Nine Decades of Houston Livestock and Rodeo
90 Years of Roping, Riding, fun and fund-Raising
What other charity can boast over $500 million raised, 800 scholarships grants totaling $14 million yearly, has nine decades of service and gives back to our community and state in innumerable ways? The Houston Livestock Show and Rodeo, that’s who!
In late 1930 and early 1931, concerned business leaders and cattlemen began discussing ways to increase awareness of the cattle industry in the region. Despite two million cattle in the Texas Gulf Coast region, Houston ranked 37th among livestock markets They soon learned that no large cattle market had ever been developed in a city or region that did not have a well-known livestock show. In January of 1931, a group of seven men met for lunch at the Texas State Hotel. When the lunch was complete, the Houston Fat Stock Show and Livestock Exposition was born! Each of the seven men was elected to an official leadership position for the first Show that was to be held in 1932 at the Democratic Convention Hall, also known as the Sam Houston Hall, which was later demolished in 1937. The event, attended by 2,000 guests, offered free BBQ, impromptu rodeos and a Champion Steer which sold for $504. The event lost $2,800 but the founders kept it active!
The rodeo continued through 1936, but not even a fire could stop the momentum created four years earlier. Organizers utilized the year off to explore new ideas to unveil the 1938 “Show of Shows,” which included Wilhelmina Beane as the first female director of the show, a downtown parade, a carnival and midway, Horse Show, exhibits and reserved seats were sold for an astounding $1.10! By 1939, their goal was realized as Houston ranked 7th nationally as a cattle market.
In 1942, mainly considered “The War Years” era, the rodeo was dedicated to the war effort and national treasure Gene Autry (known in movies as “The Singing Cowboy”), became the first star entertainer. When he came to the rodeo in 1942, he sponsored an essay contest called “Why I am Proud to be an American.” The winner met the star singer in person. The always entertaining Calf Scramble was added. Today, each student who catches a calf is awarded a $1,750 certificate to purchase a registered beef heifer or market steer to show at the Houston Livestock Show and Rodeo the following year.
The 1950s saw four men ride horseback from Brenham to Houston on the Salt Grass in 1952, and this is considered the first trail ride in conjunction with the show. In 1957, the Show presented its first scholarship in the amount of $2,000. Roy Rogers and wife Dale Evans performed seven times during this decade.
In 1961, the organization’s name was changed to Houston Livestock Show and Rodeo, was moved into the Astrodome and Astrohall and the signature “bowlegged H” logo was created.
The World’s Championship Bar-B-Que Contest was first held in 1974, where Elvis Presley performed for the 2nd time. The 6,000 seat Astroarena was completed in 1975. Legendary entertainer Dolly Parton took the stage in 1978.
Renowned entertainer George Strait first performed in 1983 and performed 23 subsequent times to include our current rodeo. Reba McEntire performed 17 times during the 80s and 90s. The celebrated Rotating Stage was introduced in 1986 and allowed the rodeo to get the musicians and entertainers into and out of the arena easier and more quickly. The Go Tejano Committee was formed in 1990. The Black Heritage Committee began in 1993 and was renamed in 2003.
The millennium began with a bang as 20-time performer Charley Pride became the first rodeo entertainer to sing for 1 million fans. The Rodeo moved into NRG Stadium and NRG Center in 2003. The Wine Show commenced in 2003 and the dazzling Star Stage was showcased in 2018.
By 2019, the Rodeo would have over 35,000 volunteers on 110 committees, the general attendance topped 2.5 million with a paid attendance of 1.33 million and accommodated over 34,000 total livestock and horse show entries.
For more than 50 years, the School Art Program has challenged students and schools to think outside the box. The program provides students, Pre-K through 12th grade, the opportunity to compete in district shows, earn scholarships, travel to summer workshops and display artwork in the Hayloft Gallery during the Rodeo. Currently, the School Art Program supports approximately 130 different school districts, including private and parochial schools, in the Houston area. Each year, the Rodeo receives thousands of entries from talented young Texans and this annual competition raises $1 million. Each year, 15 graduating high school students receive four-year $20,000 college scholarships to pursue a degree in a subject of their choice at a Texas college or university.
The Rodeo Uncorked! & Best Bites Competition (BBC), added to the Rodeo in 2003, attracts over 5,000 attendees annually and is one of the leading events heading into the two-week rodeo competition. The Champion Wine Garden was added in 2004 was established to showcase winning wines during the Rodeo. The BBC annually raises upwards of $900,000. Exhibitors for this food and wine event are judged by the media but also by the people attending. In late February, local winners included Cotton Culinary, Guard & Grace with A Modern Steakhouse, Joyce’s Seafood & Steaks, Taste of Texas Restaurant, Omni Houston Hotel, Songkran Thai Kitchen, Revival Market, Killen’s TMX, Gus’ Fried Chicken, Russo’s Italian Kitchen, Ragin’ Cajun, Ashley Cakes and Craft Creamery. The Champion Auction & Wine Dinner recently brought in $2.7 million. Partners Ryan Levy and Ian Eastveld, owners of local wine favorite Nice Wines walked away with Reserve Grand Champion Best of Show honors for their Nice Winery Cabernet Franc, Paicines, 2018. This year, Ben Berg of Berg Hospitality Group opened a temporary fine-dining restaurant called The Ranch Saloon + Steakhouse, which is the only on-premises restaurant open to the public.
One of the important missions of the Houston Livestock and Rodeo concerns agriculture, upon which our lives depend for basic physiological needs. Things to note about our food: Americans spend less than 10% of their disposable income on food which is the lowest percentage of any country in the world; the average age of a US farmer has increased from 50 to 58 over the past three decades and global population is projected to grow from our current 7.4 billion to approximately 9.5 billion by 2050. We will need to produce more food with the same amount of land, which will require the use of technology. The Rodeo accomplishes this mission by fostering the agricultural interests of exhibitors and contestants, by providing scholarships to those who will study agriculture and the related sciences and by educating the general public on the importance of agriculture.
Covid certainly created issues for the rodeo as well as our community, nation and the world. Now that the pandemic has eased, the excitement is back once again as Houston Livestock and Rodeo has returned to NRG Stadium and NRG Center from March 3-22. Our city is grateful for the amazing work done by the Rodeo committee, sponsors, volunteers, staff, performers and the entire team of hundreds that it takes to put on an event for nine decades! Welcome back HLSR! Head Up and Head Out!