I have always been drawn to the more-essential things in life (well, my life that is): agriculture, country music, loud trucks and, last but certainly not least, the rodeo, which I consider to be the most dangerous and thrilling sport in the world. In need of a fix, I decided there was no better way to experience it all than at the Fort Worth Stockyards. A day trip was definitely in order, and my parents were game.
After an hour drive, we began to see the redbrick roads (each brick was laid by hand), and I began to feel my heart pumping with excitement about the day ahead. This place dates back to the 1880’s and is rich with history—think of a time of cattle rustlers and the cattle stock exchange—and very much in the present. I was looking forward to eating amazing beef and seeing women in rhinestone beaded shirts, men in custom-made boots, and rough riders from all over competing at the Stockyards Championship Rodeo.
Our first stop was Fincher’s White Front Store, filled with Western wear, jeans, boots, and what not, and where you’ll find some of the best hat shapers in the state. Chuck Cummings, the manager and a longtime champion of the Stockyards, literally greeted us with open arms as we walked through the front door of the large “white front” building. You see, he and my father are cousins, and our family has been coming to Fincher’s for as long as I can remember to have a visit before heading off to dinner or the rodeo, also referred to as “the show” by locals.
While rummaging through the store hoping to find a shirt or pair of boots, Chuck began telling me about the history of the store, something I’d never heard before. When it was built back in the early 1900’s, things were very different: One half of the store was home to the Stockyards National Bank, where businesses would come to handle finances and cash checks, and the other housed the clothes, rows and rows of stacked merchandise. “It wasn’t like it is now, clothes all over the store on racks. The employees used to wait hand and foot on customers to make sure they got what they were looking for,” Chuck explained while showing me an old photograph hanging on the wall of two men, dressed in suspenders and button downs, standing next to piles and piles of blue jeans and cowboy hats.
I was still thinking of those piles and what it must have been like to go shopping so long ago as we crossed the street and headed into the White Elephant Saloon, an old wooden building. I was slapped in the face with the stench of stale smoke but also taken aback by the level of commitment to music. The saloon has fostered an appreciation for Texas music by showcasing talented up-and-coming singer songwriters at its Texas Music Showcase nights. Big names such as Tommy Alverson, Stoney LaRue, and the Eli Young Band draw the crowds as well.
While we waited for our starters to arrive, we took in the ambience: a huge bookshelf filled with white elephant figurines in every shape and size of porcelain, glass, and plastic; almost every bit of the walls and ceilings covered in cowboy hats belonging to performers, a small but manageable stage, and photographs of patrons having a good time. I was so pleased with my first experience at the White Elephant that I bought a T-shirt with its logo, in white of course.
We decided to take a little walk down to the renowned Cattlemen’s Steak House for dinner before heading off to the show. Cattlemen’s is known for its outrageously delicious cuts of corn-fed heavy-beef steaks, grilled to your liking by experienced chefs—the rookie has been there for more than a decade if that tells you anything. As I gazed around the restaurant, I noticed all of the Grand Champion livestock photos that hung on the walls. It is interesting to note how the cattle industry has changed since the founding of Cattlemen’s in 1947. Short, squatty, and round took first place in the forties, but if you go to any major livestock show today, you’ll see nothing but tall, lean, and muscular cattle taking the gold. What hasn’t changed is that generation after generation of families have been eating at Cattlemen’s, as evidenced by the images of smiling faces. When the server arrived with our entrées, my father looked at me and grinned, knowing what I was about to encounter. If you have ever thought to yourself, “Man, that was the best steak I’ve ever eaten,” I challenge you to compare it with the filet mignon, cooked medium-rare, at Cattlemen’s.
Waddling out of the restaurant, we walked a few blocks in the rain to the Cowtown Coliseum, home to the world’s first indoor rodeo, for the main event. I hadn’t been to a rodeo in quite some time, and though this one is not in the largest of categories, I was still excited to watch the daring contestants do what they love. Once we entered the arena and dried ourselves off, I heard a young voice belting out the National Anthem and the roar of the crowd as she finished in a high volume octave meant for a woman, not an eleven-year-old. The show began and ended with the most exciting and dangerous event: bull riding, which is as thrilling for me to watch as a six-year-old on Christmas morning. Chute after chute opened, and those brave men, some young, some older, risked their lives trying for eight seconds atop thousand-pound beasts. The crowd flinched and oohed every time someone was thrown or caught up, but Wes the Rodeo Clown kept the mood light with his foolish antics and jokes, which had my mother and me laughing out loud like hyenas.
We directed our attention to the north side of the arena for barrel racing, a sport I always wanted to learn how to master (unfortunately, I could never convince my father to let me keep a purebred horse in the backyard). As I watched these determined cowgirls race around the three barrels, my excitement began to build until finally I let go and shouted, “Come on!” Next was arguably the highlight of the night: The most precious five-year-old girl, dressed in a decorative shirt with pearl snaps and her hair in ponytails, was led into the arena atop a horse ten times her size. She knew exactly what to do. Crouching down, she led that horse around each barrel and back to the finish line with a time of 29.51 seconds—quite impressive for such a small little cowgirl with big dreams.
Every Friday and Saturday night at the Stockyards Championship Rodeo you can find determined folks on their quest to the top, in essence living their dreams. Hard work brought them to the arena—and others all across the state and country. There’s always that big prize and then a bigger one. Experiencing the excitement—and reliving the history of the Stockyards—reminded me of why this place is my favorite in the Lone Star State.