Jardin Carlson Loeffler has had a lifelong love affair with Rodeo Austin.
As a child, she appreciated the smell of funnel cake on the fairgrounds, the sweet personalities of the lambs in the petting zoo and the thrill of helping her mom and dad bid on animals at the livestock auction.
In her early 20s, while volunteering at the rodeo in 2004, she met her husband, Cullen Loeffler. The day after they met, they went on their first date, also to the rodeo, to see Merle Haggard.
Now, as a mom, she enjoys the annual March event with her two kids, Landyn, 12, and Senate, 9, who have tested out everything from Mutton Bustin’ to carnival rides.
"I don’t think I’ve ever missed a Rodeo Austin, like, since I was born," Loeffler said.
But Loeffler is more than just a fan of Rodeo Austin. As a longtime committee member and this year’s chair of the Youth Auction, Loeffler is part of a growing new guard of women at Rodeo Austin who are stepping into roles traditionally held by men — oftentimes their fathers — to usher the event forward.
"The culture of it is sometimes perceived as the good ol’ boy network, but there has been significant female involvement over the years, and I have seen it certainly since I came on board," said board of directors member Calley Callahan Asklund. "There are some very strong women on the board now, and (the men) listen to us."
Founded in 1938, Rodeo Austin has grown from a 16-animal stock show to a sprawling event with a carnival, concerts, livestock show and ProRodeo that last year drew more than 255,000 visitors and raised $2.3 million for Texas youths.
Loeffler’s dad, former Rodeo Austin President Tommy Carlson, got involved with the rodeo through friends in the 1980s. Carlson, who did not have a farming background, said he was surprised by how much he enjoyed rodeo culture.
"I’m a city boy," said Carlson, who grew up in South Austin. "But to see those kids, how they raise animals, and you see the looks on their faces, it gets you excited and makes you feel good knowing you’re trying to do something good. It just gets in your blood. I was sold right then."
Before becoming Rodeo Austin’s president in 1988, Carlson volunteered on various committees, including parking.
"We really didn’t know what we were doing," Carlson said about handling parking at the Travis County Expo Center, where the rodeo has been held since the 1980s. "We looked up and Decker Lane, everywhere you looked you saw car lights — this way, that way, as far as you could see. We were like, ‘Oh, my gosh, we’re in trouble.’ We couldn’t park them fast enough. People were mad."
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Carlson and his wife, Marilyn, turned the rodeo into a second home each March for Loeffler and her sisters.
"My wife and I had her out there when she was that high," Carlson said, raising his hand 2 feet off the ground, "at the auctions, the rodeos, everything. It’s a great family experience. You can just see it on their faces, a lot of these kids haven’t seen the animals in the petting zoo. Their eyes get (so) big."
Loeffler began volunteering at the rodeo when she was 15 and credits former Rodeo Austin President Tommy Dodd (2006) with giving her a behind-the-scenes glimpse of the event that she fell in love with. She has since served on numerous committees including the Youth Western Art Show and the Rodeo Austin Gala and last fall was approached by current President Joe Straub about chairing the event’s largest fundraiser, the Youth Auction. Last year, the Youth Auction accounted for $1.7 million of the $2.3 million total that was raised at the event, all of which goes to scholarships and support for Texas children.
"I thought he was joking. He saw something in me that I was scared to see," she said. "In my mind, it’s always been the strongest committee that we have and the most impactful. I didn’t want to screw up, and I didn’t want to let anybody down."
So she called a man she knew would give her good advice — her dad.
"I guess I’m a little prejudiced because I had four daughters, so I like to see them all get involved in whatever they want to get involved in," said Carlson, who is part of the Rodeo Austin Hall of Fame. "We need more women leadership. We had a long talk, and I told her I’d be there to help her. She’s a smart girl. She can figure it out. It’s just a matter of how much effort you want to put into it. You get back out what you put into it."
