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Rodeo rings in 75th year with book on its history

Michael Barnes, Out & About

Staff Writer
Austin 360

On the afternoon of March 6, 1940, they gathered in the shadows of the Capitol. Area men and boys led 20 bathed and brushed calves to West 11th Street and Congress Avenue for the city's first Baby Beef Show.

Sponsored by the Austin Chamber of Commerce and the Travis County Agricultural Extension Service , this urban display of bovine beauty impressed the judges, as well as bidders, during the subsequent auction. Creedmore's Vernon Carson scored with his 755-pound grand champion calf, purchased by Harry Akin of Night Hawk Restaurants for 27.5 cents per pound.

From this humble assembly, attracting mostly curiosity seekers, grew Rodeo Austin, an entertainment juggernaut that now draws hundreds of thousands each March to a livestock show, carnival, midway, concerts and, of course, rodeo sports at the Travis County Exposition Center near Walter E. Long Lake.

This year, the show commemorates its 75th anniversary with the publication of "Rodeo Austin: Blue Ribbons, Buckin' Broncs & Big Dreams," a history from Texas A&M University Press by Austinite Liz Carmack.

Hold on, you say, the 75th? That math doesn't quite work.

"My research shows that the first livestock show was held in 1940," Carmack said. "But Rodeo Austin counts its founding date as 1938, the year the chamber began to talk about holding a livestock show."

Started as a practical way to promote beef production, the event quickly crossed over into entertainment, doubling as a lesson in traditional Texas and Western culture. Calf scrambles were added in 1949. The first junior rodeo - roping, riding and other contests - did not come until 1951.

Country music singer and movie actor Tex Ritter appeared at the second rodeo in 1952, the year the backers held their first parade. Later, carnival rides, midway attractions and agricultural demonstrations turned the show into something resembling a theme park.

Along the way, key civic leaders kept the rodeo from slipping out of its saddle . Some names - Night Hawk's Akin, businessman and philanthropist Louis Luedecke, Callahan's General Store's Jimmy and Verlin Callahan, pecan farmer Keith Berdoll, veterinarian Charles Graham, and lawyer Robert Sneed, for instance - may be familiar to contemporary Austinites.

"I most enjoyed seeing how Austin businesses, civic leaders and ordinary folks supported this event from its start," author Carmack said. "Also, seeing how the supporters of this show rallied around it during difficult times was incredibly impressive."

During the 1970s, at the peak of its urban phase, the rodeo stopped downtown Austin in its tracks. Students, executives and ordinary folks dressed in Western duds took off work or school and paraded down to Auditorium Shores, where the show sprawled from the cramped Quonset hut known as the City Coliseum, since demolished.

Along with the water-themed Aqua Fest and Longhorns football games, the rodeo was among the most visible community gatherings .

It all started with that Baby Beef Show right in the middle of a city not widely known for its agricultural bounties. Back then, business leaders were concerned that Texas was sending too much of its beef north to be fattened on Midwestern surplus grain. Why not do the job right here in Travis County, which supported more than 3,000 farms - 82 percent of the land in 1935 - and grew crops such as cotton, grains, peaches or potatoes while raising tens of thousands of cows, goats, chickens and turkeys.

Farming was so important to Austin 75 years ago, the chamber formed its own agricultural bureau that promoted the area's rural attractions as much as its industrial, commercial or residential appeal. Thus, the plans dating from 1938 for a "fat stock" show followed the founding of similar, but much larger annual exhibitions in Fort Worth (1896) and Houston (1931).

In 1942, the fast-expanding Austin show moved to the Municipal Market House, an open-sided concrete structure at East Seventh Street and East Avenue (Interstate 35), now the site of the central Austin police station. The auctioned animals were slaughtered free of charge at the Austin Municipal Abattoir at East Fifth Street and Pleasant Valley Road (the slaughterhouse was closed in 1969).

Girls joined the boys as early as 1944, and business leaders jockeyed to pay the highest prices for the champion cattle. Slowly, other livestock joined the competitions.

In 1949, the show moved to the City Coliseum, a former aircraft hangar located on Riverside Drive in what is now Butler Park. The size of the Coliseum limited the types of events and the size of audiences from the 1950s through the 1970s. So the show expanded and contracted with the addition of tents, a barn and use of the nearby Municipal Auditorium (the skeleton of which now supports the Long Center for the Performing Arts). There, country artists, including Buck Owens in 1965, performed.

Yet it was clear by the 1980s that the rodeo needed its own, much larger home with land to grow. Thus began one of the city's most impressive - and financially troubled - civic projects: a campaign to move to 128 acres in eastern Travis County by 1984.

