John Scanlon 2017-08-17 05:30:19
COWTOWN RODEO Singer Willie Nelson once urged mamas not to let their babies grow up to be cowboys, but Howard Grant Harris just about came out of the chute on a bucking bronco when he was born 63 years ago, and he’s been doing fine ever since. Hard to believe the Cowtown Rodeo is in its 63rd season. Harris is the king of Cowtown, just like his father before him, and his grandfather before him - - a lineage that has kept the beloved rodeo moseying along as a weathered showplace of cowboy showmanship amid the wide-open pastures of Pilesgrove in rural Salem County. “It’s the cowboy culture, the icon of the American cowboy that I think is ingrained in most Americans to some degree,” Harris says, pondering Cowtown’s staying power as a crowdpleaser. “The rodeo also is wonderful family entertainment. It has thrills, chills and spills for all ages.” Cowtown is an institution in these parts, as durable as a pair of dusty, broken-in boots. Fans routinely pack the 4,000-seat rodeo arena on Saturday nights from late May to late September. Thousands more browse for year-round bargains at the Cowtown Farmers Market, a fleamart paradise of 300 vendors that has operated since 1926. Harris is easy and breezy, a rodeo entrepreneur whose 1954 birth occurred just before his family debuted Cowtown Rodeo as a professional venue of competitive bull riding, steer wrestling and cattle roping. As Cowtown’s owner, he has sat tall in the saddle for nearly 40 years. Longer than his grandfather Howard “Stoney” Harris, who, for almost a decade starting in 1929, staged a yearly rodeo in Woodstown as a feature of the Salem County Fair. Longer than his father Howard, Stoney’s son, who bought the Cowtown Rodeo and farmers market in 1961, as well as the family’s 1,200- acre livestock farm, and sold it to his son and wife Betsy in 1978. Its ongoing vitality is a testament to Howard Grant Harris’ own stewardship of the family business. But Harris, himself a competitor on the national rodeo circuit for a decade, starting at 14, is modest about his contributions to Cowtown’s legacy. Don’t mess it up. That seems to have been his philosophy all these years. “I worked for my father and my grandfather in this business,” he says. “There were a lot of things they were good at, some things they weren’t so good at. I saw mistakes being made. I’m 63 now, and if I’ve tried to do one thing, it’s not to repeat mistakes. Actually, what I enjoy most is managing the livestock here. My grandfather was a born showman. My father was a born cowboy. They taught me this business.” Rodeos started to thrive in this country’s western states after the Civil War. Mythic figures like Buffalo Bill Cody and Annie Oakley became stars on the rodeo circuit. A century later, in the early 1980s, the country’s rodeos enjoyed explosive growth propelled by broader media coverage and, according to the Professional Rodeo Cowboys Association, an infusion of young competitors, many of them from urban areas, with college degrees, lured by the athleticism of rodeo events. PRCA, an industry group that promotes rodeos, public education and animal welfare, sanctions about 600 rodeos in 38 states -- including Cowtown Rodeo -- and in four Canadian provinces. It’s logical to presume that a rodeo appeals to hootin’ macho men. But PRCA, in a demographic study of 5.4 million fans who attend rodeo events across the country each year, estimates that 51 percent are women. This doesn’t surprise Harris. “Not at all. In our culture, the wife of the house and the mother of the children dictate the use of spare time more than the husband and father, in most cases,” he says. “I’m surprised it’s not more than 51 percent. The rodeo has always been good family entertainment. I think that faith, country and family are high priorities in our tradition.” Cowtown humorously plugs its rodeo as “The Best Show On Dirt.” Though its core fans live in the Delaware Valley region, Cowtown ropes in spectators from North Jersey to Baltimore, a fan base lured by the Old West ambience and smells, by the equestrian skills and the bullish strength of Saturday-night cowpokes competing for prize money. “I’d say that most people are cheering more for the animal than the performer. We all tend to want to root for the underdog,” Harris says with a chuckle. Harris was a buckaroo on the rise when he came home from Casper College in Wyoming in the mid-1970s and resumed a budding rodeo career. Saddle-bronc riding was his specialty; he’d claimed a string of championships. Eight seconds on a horse or a bull, he says, could earn him competition money that took him months to earn while working on the family livestock farm. “My first year out of high school, I guess it was 1972, I earned $18,000 in rodeo competitions -- a nice sum in those days,” he says. His life, however, changed in 1978. Just 24. And his father delivered news that hit Harris like ... Well, like a bronco kick to the gut. He wanted to sell Cowtown and the farm. And a commercial developer wanted to buy it. “I begged my dad to keep going with it, but he had other things he wanted to do,” Harris says. “He wanted to sell the rodeo; it would have been sold regardless. He and mom had a sweet offer for our land. The deal turned sour for a lot of reasons, most of them on the side of the developer.” Harris didn’t wait for his dad to get another offer. He and Betsy made their own -- “I’ll just say it was a very daunting figure for a 24-year-old,” Harris says -- and his father took it and agreed to hold the mortgage note. Years later, Harris remembers his initial regret of walking away from rodeo competition while still at the top of his game. He may have had six, seven good years left in him. Rodeo guys, he says, “lose a step or two” once they pass 30. Some still do it in their 40s; most of them don’t. “You’re young and bulletproof. You don’t stay down for long,” says Harris, who had a litany of bone fractures during his career. “For me, the unsuccessful rides did not trump the successful rides. But this is a young man’s game. It is very, very physical. You know when it’s time.” You don’t have to tell Harris that nearly 40 years of running Cowtown Rodeo is a lot of cowboy sunsets. He and Betsy, a key business partner, aren’t ready to ride off together just yet, but the time is near, and they’re working on a succession plan with daughters Courtney and Katy and the rodeo men they’re married to. “You work until you can’t. But Betsy and I know it’s time,” Harris says. “I’ve seen so many of my neighbors, farmers mostly, who held on too long and didn’t give the young ones a chance to take over. We don’t want to do that.” (For information on Cowtown events, visit www.cowtownrodeo.com or call 856-769-3200.)
Published by AAA South Jersey. View All Articles.
This page can be found at http://www.evergreeneditions.com/article/Cowboys+In+Salem+County/2857309/432195/article.html.