Loeffler said being Youth Auction chair, a volunteer position, has been like a full-time job, especially because she set an ambitious goal — she hopes to raise $2 million this year in the Youth Auction portion of the rodeo alone. She said although she was initially nervous, she’s excited to show her children what their mom, who is only the second woman to ever hold this position, can do.
"I think females, ever since I’ve grown up in the rodeo industry, they’ve kind of taken a backseat just because it’s ag. It’s ranching. It’s rodeo," she said. "I want my daughter, in particular, to know that while rodeo seems like it’s a male-dominated organization, we all work hard, and we have many women that are on the board of directors, and many of us chair the different committees. I think it’s important to show her that I’m not afraid to stand up and get in front of what people view as a male-dominated organization."
The Rodeo Austin Youth Auction, which will be held March 27 at ACL Live, is supported by individual buyers groups that fundraise on their own leading up to the event and use that money to purchase animals on the day of the sale. Last year, Capital City Chicks ATX was the first all-female buyers group to participate in the auction.
"(A female buyers group) has just been missing. I don’t know that it’s more important now, I think it was just as important before and we missed the opportunity," said Dawn Liesmann, who co-founded Capital City Chicks ATX and is also the vice-chair of poultry for this year’s auction. "It’s just a different spin when we’re in control of it and can run it differently. You get some more enthusiasm."
Liesmann said Capital City Chicks ATX, which focuses on purchasing poultry at the auction and last year raised $46,000, has tried to get creative with its fundraising ideas this year, brainstorming everything from Kendra Scott give-back nights to donations at spin classes to a "chicken (expletive) bingo" event.
"We’re trying to think outside the box," she said, adding that last year the group’s theme was "black and feathers" at the auction and they decorated their table with chickens. "Yeah, we kind of were obnoxious, just a little. We’ve made things fresh. It makes you realize you can still be involved in agriculture even if you don’t farm or ranch every day of your life."
On the day of the sale, more than 400 children and teens from across the state will travel to Rodeo Austin, some of them driving through the night, to auction off animals they have spent the year raising. All of the money they receive for their animals will go directly back to them to be used either for higher education or for a new animal project. Loeffler said the kids are the reason she accepted the chair position.
"These kids get up in the morning, they have to go take care of and feed their animals, then they go to maybe sports before school, they work hard being an A student at school, then a lot of them either have sports or jobs after school," she said. "I just admire the grit that those kids have. I want to continue to let them know that we support them, we see them, and their effort doesn’t go unrecognized. I guess that’s why I’m so in love with it. I love the hardworking Texas kids."
Asklund, whose father, Verlin Callahan, ran Callahan’s General Store and was a Rodeo Austin president in 1972 and 1973, has been on the board since the late 1990s, serving in various roles.
"Like the Hank Williams song, I’m just carrying on the family tradition," Asklund said, adding that she intends to stay on the board "until they decide to kick me off." "I have the history and the background to know the origins of (the rodeo). It’s always important to understand where you come from; with that knowledge, you have a better ability to foresee what’s good for it in the future."
Asklund, who is an attorney for her day job, said the board is hopeful that the rodeo will soon expand to include a larger facility that could accommodate greater attendance. She added that many people don’t realize that the rodeo is a nonprofit and that all of the money raised goes directly back to Texas youths.
"When you go out and buy some cotton candy on the fairgrounds, that’s all going to support the mission of serving the youth in Texas," she said. "It’s education and entertainment with a purpose."
She added that there’s still one barrier that’s yet to be broken at the rodeo: "There’s unfortunately never been a woman president."
Loeffler said she’s hopeful that the Youth Auction will reach its $2 million goal on March 27, adding that on March 28, work will start for next year’s event. As for her future with the rodeo? She’s not ruling out the possibility of one day following in her dad’s footsteps and becoming Rodeo Austin president.
"Women are getting bolder, and they’re ready to stand up and butt in and share their ideas. Most of us are hard-driven," she said. "Rodeo Austin is a huge family. I’m leaning on my dad to give me support and the knowledge behind all of this and how things have transpired for Rodeo Austin over the years, but I know it’s up to me to continue it."