A stroll through the history of the National Western Stock Show

History and Tradition

Each winter nearly 700,000 people visit the National Western Stock Show, an extravaganza of about 30 rodeos, 11 horse shows, and countless other attractions just a couple of miles from the heart of Denver. For so many visitors from the increasingly urbanized West, the Stock Show offers a rare window into Western tradition and the enormous importance of the agricultural and ranching industries that have made their comfortable, networked lives possible.

For many other visitors, the National Western Stock Show is a pilgrimage, a gathering of the extended family that sustains and defines the West. Since the first Stock Show in 1906, it has been a place where generations of farmers and ranchers – people whose hard work feeds the rest of us – spend time reuniting with old friends, learning about new approaches and techniques in agriculture and ranching, and doing some business, year after year.

Take a look back through our 115+ years of history from our humble beginnings to our ambitious future.

The Early Years

through 1930

Early Denver Stock Shows

Prior to 1906, and the first National Western Stock Show, there were several attempts to hold a stock show in Denver.

June 30, 1874, was the year of the Denver Blood Stock Association’s Blood Stock Fair. This show involved the showing of Thoroughbred Cattle divided into five groupings of purebred cattle: 1) Shorthorns, 2) Herefords, 3) Devons, 4) Jerseys, and Ayrshires, and 5) Galloways along with five days of horse racing.

The National Western Arrives

In January 1906, six nearly simultaneous meetings were scheduled in Denver by the National Livestock Association, the American Stock Growers Association, the National Wool Growers Association, the Colorado Cattle, and Horse Growers Association, the Colorado Horticultural Society, and the Colorado State Forestry Association.

Aware of the synergy this would build in January, Elias M Ammons, president of the Colorado Cattle and Horse Growers Association in March 1905 suggested a stock show for January. Preparation for a stock show began in July. Premium lists were sent out in October.

Fortunately, the idea of a stock show was supported by two influential businesses, the Denver Union Stock Yard Company, and the Record-Stockman. Elias Ammons along with George W Ballantine, DUSY Co’s president, and Fred P Johnson, publisher of the Record-Stockman, are the three individuals who are given credit for organizing the initial 1906 Denver stock show, then known as the Western Live Stock Show.

Many leaders of the livestock, packing, and railroad industries were involved in the inauguration of the National Western.

W S Guilford, Assistant Manager,
Fred P Johnson, Secretary-Treasurer (owner of the Denver Daily Record-Stockman),
Elias M Ammons, President, (Douglas County rancher, president of the Colorado Cattle and Horse Growers Association, state senator and later governor),
Harry Petrie, Manager (president of the Denver Union Stock Yard Co)
John W Springer (rancher, Politician),
James S Temple (President of the Denver Chamber),
George W Ballantine (GM, DUSY Co),
George W Vallery (Gen Agent for the Burlington Railroad),
Alphonse E de Ricqles (GM American Live Stock & Loan Company),
Henry Gebhard (Pres, Colorado Packing & Provision Co)

In its first year the Western Live Stock Show was held next to the stock yards with much of the show being held in a big top tent borrowed from the Sells-Floto Circus

Despite the late start the 1906 show was heavily promoted.  A train load of students came with stock from Colorado Agricultural College beginning the National Westerns 115+ years of close ties with Colorado State University.

Special Pullmans came from Chicago, Kansas City, and Omaha. Four breeds of cattle (Angus, Galloway, Hereford, and Shorthorn) were shown in 1906. In total, 351 cattle, sheep and hogs were shown in 1906, a very respectable beginning.

When the Denver Union Stock Yard Co was purchased by the National Packing Company, George W Ballantine, the Denver Union Stock Yard Company’s general manager in Denver became the stock shows major underwriter.

It was apparent during the 1906 show that it would be a success so, the Western Stock Show Association was formed and incorporated as a not-for-profit company. To this day the WSSA is the legal entity behind the National Western Stock Show. Memberships were sold in the early years for $5 a year or $50 lifetime. Over half of the memberships sold were lifetime memberships.  Today only lifetime memberships are sold. Gifford Pinchot, the head of the Forest Service, was in town for the conventions and joined.

Beginning with the 1899 National Exhibition of Range Cattle the railroads would create a special tariff for stockmen and stock heading to stock shows in Denver. For example: in 1927 The Western Passenger Association would issue special excursion fares from stations in 13 states to Denver on 20 different railroads.   

In 1907 The Western Live Stock Show would be renamed the Western National Live Stock Show and the area from which livestock could come to show was extended to the 99th Meridian, approximately mid Kansas.

One of the most important livestock events at the National Western began in 1907 when the carload class was established. This class involved the exhibition, judging, and sale of 20 animal lots.

Just getting started

See the next phase | 1930-1980