charolais, a cream-colored French breed, was the first newcomer, joined the next year by Santa Gertrudis. According to then-General Manager Willard Simms, by the early 1970s new breed organizations “were pounding on our doors for a place to exhibit ... and above all to sell.” Between 1970 and 1981, Galloway, Gelbveih, Limousin, Simmental, South Devon, Pinzgauer, Polled Hereford and Red Angus also joined the ranks.
Crossbred cattle were so rare in the 1950s that when one turned up at the National Western, show organizers were stumped. Roger Tuell, who showed his first steers here in 1952 and later ramrodded the Stock Show’s Fed Beef Contest, recalls a crossbred his brother brought to the show. “He was a blue roan. He wasn’t an Angus and he wasn’t a Shorthorn and they didn’t know what the devil to do with him,” chuckles Tuell. In the 1970s, crossbreeding with Continentals revolutionized the industry. Dan Green, publisher of the Record Stockman, explains: “When you cross two breeds you get what’s called heterosis. You get the energy from both animals that results in one that grows better than either breed would have individually.”
The average consumer probably doesn’t know a Pinzgauer from a Polled Hereford, but folks with a taste for beef benefited when cattlemen began crossing Continentals with Herefords, Angus and Shorthorns. “The Continental breeds are much bigger, framier cattle,” says Green. “Herefords and Angus are not as big but they make much juicier, more tender meat.” The genetic mixing resulted in a bigger carcass with better meat. “To get the maximum heterosis in a cross,” Green adds, “you need two purebred animals. That’s why there’s Angus breeders who still breed 100% Angus and there’s Limousin breeders that breed 100% Limousin.”
In 1964 the National Western launched its Fed Beef Contest to emphasize better beef. Exhibitors enter pens of six animals that are evaluated before and after slaughter. “They count the best five carcasses and they’ve got to be uniform,” explains Roger Tuell, chairman of the contest. “They are USDA quality graded, yield graded and then a panel of three judges places them. We’re food producers and this is the end product.” The cow-calf man finds out how his cattle stack up against other ranchers while feeders assess their performance at finishing cattle for the consumer.
The National Western puts up $10,000 in prize money and entry fees sweeten the pot even more. “It’s a fierce competition,” says Tuell. “There is probably more prize money in the Fed Beef Contest than any other contest, so it’s worth going after. They’ve got a trophy that I think weighs at least 200 pounds. It takes a dolly to move it!”
The introduction of new breeds and fierce competition also produced one of the Stock Show’s less glorious moments.
Bum Steer or Real Champ?
One evening during the 1972 Stock Show, Jack Orr was finishing up chores down in the yards when his son and a friend came rushing into the pen. “Jeep’s up there on the Hill!” they blurted breathlessly. The steer with the funny nickname had started life on the Skylark Ranch at Kremmling, Colorado, where one of the boys had prepared him for a show and sale in Kansas. He had been a creamy white Charolais back then, but now he was jet black and entered as an Angus in the Junior Show. So began a melodrama that still evokes smirks and discomfort. “No story created more publicity in National Western history,” wrote former General Manager Willard Simms, but it’s a story the Stock Show would sooner forget.
“They took me up there and except for being black, it sure as heck looked like Jeep,” Orr recalls. If it was Jeep, this was a bombshell. Only steers sired by an Angus bull were eligible to enter the Angus division and Jeep, if that’s who he was, had a Charolais poppa and momma. A dye job could be the only explanation for his present hue. Soon, the barn talk was all about the steer and a protest challenging his right to compete was filed with Stock Show brass. When the owner tendered documents showing an Angus sire, the steer was allowed to stay in the competition. He conceded to using black dye to touch up a few light spots but this was a common practice and not against the rules.
John Grisham might have scripted what happened next. The Angus judge, unaware of the hubbub behind the scenes, picked the animal over 86 other entries as the division champion. Two days later, a second judge chose him over Hereford and Shorthorn winners to become the Junior Show’s grand champion steer, one of the highest honors at the Stock Show. “He was a good animal, no doubt about it,” says Orr. The award put the critter in the headlines and when McDonald’s laid down a record $14,250 at the Junior Livestock Auction and dubbed him “Big Mac,” he was a celebrity.
