The National Western Center will serve as a catalyst for the New West and a new way of thinking…. It will tell the story of our frontiering spirit through strong partnerships, a celebration of our Western heritage, and pioneering opportunities for the future. —National Western Center Master Plan
Denver today is more a magnet for millennials with dot-com dreams than a cow town, but every year throngs of authentic cowboys and cowgirls descend on the city for the National Western Stock Show. For a couple of weeks—what promoters call the “best 16 days in January”—even city slickers can enter the West of their imaginations while learning about modern ranch animals and practices.
Not Their First Rodeo
The National Western has been held since 1906 on a site that now encompasses 120 acres north of downtown Denver. While the first show involved approximately 15,000 participants and visitors, it now comprises about 15,000 animals and more than 700,000 human competitors, exhibitors and visitors.
The livestock, of course, is the main attraction. The 2020 schedule listed the comings and goings of almost 20 breeds of cattle, along with horses, sheep, swine, goats, llamas, alpacas, bison, poultry, rabbits and dogs. The stock show website states that all are treated humanely, but a stroll through the barns in 2020 indicated that most are actually pampered. Exhibitors could be seen washing and drying their stock; some specimens had rugs in their stalls; and all appeared well nourished.
The first rodeo was added to the show in 1931 and the 2020 program listed 26 pro rodeo events. Among them were the Pink Pro Rodeo, which raised funds to help fight breast cancer, and the MLK African-American Heritage Rodeo. Specialty rodeos and shows included a Wild West Show modeled after Buffalo Bill Cody’s original, and the Mexican Rodeo Extravaganza, where the Diaz family led a cultural celebration that included mariachis, bull and bronco riding and dancing horses.
Rodeo clowns entertain during many performances, while they also perform important safety functions, along with the professional bullfighters and pickup men. The young people who belong to the Westernaires, a local equestrian precision drill team, also participate in multiple events. In mutton busting, children cling to the backs of sheep in hopes of achieving a longer ride than their peers. During the 2020 Mexican Rodeo, all of the little competitors received trophies that were almost as tall as the riders themselves.
In a space that seems bigger than an IKEA showroom, the trade show includes approximately 300 vendors hawking wares ranging from Indian jewelry, cowhides and cowboy boots to tractors, toy horses and hot tubs. Nearby, children can enjoy pony rides and a petting zoo.
In 2020, the Coors Western Art Exhibit and Sale included works by “59 artists who capture the Western lifestyle,” according to the event program. For those who appreciate art but are unready to invest in originals, there are posters, scarves and note cards available.
Ample food can be found all around the stock show. Beef is at the top of the menu in sit-down venues, while the copious carnival food includes excellent corn dogs. Beverages include a selection of beers sold in 24-ounce cans.
Old West Meets New West
While the National Western Stock Show honors the past, plans are under way to move both the show and the complex where it is held into the future. The National Western Center Master Plan, a 2015 document, outlines an ambitious plan for a $765 million, 250-acre campus. Partners in the transition include the Western Stock Show Association and Colorado State University, as well as the City and County of Denver, Denver Museum of Nature and Science and History Colorado.
The National Western Center will be a vibrant destination for both local visitors and tourists. A plaza will include small retail spaces, areas for events and exhibits, test and research growing plots, community gardens and a small urban farm. Other features and facilities will include a new exhibition hall for the trade show, lecture and performance spaces, an equestrian center, and a water resources center, as well as a waterfront green space along the South Platte River. A commuter rail line will stop at the transit plaza, connecting the center with the regional mass transportation network.
The 1916 Livestock Exchange building and the historic stadium arena will be integrated into the new design for the center.
The first two phases of the complex are scheduled to be completed by 2023. Future phases, including the new arena and expo hall, are to be determined. Construction has already begun on the realignment of I-70 to accommodate the new complex.
Longhorns Lead Parade
The stock show isn’t entirely confined to the area north of downtown for half of the month of January. Two days before the first show opens, a herd of about forty longhorn cattle lead a parade among the skyscrapers on 17th Street.
Near the end of the show, a handler leads the grand champion steer down a red carpet into the lobby at the Brown Palace Hotel, which is usually the scene of afternoon tea. After posing for photos with admirers in the atrium of the historic, elegant hotel early in the day, the steer, now back at the stock show, is auctioned off in the evening. In 2020, Olaf (as the grand champion steer was named) brought $155,000, while the grand champion hog sold for $100,000 and the reserve grand champion steer for 105,000.
The Colorado Indian Market & Southwest Art Fest, held one weekend during the stock show, attracts 10,000 shoppers to the Denver Mart at the corner of Washington Street and 58th Avenue. In 2020, hundreds of vendors displayed art, jewelry and hand-crafted goods, while entertainment was provided by costumed dancers, Native American musicians and raptor handlers.
After hours, cowboys, cowgirls and would-be wranglers are likely to be found honky-tonking at the Grizzly Rose country bar, nightclub and dance hall. Located at 5450 Lincoln Street, The Rose has hosted such Country Music luminaries as Kenny Chesney, Garth Brooks, Faith Hill and Willie Nelson.
Both in the arena and on the town, performers may wear iconic snap-front Western shirts from Rockmount Ranch Wear. Jack A. Weil began Rockmount in 1946 and worked until he was 107, creating country shirts that have been worn by movie stars and are in museums. Still in the family, Rockmount is located in a historic building at 1626 Wazee Street in downtown Denver.
The National Western Stock Show is one of my favorite annual events in Denver and vicinity. Others include the Conference on World Affairs held every spring at the University of Colorado Boulder (my alma mater), the Cherry Creek Arts Festival held around July 4, and Denver Startup Week and Doors Open Denver—both held in September.
My guest editor for this post was Judy Bucher, who was most recently editor of Colorado Expression Magazine. She too loves the National Western and is a regular visitor.