John’s Note: This is the sixth post in my series about Colorado, the place I call home (you can check out the other posts in the series Dispatches from Telluride, On the Ledge at Howelsen Hill, A Desert In The Rocky Mountains, Arapahoe Basin – The Legend, and Skiing Under the Stars in Keystone). Though I spend a lot of time talking about the places I travel to in the US and abroad, the truth of the matter is that the travel doesn’t stop when I’m home. That’s why I’m working with Mountain Reservations to bring you one new destination from the Centennial State each month.
Come January in Denver, it’s not uncommon to see spurs, steers, ropes, saddles, and cowboy boots in and around town. Each winter, the city of Denver sheds it’s modern image for a glimpse of its past when the National Western Stock Show and Rodeo takes over the city.
Now in its 107th year, the Stock Show is a long running Denver tradition and the largest event of its kind in the country. In 1906, the event started as just a gathering of stockmen gathering to buy, sell, and trade breeding stock for their herds of cattle. Stockyards were set up, prizes were awarded for the top cattle, and deals were made. From that modest beginning, the event has morphed into a city-wide spectacle, complete with a carnival, parties, and even the surreal sight of a parade of livestock marching through the canyons of the downtown Denver skyscrapers.
Today, most visitors are not coming to buy or sell livestock, but rather to soak in a little Western culture. The stockyards still play a major part in the event, but more and more casual visitors are spending their time in the exhibition halls. The halls are filled with retailers selling art, clothing, leather goods, and handicrafts – all with a Western bent.
And the livestock exhibitions have moved far beyond cattle. Sheep, horses, pigs, goats, chickens, turkeys, rabbits, chinchillas – if it can be domesticated and bred, chances are that it is being showcased at the Stock Show. Children are even encouraged to get in on the action by bringing their livestock raised on their farms for competitions where ‘best-in-show’ is awarded.
Entertainment has also become a major component of the event, with horse shows and a full blown rodeo attracting crowds who pack the nearby Denver Colosseum. Bull riding, bucking broncos, calf roping, and other traditional rodeo events make up one of the largest indoor rodeos in the world. But my personal favorite event is the mutton busting – in which children cling tightly to the wool of sheep and hang on for as long as they can. The event has gained popularity all around the world, but started at the National Western Stock Show in the 1980′s.
The show has become a boon for Denver and the state of Colorado. The show annually attracts well over a half-million visitors, many coming from other states or even internationally to take part in the events. It is a signature event for the city of Denver and the Rocky Mountain region. But perhaps more importantly, the event helps anchor the city in its western roots.
Today, modern steel and glass buildings watch over the stockyards and the residents of Denver are far more occupied with the latest composite ski technology or how the Denver Broncos played the previous Sunday. But for 12 days each Winter, the city pays homage to its heritage. Instead of worrying about the latest pair of skis, leather saddles become the focus. And the only broncos people are concerned with are the ones trying to buck the cowboys off their backs. For 12 days each Winter, the old West lives again in Denver.