Ordinarily, their appearance at the auction is the last curtain call for Junior Show champions, but Big Mac got a reprieve. Documents had turned up purporting to prove his Charolais ancestry and he was sequestered before he could be slaughtered. Blood samples were drawn to probe his links to the claimed Charolais and Angus sires. Branding irons from the Skylark Ranch were brought in. A vet had a gander up the champion’s nostrils for signs that pink membranes had been dyed black. “As far up as we could see, he was black,” the vet said. Investigators flew to Kansas to interview the owners and 4-H officials. A brand inspector clipped hair and photographed brands from other Skylark cattle to compare with the marks on Big Mac.
Separate labs turned up nary a trace of Angus blood in Big Mac’s veins. He was, they said, descended from a proud Charolais lineage. The brand inspector concluded “beyond a doubt” that Skylark irons had branded him. The owner’s account of the animal’s provenance began to unravel and the steer started showing white around his eyes as the hair grew out. The vet peered up his nostrils again, stood back with a surprised look and proclaimed, “He’s just as pink as he can be.”
Then the lid blew off the unfolding drama. “It hit page one of the Post noon edition,” Simms would later write, “and then about every newspaper, TV and radio station in the country, and the AP and UPI wire services.” To the accompaniment of media guffaws, Simms called in Big Mac’s ribbons and awarded them to the reserve grand champion. McDonald’s asked for a refund.
Months passed and the storm subsided while Big Mac grew out a creamy white coat in pens of the Colorado Brand Board, which held him as an unclaimed stray. He had contentedly munched his way through 600 pounds of hay and 300 pounds of cracked corn by August when Iowa newspaperman Eddie Collins bought him at auction– but not to turn him into patties. “Practically everybody in the United States and a lot of Europe had heard about Big Mac,” laughs Jack Orr. That fall he checked into Washington, D.C.’s, Mayflower Hotel to help stockmen dramatize low cattle prices. In a Cadillac and horse trailer Collins and Big Mac toured the country, appearing at fairs and 4-H clubs to illustrate what happens when competition goes too far. The storied steer, a champion at heart, lived to a ripe old age and might have said that things turned out just fine.
Youngsters in the Big Time
With chortles all around, the 1973 Junior Show’s grand champion steer was nicknamed Honest Mac. And though the National Western was still smarting, the embarrassing fraud brought some needed reforms. First, the Junior Show, which had lagged in adding new breeds, opened up to the increasingly popular Charolais and added a class for “Other Breeds and Crosses.” Now any steer sired by a registered bull could be an Honest Mac. Steps were also taken to thwart so-called “steer jockeys,” exhibitors who would bend or break rules in pursuit of the big money paid for top animals at the Junior Auction. Jack Orr, a key figure in exposing Big Mac and later a Chairman of the Junior Show, says, “We simply tried to make rule changes to where it’s a good, honest show and the kids are really deserving and you’re teaching honesty, respect and responsibility.”
There were other changes in the Junior Show as well. Beginning in 1974, girls could share in the bruises and excitement of scrambling after a calf in the popular Catch-A-Calf contest. Kids lucky enough to collar one of the frisky rodeo calves exchange it for a prospect feeder calf and spend months halter breaking, grooming and fattening it. They return at the next Stock Show to be judged on the animal’s weight gain and improvement and on their own record keeping and monthly letters to the sponsor who provided the calf.
The Junior Show also grew tremendously. In 1956, youngsters showed 628 lambs, calves, and hogs. By 1981, cattle entries were up 64 percent and both steers and heifers were being shown in seven cattle breeds plus an “other breeds and crosses” category. In small livestock there was an even bigger boom. Barrows totaled 655 in six breed and crossbred classes in 1981, while 486 lambs competed in seven categories.
If their animals’ names are any indication, the kids had a lot of fun in 1956. Among the lambs were Ike, Spike and Mike, Huey, Dewey and Louie and Donald Duck. Hogs seemed to inspire less imagination, with the most popular name being simply “Entry.” Among Hereford steers there were several Reds and a trio of Pee Wees, as well as Mickey, Pluto, Stinky, Smarty Pants, and Sir Loin– this last perhaps belonging to a youngster with an eye on the bottom line. Predictably, Blackie was the favorite Angus moniker, but there were also two Snowballs, showing the kids’ ironic sense humor. Snap didn’t make it to the show but Crackle and Pop were there.
The names may have been whimsical, but showing at the National Western was serious business. Morgan County Commissioner Mark Arndt, who brags that he’s never missed a Stock Show in his life, says, “A lot of us grew up with our Stock Show experience. I showed a pig in 1977 when I was just 16. Four of us kids went and I was the oldest, the one in charge. We stayed in a hotel and we were on our own. It was quite an experience to take that responsibility.” The National Western was also a lot more competitive than county fairs. “We were in the big time. You had better know what you were doing.” Show pressures didn’t keep them from a bit of youthful experimentation, he admits. “They used to sell these cigars around the Coliseum that were probably two inches in diameter and a foot long and all of us had to try one. Boy, they would sure make you sick,” he says with a laugh. These days Mark brings 4-H kids to the show and says, “It makes responsible young adults out of them.”
