Living in Wyoming all my life, I have taken for granted the things this state is known for: cattle ranches, rodeos and wide open spaces. Despite the fact that cattle and calves outnumber people (roughly 1.3 million to 550,000), those numbers were down 8 per cent from 2007
to 2008. It’s also estimated that by 2050, 26 million acres of open space will be lost to development in the West. Nothing necessarily
lasts forever. Wyoming’s farms and ranches rank first in the nation in size (averaging just over 3,900 acres, about nine times the size of the average
American farm or ranch).
With that in mind, I decided to get more in touch with my Western roots by venturing down to Denver, Colorado for “Wyoming Day” festivities at the National
Western Stock Show. I went on a chilly January morning, via two
buses with around 60 other people, included some of the state’s lawmakers who were taking a break from the legislative session. The trip was organized
by the Wyoming Stock Growers Association, having taken up this decades-long tradition for more than ten years. This organization created the state’s first non-governmental land trust to
help preserve open spaces by addressing such issues as erosion, silting and noxious weeds.
The bus ride was rather jovial; we were served coffee, orange juice and donuts. Many passed the time by playing cards. When we left the state
and ventured into Colorado, I was reminded of the snow-covered plains and cloudy skies. By the time we reached Denver, 90 minutes later though, the sky was blue, temperature was cold, but thankfully, not that windy.
We were turned loose to roam the 103rd annual event, the biggest of its kind in the world (attendance in 2008 was just under 675,000). Not only
did this year’s show record over 5 million dollars in livestock sales via some 15,000 livestock on display, but so many other events took place like rodeos,
livestock judging, interactive agricultural exhibits and Western-themed sales of clothing, jewelry, etc. A Scottish marching band dressed up in traditional
dress (including kilts), even paraded through the exhibition and vending areas playing stirring music, much to the chagrin of some of the cowpokes, but
mostly enjoyed by the majority who continually snapped pictures.
What I found most interesting were the exhibits located in the Children’s Ranchland area. I never realized there were so many colorful breeds of guinea
pigs, chickens and rabbits, including some English Angora bunnies, who looked like a big swatch of a shag carpet! It was so crowded in this area that I was
constantly being run into by little kids as they temporarily escaped from their parents’ watch.
The Western art sale exhibition also drew a lot of interest
with a vast selection of paintings and three-dimensional art pieces. As an art enthusiast, I was captivated by one beautiful oil painting called Box Cars
and Snow, painted by Stock Schlueter. Price tag: $5,000.00, too much for me – this was one of the least expensive works!
Dining With A Living Wyoming Legacy
The group’s Wyoming Day luncheon was quite an affair, featuring meat entrees that have made the West renowned. I feasted on prime rib, succulent roast
beef brisket, and pork ribs so tender they came off the bone effortlessly! But the best part of my meal was having the honor of sitting at the same table
with a still active 81-year-old rancher by the name of Bill Gray. He used to participate in rodeos during the 1940’s and 1950’s. He was taking in the Stock Show
and Wyoming Day events with several of his grandchildren. He’s a lively and friendly man, he shared some interesting facets of his and his
family’s ranch life. His grandfather J.C. Shaw founded a ranch about 115 miles northwest of Cheyenne in 1884 near Douglas, and was affiliated with the Wyoming
Stock Growers Association during the legendary and controversial Johnson County War of 1892, on which the film, Heaven’s Gate is based.
Bill Gray remembers a time during the 1930’s and 1940’s when sheep were everywhere in central Wyoming. That’s when the state had to close off about 4 million sheep roaming the
land, though those numbers dropped significantly since World War II, due to synthetic fabrics. Today less than 450,000 sheep currently populate the state. During
the Great Depression, Gray said he really didn’t suffer like so much of the country since his family had a plentiful food supply from their livestock and also a large garden. His grandfather fed down-on-their-luck folks passing through.
Gray also told me some stories of the Blizzard of ’49, which was so bad that rural areas went without mail for several weeks, where cattle were buried alive
en masse by the drifting snow. The snow was so tightly packed, cattle not buried in the drifts could successfully walk across it. He said his nose
got frostbitten after being outside five minutes!
I asked him how he is able to keep on actively ranching; he jokingly remarked that his wife of more than 54 years makes him get up and
work from dawn until dusk!
Rodeo Honors Wyoming
Late in the afternoon, the rodeo honoring Wyoming Day took place before a near capacity crowd at the Denver Coliseum, a short walk from the Stock Show Complex.
Four women on horseback came out, each holding a flag (one of them being the state flag of Wyoming). The announcer praised the state and its
role in making the National Western Stock Show what it is. A stagecoach containing a few of the state’s government and Stock Growers Association dignitaries
drove around the arena.
I hadn’t seen a live rodeo event since I was a child. I was impressed with the nicely-flowing 2-plus hours of events, which included bareback and
saddle bronc riding, bull riding, barrel racing and “mutton bustin”, where five- and six-year-old children tried to stay on the backs of sheep for eight
seconds. Six-time All Around Champion Trevor Brazile competed in the calf roping event. In the steer wresting competition, the steers won 6-4, only
four of the contestants were able to get a timed score. The last steer not only escaped, but kicked the cowboy too.
I liked the beginning of the rodeo; a precision horse team comes out and rides around the ring in darkness. You can only see their
glow-in-the-dark uniforms. During John Payne’s, “The One Arm Bandit” show, he was able to get two buffaloes and his own horse on top of a trailer and down again!
Wherever my near or far travels take me, I appreciate and learn more about the world when I visit a colorful and
substantive individual like Bill Gray. This short day trip also helped me become more grateful for Western culture.
Roy A. Barnes writes from southeastern Wyoming and is a
frequent contributor to Bootsnall.com.
Read Roy’s other Bootsnall articles here.