Changes seen at the National Western Stock Show
for The Fence Post
DENVER — The 2020 National Western Stock Show promises to showcase your favorite western traditions as well as highlight the many “must see” events across the grounds. The best 16 days in January opens Saturday, Jan. 11, and runs through Jan. 26, with everything from petting farms and pony rides, championship fiddle competitions, PBR bull riding, family-fun dog shows, the Exceptional Rodeo event for kids with special needs, the Coors Western Art gallery, a nursery of baby animals, and acres of food and shopping, including the Chevy display in the main expo hall.
The National Western Stock Show will host nearly 30 professional rodeo performances, world-class horse shows and the “Super Bowl” of livestock shows. There will be more than 15,000 head of livestock and horses that pass through the grounds, with 25 different breeds of cattle and six other species, including miniature cattle, goats, lambs, alpacas, llamas and poultry.
The National Western Stock Show will drive $120 million in economic impact to the Denver Metro area this January and raise more than $500,000 for the National Western Scholarship Trust, which distributes more than 100 scholarships to students studying in the fields of agricultural sciences, rural medicine and veterinary medicine.
Grounds admission and event tickets are on sale at nationalwestern.com and all King Soopers locations.
With the big changes going on at the National Western Complex it is interesting to look back at how it used to be. There are some old timers around that will remember the old brick horse and mule barns north of the old stadium arena that have long since been torn down and replaced with much nicer facilities including the Expo Hall.
They will also remember the overpass over I-70. North and east of the stock show grounds where many old hotels and residences built around the turn of the century such as the Wards Hotel mentioned in this story. Over the years they have been torn down so the National Western Complex could be enlarged. This is a story about a 25-year-old cowboy who rode horses and worked cattle for a living and some of his experiences at the National Western Stock Show in 1963. It is a factual story.
Over 50 years ago Kirk Rush was working for well-respected Quarter Horse breeder of the day, Ray Moore. They were heading to the National Western Stock Show, held in Denver each January, with a carload of Angus heifers to be shown out in the “Yards” and four Quarter horses to show “on the hill,” two in pleasure and two in cutting.
After settling the horses in the long brick horse and mule barns north of the old coliseum and the heifers into their assigned pen in the stock yards, Kirk checked into a room in the Wards Hotel. The old, three-story brick building was built around the turn of the century. It had a bar on the first floor with guest rooms on the upper floors. The rooms didn’t have frills, just a twin bed, a large sink and a toilet. (Guess they didn’t feel a daily shower or bath was necessary back when it was built.) The old timers gave it the handle of the “Bucket of Blood.” In spite of its age and reputation, Kirk chose to stay there because it was close to the grounds, one block north of the barns, and it was cheap, only $3 a night.
1963 turned out to be one of those cold miserable years that are noted as “Stock Show weather.” It had snowed every day for the four days before Ray and Kirk went to Denver. They rose at sunrise to feed the cattle and horses. Then the horses had to be ridden and worked down. Many of the riders back then worked them in a parking lot behind the coliseum that was dirt, but has long since been paved.
Kirk put on his heavy coat and chaps to ward off the chilly temperatures as he went to exercise a flashy, palomino gelding that was entered in a cutting horse class later in the day. Though he was a cowy horse that was really sharp when put on cattle, he was what the cowboys call “a little humpy” or in common terms, liked to buck. To get to the parking lot Kirk had to ride across I-70 in the enclosed overpass that connected the “old stadium” to the “new coliseum.” One of the two lanes in the overpass was crowded with people crossing to and from the coliseum. The other half was busy with handlers leading show cattle, horses and riders heading to exercise.
Entering the busy overpass, Kirk had to convince this spooky gelding it wasn’t a bad place. That wasn’t an easy task with all the commotion of people, cattle and horses. Dancing along this way and that they finally made it to the parking lot. Once there, little dirt could be seen, the ground was slick and dangerous from the days of snow. This ornery palomino needed at least two or three hours of exercise to get worked down and tired but he was not about to go “slow and easy” slick or not. In a couple steps he broke in two, giving everybody around quite a show as he went to bucking, trying to dump his rider. Kirk managed to stay aboard but the horse ended up slipping and going down. He landed on his side, Kirk’s left knee was pinned under him. Kirk stayed in the saddle as the gelding floundered around regaining his feet. The horse was unhurt but Kirk’s knee hurt like “hell.” As much as he wanted to quit and get off, he didn’t. He was hired to ride this knot head, slick or not. Two long, hard hours later the horse was tired; Kirk’s knee was swollen and aching. All the effort must have helped because Ray placed second out of 20 in the cutting horse class that afternoon. Kirk worked the other horses, cleaned the heifers’ pens and fed during the rest of the day trying to ignore his knee. It was really killing him as he hobbled around. The end of the day couldn’t get there quick enough. He finally headed for the bar in the Wards Hotel. Leaning on the bar, his knee painful and throbbing, he asked the bartender, “Do you know how to make a hot toddy?”
“Never heard of it,” he replied.
“Will you make me one if I tell you how?” Kirk responded hopefully.
“Put one shot of whiskey in a glass, but I want two. One shot of lemon juice, and about three fingers of really hot water,” the tired cowboy explained as he held up three extended fingers.
The bartender went away and came back, glass steaming, with his “hot toddy.” Kirk took it up to his room to nurse while he was trying to get warm and check out his knee. As he peeled off the layers of heavy clothes he longed for a tub to soak it. After studying it, he decided it was badly bruised but not broken. The sink was pretty big so he filled it with hot water. Getting up on the vanity, he could put his feet, but not his knee into the water. He had brought his own towels as the hotel didn’t furnish any. Dipping one into the hot water he held it on his sore knee. He kept it there until it cooled, dipping it in the hot water again and again as he sat there drinking his hot toddy. After soaking for a good while he took a spit bath (as they were called when you had nothing but a sink.) Before he could hit the sack he heard a ruckus outside in the hall followed shortly by some gun shots. Wanting to know what it was, he stepped out carefully. Down the hall and around the corner someone had been shot. Slipping quickly back in his room, he thought, “Now I know why it’s called the ‘Bucket of Blood!’”
Chores started early feeding the horses and cleaning stalls on the hill. Then out to the Yards to the waiting heifers. The Yards, as the stock yards were known, consisted of hundreds of pens made of heavy plank lumber with brick paved alleys. Cattle breeders brought their bulls down to show and sell. Prospective buyers sauntered down the alleys looking for just the right animal.
Ray and Kirk had a late breakfast in the “Exchange building.” The big brick building built at the turn of the century was at the edge of the stock yards. It was a hub of the livestock business with many offices for cattle breeds and the Colorado Brand Office. A vet supply store in the basement, a fine restaurant and shoe shine stands could even be found there. It is still there and is on the register of historic buildings.
Ray brought a pen of commercial heifers hoping to sell to someone wanting to increase their herd or start a quality herd. These animals were not haltered or shown individually, the judges just went to the pen, looking for uniformity of quality and size as the cattle milled around. Kirk had to keep the pen clean of manure and fresh feed before them all the time. He did that in between rides on Ray’s horses. Ray did well with his heifers, selling them before the end of the stock show.
Having spent his life in the livestock world, Kirk knew many of the breeders and enjoyed visiting with them in the Yards. He made sure to visit the Sidwell Hereford pen as he had attended high school with Harold Sidwell, the middle son. There was always somebody to visit with and this camaraderie was one of the features that brought people, showman, cattle breeders and buyers back year after year. That is still true but the look of the National Western Complex and Yards are changing. The old was good, but the new will be, too. ❖