“We don’t eat tofu, of course.”
The first thing you notice is their forearms. Popeye had forearms like that. Broad shouldered and muscular, they’re loosening up with 360-degree neck rolls and bending double at the waist to place their flat palms on the floor. These guys are stout as oaks and limber as willows. They’re wearing tee shirts, suspenders, well-worn britches and hand-made sheepskin slippers. The buzzer sounds and the Stock Show’s International Professional Sheep Shearing Contest is underway.
Each man pulls a squirming lamb from the small pen beside the shearers’ platform, turns it expertly onto its backside, cradles its head between his thighs and goes to work. The wooly critter goes limp and tolerates its haircut with hardly a wiggle. With razor-sharp shears whirring, both barber and customer are at risk if this turns into a wrestling match. They start with a deft pass down the belly from chin to groin, then trim out the legs. Each successive stroke lays back more of the pelt. It’s as if the lamb is being peeled. Near the finish the lambs are reclining on thick cushions of their own wool. A little cleanup around the ears and in less time than it takes to boil a three-minute egg the job’s done. Released, the sheep scrambles to its feet and scampers off the platform, leaving behind an intact pelt that’s gathered and judged. The shearer grabs another critter and starts again. Before he’s done, five pink lambs will be jostling in the exhaust pen along with shorn companions from other shearers.
Sam Haslem is a big guy with a ready smile and an encyclopedic memory. He loves to talk about the Sheep Shearing Contest, an event he helped start at the National Western. After stints helping with the Seed, Wool and Junior Livestock Shows he was tabbed in 1968 to start the shearing contest. “Down in the stockyards at that time in the sheep market was a wild Irishman by the name of Mike Hayes,” Haslem recalls with a broad grin. “Mike was an institution here in the Denver market when it was probably the biggest sheep market in the United States. He said, ‘Hey, I want to help on this thing,’ and he bought a whole bunch of real nice Columbia replacement ewe lambs. They were beauties. Mike wanted them to look good for the first shearing contest so he hired my oldest son, Richard, to shear the faces and across the back ends. We were all a bunch of greenhorns but it went extremely well. We had young contestants from here in the Rocky Mountain Region and they were awfully good sheep to shear– turned out just real good looking animals.”
With help from the Sunbeam Corporation, maker of shearing equipment, and the Indiana State Fair, which hosted the International Professional Sheep Shearing Contest, the junior event was so successful that a senior division was soon added. In 1976 the Stock Show lured the international event away from Indiana and it’s been held in Denver every January since.
Shearing is a contest of speed but there’s more to it than the stopwatch. Penalties are added for cuts in the pelt and or nicks on the sheep. “If it’s got a bunch of nicks on it, you’re not going to win,” says Haslem. “We had one shearer from the Pacific Northwest. He was rated extremely high there. A big guy and he was fast, there was no getting around it, but he was a bit rough and there was enough nicks on his sheep that it was pink in lots of places. Of course, with the lanolin in the wool that would heal up right away, but, needless to say, he never came back.”
Haslem remembers special events down through the years. There were Otis Sneethen, the poet-shearer, and Gandy Hidalgo who offered a prayer before each competition. “He’d pray for the sheep, he’d pray that the judges would be fair and honest, he’d pray that the contestants would be good sports and that the contest would go well and the best person would win,” recalls Haslem. He smiles remembering the time they entered shearers in the rodeo. “One year we tried a showmanship gimmick. We had a generator on a trailer and we went all the way around the rodeo arena in the Coliseum while the four top shearers had to shear one sheep. A lot of that crowd had never seen a sheep shorn before in their lives.”
A rodeo of another sort occurred the time some lambs bolted into the middle of a Hereford judging in the Stadium Arena. “They were a bit nervous ‘cause they were freshly shorn and somehow they knocked the gate down and here we had this whole bunch of lambs all of a sudden out underneath these Hereford cattle. We had quite a free-for-all getting those lambs corralled ‘cause they were wild. They weren’t 4-H lambs, they were range lambs and they’d just lost about four or five pounds of wool and they could really move. The cattle were tied to the fence and the lambs were running up and down and underneath them and those cattle were jumping as high as they could on the end of the their lead straps. We had irritated Hereford breeders saying four-letter words about our sheep.”
