You’ve Come a Long Way, Cowboy!

History of the Houston Livestock Show & Rodeo, the world’s leading livestock show, and the Pride of Houston

By Karen Harpold

It’s easy to imagine, especially if you are new to the Houston area, that the Houston rodeo has always been the same. That the event always began with a grand parade and the World’s Championship Bar-B-Que Contest. That world-famous musical performers always drew record-setting crowds. That deep-fried butter was always offered at the carnival midway. That there was, in fact, always a carnival, and for that matter, a rodeo. RodeoHouston in 2017 boasts one of the largest purses in professional rodeo. In 2016 the Houston Livestock Show and Rodeo counted general attendance at 2,464,030. Here’s how it came to be.


1931: A Show with a Purpose

RodeoHouston, an exhibition of timed and rough-stock cowboy and cowgirl competitions followed by a concert, is the focal point of the myriad events that make up today’s Houston Livestock Show and Rodeo. But it wasn’t always so. The rodeo and livestock show can trace their roots back to J.W. Sartwelle’s desire in 1931 to promote Houston as a center for the livestock trade. He noticed that the highest quality Texas cattle were generally shown only at the big livestock expositions, mainly in Forth Worth, and believed that organizing a Houston exposition could lead to substantial improvement in breeding and raising practices.

A little more than a year after Sartwelle recruited six other Houston men to help him turn his dream to reality, the first Houston Fat Stock Show was held at the Democratic Convention Hall downtown. Two thousand cattle were entered in the judging; entertainment consisted of Billie Ehman and his jumping trick horse “Baby Doll.” Through those first several years as the show steadily grew, attendees were entertained by circuses, band concerts and dog races.

The Democratic Convention Hall was razed in 1937, and the Fat Stock Show found a new home in its replacement, the Sam Houston Coliseum. With a year off to plan, the 1938 show was exceptional: there was a new nightly horse show and floor show, and for the first time the event featured a rodeo, with bronc riding, bull-riding, steer wrestling and calf-roping. The first rodeo parade also debuted that same year. The show was a huge success and recorded its first of many sellout crowds.


1940s: Bring on the Entertainment

1942 marked a very important milestone—the Houston Fat Stock Show featured its first true “star” entertainer, Gene Autry, the Singing Cowboy. Autry was a hit recording artist and a top draw at the box office; his appearance was a grand victory for the young show, especially when he led the rodeo parade down Main Street.

During the 1940s the Fat Stock Show continued to steadily grow. The number of volunteers increased, star entertainers were added to the event lineups, and rodeo leaders ensured that underprivileged youth were able to enjoy the show. The Fat Stock Show contributed to the war effort in 1944 by auctioning all champion livestock to benefit war bonds. In 1948 J.W. Sartwelle stepped down from the show presidency and handed the reins to W. Albert Lee, a well-known Houston businessman.


1950s: Go Texan and Trail Rides

It was during the 1950s that the show began to take shape as the event that most would recognize today. The show celebrated its 25th anniversary with a performance by Roy Rogers and Dale Evans. Local advertising executive Charles Giezendanner and restaurateur Bill Williams devised the brilliant “Go Texan Days” campaign, and it seemed that the whole city turned out in cowboy hats, jeans and boots for the livestock show and rodeo. In 1957, the Houston Fat Stock Show and Rodeo presented its first agricultural scholarship for $2,000. Another celebrated tradition of the show was conceived in 1952: the trail ride. The first Salt Grass Trail Ride, known as the “granddaddy of them all,” came about after Giezendanner challenged Reece Lockett to ride horseback from his home in Brenham to the Fat Stock Show in Houston. This re-enactment of cowboys driving their herds to coastal plains for the nutritious salt grass was a public relations coup for the show, and spawned the thirteen annual trail rides that kick off the show today.


1960s: Renamed, Relocated and Reimagined

By the 1960s, the preference of the consumer for lean beef led to changes in the livestock industry and judging standards for cattle. The new champion-caliber steer was firmer, longer-legged and more muscular. To reflect these changes, the show’s board of directors voted to rechristen the show as the “Houston Livestock Show and Rodeo.” The other pressing concern was space for the prospering show. It had outgrown the Coliseum. After much discussion and negotiation, the board agreed to team up with Harris County to bring to life show president Stuart Lang’s vision of a show complex with plenty of space for cattle and horse arenas, loading and unloading of livestock, offices and meeting rooms, sales areas and parking. The 34th annual Houston Livestock Show and Rodeo opened in its new home at the Astrodome complex on March 6, 1966. Along with a new home came a new emphasis on presenting a variety of star acts at different times during the rodeo.


1970s: Elvis and BBQ

In the 1970s livestock entries and show attendance skyrocketed. The inaugural World’s Championship Bar-B-Que Contest took place. The financial success of the show allowed it to enlarge its scholarship program, and, by the end of the decade, the show was awarding 100 four-year, $6,000 agricultural scholarships to deserving youth. The prominence of rodeo entertainment entered a new level with the appearance of Elvis Presley in 1970 and 1974. Not only did Presley set an attendance record for Houston rodeo attendance, but also for the largest crowd ever to attend one of his concerts!


1980s – 2000s: Reliant Stadium to George Strait

By the 1980s and 90s J.W. Sartwelle’s dream had become reality: the Houston livestock show was acknowledged as the leading show in the livestock industry. The ranks of volunteers had swelled to thousands who gave generously of their time each spring to bring about the “Show With a Heart.” In 2003, the Houston Livestock Show and Rodeo moved to the newly-built Reliant (now NRG) Stadium. A special two-hour concert by country music superstar George Strait marked the final performance in 2002 at the Astrodome; Strait’s performance at the first show of 2003 served as a bridge to the show’s new generation.

The Houston Livestock Show and Rodeo continues to set new records in attendance, scholarships and rodeo earnings. More than 250 cooking teams compete in the World’s Championship Bar-B-Que Contest. The number of committees has grown to 107, whose members take on every job from offering directions to staging livestock to welcoming international livestock breeders. The Rodeo Uncorked! wine competition and the Hideout, the show’s very own honky tonk, are more recent additions to the panoply of experiences that make up the 2017 show. Mr. Sartwelle would undoubtedly be proud to know that his vision of Houston as a renowned livestock hub has united the city and all Houstonians in the “Go Texan” spirit, even if only for three weeks each year.


Top 10 Reasons to Attend the Houston Livestock Show and Rodeo

  1. Great people watching. You’ll see it all here.
  2. Shopping, shopping, shopping. Even if it’s not western duds you are after, there is something to entice everyone.
  3. More varieties of fried food than you’ve ever experienced… but lots of other great eats, too.
  4. Pig races. Can anybody say “sooie”?
  5. For the adults, the Wine Garden. Taste wines entered in Rodeo Uncorked! at this sophisticated little oasis.
  6. The carnival. Test your skill at winning a life-sized stuffed animal.
  7. The cutting horse competition. The horses are the true athletes in this engaging competition.
  8. Animals, animals, animals. Bunnies, goats and chicks, oh my!
  9. Rodeo is the most entertaining sport that you never watch on tv. These guys and gals have real guts.
  10. You get to put on your jeans and boots and pretend for an evening that you are a real cowboy or cowgirl!
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