From a rough start to Roughstock: The National Western’s storied beginnings.

In this post, editor Kerri Clement briefly reviews the origin of the National Western Stock Show, which is held in Denver every January. 

“Ok folks, let’s put our hands together for the Night King!” The announcer’s voice at the freestyle reining competition boomed around the arena as the crowd cheered for the competitor, who was dressed as the Night King from the TV show and book series Game of Thrones. The four horses, which included a miniature horse, exited the arena in tandem after following the direction of their trainer, Dan James during the Game of Thrones-themed performance. Ultimately, Dan’s performance did not win the top prize but was definitely a crowd favorite. This elaborate display of horsemanship, which included the competitor directing four horses simultaneously while on horseback using only a rod to point, is just one of the events the National Western Stock Show offers during its sixteen-day event every January in Denver. As an agricultural historian, I revel in wandering through the livestock barns, perusing the trade show, and watching the rodeo or other competitions like freestyle reining.

While not the Night King performance, this video of Dan’s win in 2016, courtesy of the National, demonstrates Dan’s performance with multiple horses.

As I meandered through the stock barns, I marveled at the inglorious and little-discussed false start of the show, especially as the stock show looks to a $1 billion new future. The development of the stock show illustrates the rise of industrialized agriculture, specialized breeding, and the development of performance events, like rodeo. Undoubtedly, the stock show was, and is, a significant player in American agriculture during its century-plus run and has changed significantly since its late nineteenth-century rocky start.

During the late nineteenth-century, Denver had a rough go of it. Due in no small part to the 1893 silver crash, the city experienced a dwindling population and turbulent economic challenges.[1] Large ranches and packers dominated the cattle industry in the late nineteenth-century, especially following the blizzards of the 1880s that put many stockmen out of business. The industry grew more centralized as the railroads connected larger cities and their ever-expanding stockyards to far-flung cattle pastures.[2] Something had to be done and Denver city officials and agricultural magnates looked to the burgeoning beef industry to shore up the city’s economy.

In 1898, Denver boosters, like cattlemen and stockbrokers, sought to boast to the world about the city’s large stockyards. These promoters wanted to stylize the mile-high city as a serious competitor to the king of cattle towns at the time, Chicago, especially as Denver’s own stockyards grew during the late nineteenth century.[3] If Chicago was the king, Denver wanted to be the queen. So, these boosters put on a livestock show in 1898 in an attempt to bolster their reputation and encourage business. This show would include livestock judging events, local agricultural leaders meeting to discuss policy, and food for attendees.

The show was an utter failure. In fact, it culminated in a BBQ riot. The show’s promoters had planned to offer a free BBQ that featured national dignitaries including Gifford Pinchot. As the first chief of the U.S. Forest Service, Pinchot attended to “discuss grazing in the National Forest Reserves with ranchers, who balked at such federal controls.”[4] Instead of a conversation regarding federal grazing regulations or viewing livestock competitions, on the day of the feast, somewhere between 20,000 and 30,000 people showed up, trampling toddlers, snatching food out of the air thrown by waiters, and breaking into the stockyards when the food ran out. Only about a quarter of the attendees ate, while chaos ensued as the rest of the crowd had a proper riot by breaking windows, destroying stockyard infrastructure, and shattering beer barrels. The Denver police had to use cattle cars as temporary jails and, presumably, Pinchot fled the scene with BBQ sauce stains on his jacket and face.[5] This riot is not surprising, especially considering the depressed economic conditions Denver had experienced in the last several years. People had to eat. After such an infamous start, however, the future of cattle shows in Denver was in serious jeopardy. But the mile-high quest to be the queen of the stock shows was far from over.

With the establishment of Colorado-based packing plants in the early twentieth century, people tried again to create a local stock show with an eye to national prestige. Supported by the new meatpacking industry, Denver boosters succeeded in establishing an updated version of the failed show in 1906. This new event became the foundation for today’s stock show, National Western, especially in relation to promoting breeding standards and practices vis à vis livestock competitions. While the 1906 show featured mostly “feeder cattle” or non-purebred, two-year-old steers and yearlings, it quickly morphed into breeders promoting purebred and expensive animals whose owners vied for the top prize in their respective divisions.[6] The changes in the stock presented at the show paralleled broader trends of fin-de-siècle agricultural expositions, as American producers established breed registries to promote purebred animals both in response to and anticipation of increasingly demanding markets.[7] While standards for “best” qualification change over time, livestock judging competitions have remained the foundation for the stock show since the early twentieth century. Furthermore, the stock show itself has operated as a promotional event for various sectors of industrial agriculture, in response to the centralization of corporate involvement in the agricultural industry.[8] The stock show certainly helped Denver to promote itself as a western rival to eastern cattle and industrial agricultural centers.

“1914 Baby Contest for 3 Year Olds” Courtesy of National Western. 