The highlight of each year’s event is the shearers’ feast. “It’s always an excellent banquet, good food and, of course, we don’t eat tofu,” Haslem chuckles. “It’s good legs of lamb and you have a chance to visit with the judges and enjoy a little fellowship.” The International Sheep Shearing contest has drawn big crowds from 1968 to the present day, and it’s in good company with other crowd pleasers.
“Greased Grasshoppers” and Versatile Purebreds
With the Stock Show Band belting out tunes, stock contractor Verne Elliott’s gnarly critters kicking up their heels and daring rodeo clowns dancing before snorting bulls, the Coliseum rocked for each rodeo. Three hundred cowboys competed in the Golden Anniversary performances and by 1981 over 900 cowboys and cowgirls were annually making the trip to the January show to compete for a quarter-million dollars in prize money.
Bronc riding champion Casey Tibbs, a top cowboy and rodeo’s most eligible bachelor in 1956 wrote Denver Post columns detailing behind-the-chutes action. In one article, he described how he felt before getting on a really rank nag. “It’s a funny kind of feeling. No matter where you are or what you’re doing, everything seems kind of quiet and nothing seems important but that horse. You make the ride in your mind a hundred times, getting him out of the chute, getting him ridden, letting him have more rein if he needs it without losing it all.” Writing about War Paint, a top bucker at the 1958 rodeo, he said, “I’ll have to admit that sometimes I go a little weak before I get on a rough one like this pinto. He’s well rested and grained up snuffy as a prize fighter at his peak. The pinto comes out like a greased grasshopper and if you get with him for a good ride, it’s the greatest feeling in the world.”
Rodeo clowns in outrageous get-ups performed sometimes-politically-incorrect comic routines to the delight of Denver audiences. In 1956, Wilbur Plaugher poked fun at the city’s proposed leash law. When he ceremoniously placed a tiny Chihuahua in the arena, announcer Cy Taillon reminded the clown of the ordinance. Plaugher stomped purposefully off, returned with a heavy bronc rider’s rope, hooked up his pet and led him away to a chorus of cheers from the crowd.
Behind the comedy it’s always been serious business for the clowns who can make the difference between a cowboy finishing in the money and going home empty-handed. Jim Shoulders, rodeo super-star who made his reputation on the hurricane decks of bareback broncs and bucking bulls in the late 1950s, says, “If they get in front of him or turn him back, that can help you a lot.” One of Jim’s favorites was George Mills. From the 1950s through the ‘70s bullfighter Wilbur Plaugher and barrel man Jimmy Schumacher teamed up to help Brahma riders get their money’s worth and save the necks of those who got more than they bargained for. Famed African-American rodeo clown Leon Coffee delighted Stock Show audiences in the 1970s.
A good rodeo announcer, with a western drawl broad as a Brahma’s shoulders and a voice that rumbles like gravel in a gold pan, can add a lot to any performance, and the National Western has always attracted top microphone men. The tradition began with Abe Lefton at the Stock Show’s first rodeo in 1931. Perhaps the greatest of all was Cy Taillon who called arena play-by-play from 1946 to 1978.
The Westernaires, a mainstay in the arena today, first appeared at the National Western in 1956. The equestrian group was formed in 1949 by Elmer Wyland to provide training and equine recreation for youngsters aged nine to 18. Even kids who didn’t own a horse could join the riding program designed to teach character, discipline and physical and mental stamina. The group has brought thousands of kids into the Coliseum over the decades and no rodeo at the Stock Show is complete without the Westernaires blazing around the arena in colorful drills that demand split-second timing and no small amount of courage.
Rodeo and horse show events were blended and that posed interesting challenges for horse show exhibitors. Jumping, the horse show high point, and bull riding, rodeo’s big crowd-pleaser, were placed at the end of each performance. “The bulls were all in the chutes and the horses go in the arena and these bulls are banging around and the horses were not fond of that,” says Sandy Dennehey. “They ended up putting us after the bulls and that was better. We didn’t get the crowd that we got when we came before, but we had a little better behavior out of the horses.”
