The Running of the Steers

The Running of the Steers

Pamplona, Spain, is known for its annual encierro, or running of the bulls, as famously portrayed in Ernest Hemingway’s 1926 novel, The Sun Also Rises. This Tuesday Denver will be the site of a somewhat similar spectacle: 30 longhorn cattle—followed by 100 sheep, driven by trained stock dogs—will barrel through the downtown streets of the Mile High City. And that’s just a small part of the kickoff for the 100th anniversary celebration of Denver’s massive National Western Stock Show, which begins tonight.

The 16-day show is the world’s largest exhibition of seedstock, the elite cattle used for breeding. And in addition to hosting 20 different breeds of cattle in its sprawling stockyards, it is also home to the world’s second-largest horse show—as well as a showcase for sheep, pigs, poultry, rabbits, goats, llamas, bison, and even yak. More than 12,000 entries from exhibitors from all over the world are converging on the 95-acre site.

Not far from the stockyards, the Denver Coliseum is holding some 40 rodeo events, as 700 competitors brave bucking broncos for cash prizes—the fifth-richest rodeo jackpot on earth. And there’s more: a Wild West show, inspired by Buffalo Bill Cody’s turn-of-the-century spectacles; a Western Art Exhibit, displaying paintings and sculptures of cattle and cowboys; and even a “Super Dogs” show, with canine acrobatics. In all, the National Western Stock Show is expected to attract more than 600,000 people at about $7 a head.

It’s difficult to imagine that the event’s founders, in 1906, could have foreseen how massive it would become over the next century. At the time, there were only about 200,000 people in all of Denver. Cattlemen and ranchers wanted to establish a local market center for livestock, instead of having to expensively ship cattle to the meatpacking centers of Chicago and Kansas City. An annual show was seen as the best way to put Western livestock on the economic map.

The organizers—the future Colorado governor Elias Ammons among them—angled to hold their event in January, one of the slowest times of the year for livestock sales. On January 29, 336 livestock entries were exhibited—and thousands of Denverites, looking to alleviate their winter boredom, showed up to see them. It was a smashing success by any measure. By 1913 the show was bringing in $2 million to Denver’s economy each year. (The figure is now about $80 million.) And it has gone on ever since, even through all the years of the Great Depression—which hit agriculture particularly hard—and two world wars. The only year it was ever cancelled was 1915, when an epidemic of hoof-and-mouth disease prevented animals from crossing state lines.

In 1907, a horse show was added, and in 1931, a rodeo, helping make the show an event with wider-ranging [it still wasn’t exactly “wide-ranging”] public appeal. Over the years it has even created local celebrities, some of whom, including the 1970s rodeo announcer Bob Tallman, are returning for the 100th anniversary. And what does the future hold for the National Western Stock Show? Even after a century, more expansion seems likely. Indeed, show officials may start looking at other locations in the area, as it’s simply running out of space where it is.

Events over the two weeks include a Mexican Rodeo Extravaganza, a Catch-a-Calf Contest, a Beef Heifer Wrangle, the Super Dogs acrobatic presentation, and the International Open Sheep Shearing and Junior Sheep Shearing Contests. For full information, go to www.nationalwestern.com/nwss/home/index.asp

—David Rapp has written about American history for American Heritage and Technology Review, among other magazines