Taking Stock of Change

With less than a month until the National Western Stock Show throws open its doors and pens, general manager Chuck Sylvester is still putting out fires. On this mid-December morning, for starters, he has had to pull the plug on the team-penning competitions due to a lack of paying contestants. And now, at a lunchtime meeting over subs and chips, Sylvester must address a more, uh, delicate subject.

Kitty Divis, a dramatic-looking redheaded woman decorated with silver, about half of which is contained in a giant belt buckle like the ones everyone here seems to wear, has been in charge of "cowboy hospitality" for five years now. She has proposed a few new touches for the rodeo participants while they wait between rides. She notes that in the past, the hospitality room has had only a single couch to rest on.

"I've seen cowboys lined up waiting to sleep on it," she says plaintively. But this year, Divis says, she has convinced a sponsor to donate a "wagon" that could be used as a private place to catch a little shut-eye.

"Wouldn't that be great?" she asks.

The others at the meeting appear oddly nervous about the idea. "We're not in the business of providing sleeping arrangements," Sylvester points out. "We can't watch it 24 hours a day. If the contestants want to go to those rodeos that offer more fun, full meals, daycare, sleeping areas, then they can go there."

"I don't think we want to have a 'closed space,'" adds Virgil Holtgrewe, a longtime volunteer. "I think we should keep things in the open. You can't get into privacy issues."

But Divis persists. She has a soft spot for the cowboys and their comfort. "It's just a place where they can sleep for a few hours," she says. What's the big deal?

"Okay, I'll put it right out there," Sylvester says with a flat, this-subject-is-closed inflection. "You get a sixteen-year-old girl raped there, we're gonna be liable for providing a facility."

As the meeting breaks up, he is sympathetic, always interested in mending fences. "We can't be all things to all people," he tells Divis.

Maybe. But in this, its 97th year, the Stock Show is flourishing precisely because more than other shows of its kind across the country, it has been successful in, if not being all things to all people, becoming enough things to most people. As Denver and Colorado have changed, so, too, has the show. To its enduring credit, the National Western has been able to walk a fine line necessary to survive -- between its old, rural roots and its new, citified audience.

It makes sense that stock shows -- essentially trade shows for farmers and ranchers -- aren't as important a part of the cultural landscape as they once were. In 1906, when the National Western started out with 15,000 visiting stockmen, about 35 percent of the country's workforce labored in agriculture. By 1950, that number had shrunk by two-thirds. Today, those who earn a living from agriculture make up barely 1 percent of the United States workforce.

Like the farmers and ranchers they once catered to, many big stock shows have simply disappeared. Chicago's was the main event at the turn of the century, the largest ag show in the country. By the mid-1970s, it was gone. Other once-glorious stock shows remain in name only. Kansas City's American Royal is shrinking, and San Francisco only sporadically operates its Cow Palace as an actual palace for cows.

These days, there are but a handful of cities with big stock shows of any significance: Houston, San Antonio, Fort Worth and Denver. The only "new" stock show that has been a success is the thirty-year-old North American International Livestock Exposition, in Louisville, Kentucky, which receives state support. (Swiping the National Future Farmers of America annual convention from St. Louis four years ago also helped.)

Yet the National Western has thrived. When Sylvester took the reins of the show, attendance was about 240,000 and stagnant. Last year, nearly three times as many paying customers pushed through the turnstiles -- the largest crowd ever. The show has grown into an $11 million-plus annual business.

The biggest reason for the success is that, unlike many other shows of its kind, the National Western has managed to keep a close eye on its potential audience, and not just its traditional supporters. That distinction is crucial. National Western planners have recognized that those who make a living off the land don't drive the success of the modern stock show. Rather, it is the people who have a nostalgia for it -- or, as time passes, those who have a nostalgia for what they imagine the West was like.

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Eric Dexheimer
Contact: Eric Dexheimer