In addition to hunters and jumpers, Palominos, Quarter Horses, Arabians, Appaloosas and Paints enlivened the National Western’s horse shows. Beginning in the 1940s, trends in the horse world were reflected at those events. It began with breed registries for Palominos and Quarter Horses but soon spread to other breeds. “As these registries and associations got going the horse shows started growing,” says Randy Witte, publisher of Western Horseman Magazine. “It just kept getting stronger and stronger as the horse population increased. The horse shows were one outlet for people to do something with their horses.” Horse owners competed in halter classes to showcase the physical quality of their animals and performance classes to demonstrate their working abilities. In showmanship classes it was the human on the end of the halter rope who was scrutinized by picky judges. Many of the breed shows culminated with a lively auction where breeders and exhibitors paid top dollar for top equine prospects.
Back in 1938, Palominos held a breed show at the National Western and they continued until 1963 when they were dropped due to declining entry numbers. Parade classes, with their emphasis on physical beauty and fancy tack, were a highlight of Palomino shows. Arabians trace their ancestry to the deserts of North Africa and were shown in Denver from the mid-1940s until 1968. The Appaloosa Horse Club held its first show at the National Western in 1959. The dramatically spotted Appies, developed in the vast herds of the Nez Perce Indians, were so popular that they outnumbered Palominos and Arabians combined. The American Paint Horse Association held its Denver debut in 1967 and entries quadrupled by 1981. The Paints still put on a big show each January.
The American Quarter Horse Association began regular shows at Denver in 1944 and for sheer numbers no breed at the National Western can match them. Quarter Horse entries quadrupled between 1956 and 1981. Changes in the Quarter Horse reflect the importance of shows like those at the National Western. Renee and Dauane Elkins have seen an evolution during their 30 years as horse show managers. “They’ve gotten larger, taller, heavier and more defined,” Elkins says. “They aren’t as much of the short stocky quarter-mile runner that they were known for before. They’ve had to expand in their conformation to perform all the diverse things they do.”
Participants and spectators at today’s horse shows might be surprised at the differences of half a century ago. Recalling her first years at the National Western, Elkins says, “It was definitely a much looser environment for showing horses.” Sandy Dennehey, who has shown hunters and jumpers at the Stock Show since 1952, agrees. “I showed in the big jumper class. I can’t imagine a 12-yearold doing that today. We jumped however high our horses would jump. We’d have one horse and show him in every class– be a hunter one night and a jumper the next. You would no more do that today than fly to the moon.”
The National Western’s Events Center has made it a top horse venue in the country, but things were a bit rougher back in the 1950s when exhibitors stalled their horses in metal Quonsets and a two-story barn. Ken Ochs, whose family showed horses at the National Western until 1963, recalls the unique climate in the metal buildings. “I always stayed out of there because when it got cold the moisture would go up to the top and freeze and during the day time when the sun hit it, it would rain.” It sometimes got so cold in the unheated buildings that water buckets froze solid.
Although the Coliseum was a great place to compete, it had no staging paddock so exhibitors warmed up their mounts as best they could. “They let us go over that old bridge thing to the old arena if they weren’t showing cattle or something. You’d go over there, jump a few jumps and then come back across the ramp and wait outdoors. You combine that with the fact that you’re going from outdoors to in, light change and the whole thing. I think about it now and I don’t know why any of them did it.”
The Diamond Jubilee saw the return of the gentle giants to the National Western. Draft horses had been big at the show in its formative decades, but were dropped in the 1930s. By the 1970s, interest in the powerful equines was on the increase. According to Randy Witte, “People realized that those really are beautiful animals. They’re different than other horses and there’s just a fascination being around something that large and that gentle.” Whether it was purebred Percherons, Belgians or Clydesdales in dazzling harness pulling fancy rigs, or all-business grade horses dragging heavy sleds across the arena, the huge horses were a hit with Denver audiences. “It was great,” says Witte. “They would just pack that stadium. It was instantly popular.”
When the National Western marked its Diamond Jubilee in 1981, it had many reasons to celebrate. The show’s run had expanded from nine to 11 days and attendance and entries were climbing. The show featured 99 judged events for everything from rabbits to draft horses and 36 sales for cattle, horses, lambs and hogs. New cattle breeds were adding interest and the show in the yards remained strong in spite of industry changes. Young exhibitors were flocking to the Junior Show and the Fed Beef and Sheep Shearing Contests were going strong. The recently returned draft horses were clearly going to be a big favorite and the horse show and rodeo were still real crowd pleasers. Best of all, the show was still making special memories, whether it was a Hereford breeder selling a big batch of his best bulls to a top buyer, a family enjoying the action and antics of a Saturday rodeo or a proud 12-year-old cradling a bunny in a shoebox on the bus ride home.
Read about our fourth quarter-century.
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