Crucial to the evolution of what would become Rodeo Austin was the leadership of Luedecke, for whom the current arena is named. After his death, his gifts were placed in a trust, which provided the seed money for the rodeo's move to the Travis County Exposition Center. Lawyer and lobbyist Sneed suggested that the rodeo offer scholarships, which bolstered its nonprofit status, and put together the first buyers groups to spur bidding during the livestock auctions.

It was never, however, a purely private project. Travis County stepped in to help save the rodeo several times during the 1970s and '80s, as did the City of Austin during the bust of the late 1980s.

Nevertheless, the construction of the no-nonsense Luedecke Arena has become something of a legend among rodeo insiders. First came the unprecedented fundraising.

"We ended up with $4.5 million in pledges and cash donations and another $2 million to $2.5 million in in-kind donations," Director Emeritus Bill Knolle told Carmack. "The city's booming construction industry donated much of the material and labor. Without that help we couldn't have don't it."

Volunteers, led by Jimmy Callahan, joined work parties. Hundreds, including parents and children, helped during the fall and winter of 1983-84. It sounds like an old-fashioned barn raising.

"We built these parking lots in about four days," former show President Mike Eledge told Carmack. "We had 80 three-yard dump trucks working 24 hours a day."

On March 30, 1984, 2,000 guests in tuxedos, boots and formal Western wear gathered at the arena for its first big event. Willie Nelson headlined. Tickets went for $100.

The center has been improved and expanded several times since, but unlike the giant rodeos staged in sports arenas of other cities, it retains the feel of a rural exposition center. The menu of artists has grown more varied, and attendance peaked at 7,472 in 2010 with the rapidly rising act Lady Antebellum.

Even as the county's agricultural land has decreased, attendance at the Rodeo Austin's events - especially its carnival and barbecue cook-off - continues to grow. The cowboy breakfast, the gala and a dressy auction draw crowds back downtown.

Like other sports and entertainment outlets, the rodeo has become savvier about squeezing money out of guests, charging for admission to the fairgrounds and parking, while offering a dizzying array of discounts for the carnival, rodeo and concerts. Pro since 1989, Rodeo Austin ranked 17th out of 600 nationwide and fifth among indoor regular-season rodeos in terms of purse offered to winners, $412,458 in 2011. Under leaders such as CEO Bucky Lamb, rodeo management has grown more sophisticated and effective.

And yet some observers, like your social columnist, still head straight for the livestock enclosures to view the animals that gave Rodeo Austin its start in 1940. While other Austin events - South by Southwest, Formula One, Austin City Limits Music Festival - have connected the city to a global culture, Rodeo Austin links us to the region's past.

And, as Carmack's book attests, that's reason enough to dive into the show.

"I think I'm drawn to authenticity," she said. "Researching and writing `Rodeo Austin' let me do more of what I love, immersing myself in parts of Texas' story."

mbarnes@statesman.com

Hotel history opens door for local rodeo chronicle

This was not author Liz Carmack's first time at the rodeo. Yet the Lawton, Okla., native is hardly a hardened follower of the sport.

"You could not peg me as a big rodeo fan," she said. "I'm actually a fish-eating vegetarian who occasionally indulges in pork ribs."

Other than a few childhood experiences, her first memorable rodeo came in Hunt, initiating a couple of English friends and their teenage sons in the ways of the Old West.

"I had more fun experiencing the rodeo through their eyes," she remembers. "They were amazed at the danger and how close they could get to the animals."

Trained as a journalist, this author's lifelong romance with old inns led her to write the authoritative "Historic Hotels of Texas." Contacts from previous research projects tapped Carmack for the rodeo history gig.

"This just landed in lap," she says. "It's the hardest project I've ever done and the most exciting. Just trying to wrangle all the facts!"

Her first challenge: Current rodeo leaders couldn't agree on a clear notion of the show's origins. Their materials - and most of their memories - stretched back to the 1970s. Yet the livestock show was already three decades old by then, and the rodeo, rides and concerts had been regular attractions since the 1950s and '60s.

She hit the archival jackpot when she discovered the Austin Chamber of Commerce's trove of annual reports. The business group had dreamed up the Baby Beef Show and remained involved in the event for decades. The papers of lawyer Robert Sneed and longtime chamber manager Walter E. Long also proved invaluable, as did the Russell Lee Photograph Collection at UT's Dolph Bricoe Center for American History.

Carmack has nothing but praise for the rodeo leadership, which proved good sports, even when questioned about obvious omissions, like the absence of women in the highest positions.

"And I've never been called `ma'am' so much in my life," she said. "Everyone at the rodeo is so polite."

- Michael Barnes