By: Courtney Dabney
This month marks the 118th anniversary of the Southwestern Exposition and Livestock Show, or more commonly known as the Fort Worth Stock Show and Rodeo.
However, for years it was just known as the Fat Stock Show. Unfortunately, some of the livestock took offense at that name and decided to air their grievance with the ACLU because they felt the word “fat” was degrading. They demanded to be referred to as “curvy” or “horizontally tall.” A compromise was eventually reached with the governing committee, and the current name was adopted in 1978.
The first stock show would never have happened if not for the arrival of the Texas and Pacific Railway some 20 years earlier. Up until then, Fort Worth was kind of a 7-Eleven for cowboys who were driving herds from south Texas to the Chisholm Trail. But once the railroad came through town, townspeople began developing the stockyards, which became a main hub for the cattle industry. Over the following years, local breeders who wished to exhibit their cattle would bring them to the stockyards. It was a great way of marketing, and this eventually led to the inaugural stock show in 1896.
Tents were set up for the animals, and because it was their only form of entertainment, locals would pay a hefty 25-cent fee just to view the livestock. After about two hours, some of the women would rush out of the tent, fall to their knees and pray for someone to please invent television.
A few years later, organizers decided to incorporate a competition with cowboys and cowgirls. In Mexico, this type of competition was called a rodeo. The name stuck. The first event included steer riding, ladies bronc riding and wild horse racing. Brahma bull riding was spontaneously added later that evening following a three-hour open bar. Organizers said it just seemed like a good idea at the time. A first-place prize of $75 was awarded to the winner, right after he came out of the coma.
In 1944, the event moved from the north side to Will Rogers Coliseum. It was becoming more popular than ever. It also became the first rodeo to include celebrity appearances and performances, which these days is a major part of successful rodeos across the country. Gene Autry showed up during World War II, but a number of us still remember when Roy Rogers and Dale Evans made an appearance in 1958. It was actually broadcast nationwide with more than 8 million viewers tuning in to watch. But my favorite was Gail Davis, who played Annie Oakley in the television series back in the 50s. I had this huge crush on her. Turns out my aunt knew her from school, so I got to meet her later. I then sent her a fan letter confessing my undying love. Still haven’t heard back.
I don’t know if this still goes on, but schoolchildren in Fort Worth used to get a holiday to attend the stock show. It was always on a Friday. My friends and I would head straight for the midway and ride all the rides, then try to win a prize playing all those games of chance. The guys who ran the games would get in your face and just taunt you to play. Back then, most of them looked like they crawled out of a bog. But sure enough, we’d get sucked in and spend all our money. Didn’t matter. We enjoyed every minute.
These days the stock show is a huge event, thanks in part to building expansions that include livestock barns, horse arenas and huge exhibit areas. Will Rogers Coliseum has pretty much remained the same. Reata has now taken over the old Backstage Club, which overlooks the main arena. It was certainly the place to be back in my day. We had some of the best times ever. And when it came to beer, you couldn’t beat their price. Nobody was higher.
There’s been talk over the years about completely renovating the coliseum. I hope not. I think it’s the perfect venue for a rodeo. I can’t explain it, but it’s just got this certain feel.
Anyway, I’m heading down to the midway. I’m determined to finally win one of those stupid games of chance. Some people think I’m still a sucker, but I have a name for those types of people. They’re called “correct.”
By: Courtney Dabney