Like eastern shows, livestock weren’t the only creatures being weighed, assessed, or measured at the National. The stock show echoed broader trends at other fairs during the early twentieth-century by incorporating “fitter family” contests, such as baby judging competitions. These widespread competitions were critical places where the American public received eugenic messages, where human and livestock contests occurred at the same events.[9] A eugenicist booster described fitter family competitions as “when someone asks what it is all about, we say, ‘While the stock judges are testing the Holsteins, Jerseys, and Whitefaces in the stock pavilion, we are judging the Joneses, Smiths, and the Johnsons.'”[10] While the Jerseys and the Joneses were judged alongside each other, American institutions, including the stock show, inundated the public with values and principles that were prevalent in contemporaneous U.S. culture. Thankfully, this portion of the stock show is no longer around as the baby contest only lasted from 1913 to 1916.[11]

Non-baby related competitions were added later during the twentieth century. Stock show officials began hosting rodeo and other performance competitions in 1932, in response to the show’s rising attendance and prominence during the 1930s and 1940s. Since 1932, these events have gained prestige and importance and now include major pro-rodeo and bull riding events, in addition to freestyle reining events like the one described. According to the stock show’s data, attendance has remained steady over the last several years, with last year netting over 700,000 attendees.[12]

Over the last century, the National Western has grown to one of the largest livestock competitions, trade shows, and rodeo performances in the United States. While the show has seen its fair share of problems, including suspending activity due to a livestock disease outbreak in 1915 and more recently in 2015, the FBI arresting human traffickers at the show, I wonder how many attendees at the 1898 riot would have guessed the impact the show would have on Denver and greater agriculture in the United States.[13] According to the stock show, over $6 million dollars in local and state revenue are attributed to the show and $115 million brought in for all events, just one metric that demonstrates that the National has grown to one of the largest stock shows in the nation.[14] Producers flock from around the country to show their cattle in an attempt to take home champion status for their animals, which increases their breeding and sale value. Furthermore, the performance events, like rodeo and freestyle reining, attract competitors from around the world. As the show looks to the future by building a massive new campus, I marvel at the inglorious beginnings of the show. Now, if you will excuse me, I believe I will go find some BBQ to enjoy while listening to the fiddle contest.

Video of Dick Barrett playing a contest round in 2008 at the National.


[1] Colorado Encyclopedia, “The First National Western Stock Show,” August 3, 2016, accessed January 24, 2020, https://coloradoencyclopedia.org/article/first-national-western-stock-show.

[2] For more information see William Cronon, Nature’s Metropolis: Chicago and the Great West (New York: W.W. Norton, 1991); Terry G Jordan-Bychkov, North American Cattle-Ranching Frontiers: Origins, Diffusion, and Differentiation (Albuquerque: University of New Mexico Press, 1993); and Joshua Specht, Red Meat Republic (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2019).

[3] See Thomas J. Noel, “Chapter Three: Queen of the Cow Towns” in Riding High: Colorado Ranchers and 100 Years of the National Western Stock Show (Golden: Fulcrum Publishers, 2005).

[4] Ibid., 35.

[5] Ibid., 39.

[6] R. L. Preston, Stetson, Pipe and Boots – Colorado’s Cattleman Governor: A Biography About Dan Thornton (Bloomington: Trafford Publishing, 2007), 45.

[7] For more information see Margaret E. Derry, Bred for Perfection: Shorthorn Cattle, Collies, and Arabian Horses since 1800 (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2003); Margaret E. Derry, Masterminding Nature: The Breeding of Animals, 1750-2010 (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2015); and Margaret E. Derry, Horses in Society: A Story of Animal Breeding and Marketing, 1800-1920 (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2006).

[8] For more information, see David Igler, Industrial Cowboys: Miller & Lux and the Transformation of the Far West, 1850-1920 (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2005).

[9] See Robert W. Rydell, “Chapter Two: “Fitter Families for Future Firesides”: Eugenics Exhibitions between the Wars” in World of Fairs: The Century-of-Progress Expositions (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1993).

[10] Ibid., 49-50.

[11] “The First 25 Years at the National Western: 1906–1930 – History – National Western Stock Show,” accessed January 28, 2020, http://results.nationalwestern.com/history/first-25-years.aspx.

[12] “History of the National Western Stock Show,” National Western Stock Show and Rodeo (blog), accessed January 27, 2020, https://nationalwestern.com/about/history/.

[13] Preston, Stetson, Pipe and Boots, 45 and “FBI Denver’s Innocence Lost Task Force Arrests Two Traffickers and Recovers Six Minors During the 2015 National Western Stock Show” (Washington, United States: Federal Information & News Dispatch, Inc., January 26, 2015).

[14] “About National Western Stock Show,” National Western Stock Show and Rodeo (blog), accessed January 26, 2020, https://nationalwestern.com/about/.

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