If you've ever been to the Houston Livestock Show and Rodeo, you know that there's really nothing like it. It's the largest rodeo and livestock exhibition in the entire world -- something that can only be understood as you explore the vastness of NRG Park, its arena and various event centers that are filled with everything from petting zoos and calf scrambles to wine gardens and cattle for sale. Not only is it the premier place for ranchers to show off their livestock and performance horses, but the ultimate way for everyday folks to feel immersed in cowboy culture.
The nearly month-long event features endless rodeo action throughout NRG Center with some of the biggest names in country music and more lined up to entertain the millions of attendees in NRG Stadium. During the day you can eat your fill of BBQ and fried Oreos over at the carnival, get an inside look at the various livestock exhibits, and end your night singing along to Tim McGraw, Brad Paisley, Brooks & Dunn or Keith Urban. Could you even ask for more fun all in one spot?
While the event now offers a significant boost to the Houston economy every March, it actually took many years and many talented people with a vision for it to become what it is today. Here's a brief trip down memory lane to revisit how the rodeo was founded and how it has evolved, grown, and improved to become a worldwide phenomenon.
1932 - Houston Fat Stock Show and Livestock Exhibition
It all started in 1931 when Houston stockyard manager James W. Sartwelle invited six other businessmen to have lunch at the Texas State Hotel. Sartwelle was frustrated over the fact that ranchers didn't really have any good opportunities to showcase their breeds, specifically the newer Brahman cattle breed that was gaining popularity in the area. Some attempted to be featured in the Southwestern Exposition and Livestock Show over in Fort Worth, but they weren't able to get into the main arena and were rudely asked to leave. Fort Worth believed that the Brahman breed was inferior to what they were showing so Sartwelle decided enough was enough.
That fated day in January 1931, Sartwelle and the other men had the simple idea of hosting their own livestock exhibition in Houston. The first event took place just a few months later in April at Sam Houston Hall in downtown Houston. Over 2,000 people attended the inaugural event and within a few years, they had already outgrown their annual venue.
1942 - Gene Autry is first major entertainer
By this point, the livestock exhibition had moved over to the 10,000 seat arena, Sam Houston Coliseum, after Sam Houston Hall was torn down in 1936. Despite World War II taking many folks overseas, rodeo organizers managed to bring in local musical acts to entertain their guests. As of 1938, they had also added in the annual downtown rodeo parade, which remains a beloved tradition for families all over Houston.
In 1942, the singing cowboy himself Gene Autry became the very first mainstream talent to perform at Houston's rodeo. As we know, he definitely wouldn't be the last and we really couldn't even think of a better celebrity to kick off this trend.
1952 - The first cattle drive
Organizers needed a good publicity stunt to attract higher attendance numbers after two consistent decades of the rodeo, so they came up with the idea to hold a cattle drive that the media could attend. They joined a group of Texas cowboys on a 75-mile cattle drive from Brenham to Houston. It was so successful that the rodeo did the trail again the following year and other areas around the state of Texas began hosting their own cattle drives to the rodeo. This was a monumental moment that transformed the rodeo from a fun regional event to a major statewide attraction.
1957 - Myrtis Dightman launches first trail ride for African-Americans and scholarships launch
Thanks to rodeo legend Myrtis Dightman, the first African-American to compete at the National Finals Rodeo, bull rider James Francies Jr. and veterinary professor Alfred Poindexter, a trail ride of 10 Black cowboys took place from Prairie View to Houston to join in Rodeo Houston's Go Texan Day and downtown parade. Unfortunately, they were not welcome in Memorial Park with the other trail riders. They had to have armed guards with them to make sure they could enter safely, but they made sure to take a stand anyway. By showing up they ensured that the legacy of Black cowboys would live on and continue to contribute to rodeo culture.
That same year, the rodeo awarded Ben Dickerson $2,000 towards his education. This was a big shift in focus for the rodeo in deciding that they wanted to have an emphasis on scholarships and education moving forward.
1961 - Houston Livestock Show & Rodeo
Time for a rebrand! The rodeo's name was updated to the Houston Livestock Show and Rodeo and it stuck this time. It does perfectly capture what you're in for if you visit the event!
1970- Elvis Performs
In 1970, the King performed at the Houston Astrodome during the Houston Livestock Show and Rodeo.
Check out footage of Elvis at a press conference for the rodeo below.
1973 - First Hispanic trail ride
Los Vaqueros Rio Grande Trail Ride was the very first Hispanic trail ride with a group covering 400 miles from the border crossing at Reynosa, Mexico all the way to Houston. Los Vaqueros founder Larry Ramirez's son David is the trail boss now he explained to the Houston Chronicle and continues the annual trek with his own children.
"It's kept us in the cowboy life," said Ramirez. "We were around our elders. It taught us respect. It taught us family values," he said. "It kept us off the streets, from running with the wrong crowd."
1974 - World's Championship Bar-B-Que Contest
The rodeo's Go Texan committee decided to launch a barbecue competition in the parking lot of the Astrodome where the rodeo had taken place since 1966. The cook-off featured 17 teams that had to cook at least 10 lbs of meat on a wood fire. Western actor and rodeo star Ben Johnson was even one of the featured judges. The competition became an extremely popular attraction and is now one of the largest cook-offs in the country with over 250 competing teams.
This same year, Elvis Presley made an attendance record when he performed for over 88,000 people in one day (two separate crowds of roughly 44k).
1988 - 5k run and 10k fun run through downtown Houston to raise money for scholarship fund
The rodeo's emphasis on boosting their scholarship fund continues! This includes local residents and Houston visitors paying to participate in a downtown fun run with all proceeds contributing to their scholarship fund.
1995 - Selena sets record for high attendance for third year in a row
Tejano superstar and Texas treasure, Selena Quintanilla, breaks her own attendance record for the third time by performing for a crowd of over 67,000. This record-breaking performance was just a month before the singer was tragically killed.
2002 - George Strait sets attendance record
The King of Country performs for over 68,000 people in the Reliant Astrodome, setting one of many records he'll set performing at the Houston Rodeo.
2004 - Beyonce Performs
Hometown hero Beyoncé performed at the Houston Rodeo in 2004.
2008 - HLSR is inducted into the ProRodeo Hall of Fame
A huge honor for this massive event that now draws over 2 million annual visitors. Not only has the rodeo at this point donated millions in scholarship money, but it annually provides a massive boost to Houston's economy that is equivalent to hosting the Super Bowl.
2018 - Cody Johnson is first unsigned artist to play for a sold out crowd
Former rodeo professional Cody Johnson pursued a country music career after he wasn't able to make it in the tough world of the rodeo. He spent years building up a local following in Texas and made history performing for a sold-out crowd at the Houston Rodeo, unsigned to a major record label. He went on to sign a contract with Warner Nashville and is currently a hot new artist with two studio albums released with Warner.
2022 - RodeoHouston is back!
The rodeo was canceled for safety purposes in 2020 and 2021 due to the COVID-19 pandemic. But it's back in 2022 for its 90th anniversary with major performers including Jon Pardi, Luke Bryan, Kane Brown, George Strait and more.
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