An exerpt from Liz Carmack's Blue Ribbons, Buckin' Broncs & Big Dreams — The Story of the Star of Texas Fair and Rodeo
Journalist Liz Carmack's carefully researched history of the Star of Texas Fair and Rodeo, tells the story of one of Central Texas largest and longest running charities. In Chapter 2 she describes the early days of the Baby Beef Show and how the show's venues in many ways determined the on-going success of the organization.
Blue Ribbons, Buckin' Broncs & Big Dreams — The Story of the Star of Texas
1938 to 1956
Growing Baby Beef Show Educates, Entertains
Farming and ranching were important parts of the Austin area economy in the 1930s. Statistics from the time reveal why: Travis County had more than 3,000 farms in 1935.
Eighty-two percent of the area land was either growing crops such as cotton, grains, potatoes, or peaches or was plowable pasture. In 1935, the U.S. Census of Agriculture reported there were 17,624 cows and heifers over the age of two, 11,634 dairy cows, 19,766 sheep and lambs, 20,882 goats and kids, 151,199 chickens, and 6,758 turkeys in Travis County.
The Austin Chamber of Commerce’s General Facts and Statistical Review of Austin, Texas, 1939 (which served as both a promotional piece touting the city as a wonderful place to live and a statistical snapshot of the community) described the land to the city’s east as home to “well-kept farms, producing an abundance of dairy products and garden products, as well as large crops of cotton, corn, hay and other feed crops . . . an important and stabilizing force in the economic life of the community.”
By the late 1930s, Austin had emerged from the Great Depression with a local economy fueled not only by area agricultural production but also by the University of Texas, state government agencies, and a manufacturing base that produced everything from bed springs, concrete pipe, and structural steel to flavoring extracts, cigars, and potato chips.
It is telling, though, that the chamber gave the “Agriculture” and “Livestock” sections of its statistical review equal weight alongside the sections detailing the city’s educational resources, churches, industries, and climate. To the chamber, developing the practice of agriculture in Travis and its adjacent counties (then called the Austin Trade Area) was just as important as recruiting a new manufacturing plant to the city. Thus, the chamber formed an Agricultural Bureau in the 1930s. Its activities were run by a vice president and dozens of volunteers. The bureau worked closely with the Travis County Agricultural Extension Service Agent to boost the agriculture industry and to deal with current issues—from developing new markets for crops and livestock to combating cotton plant root rot.
One concern in 1938 appears to have been a lack of high-quality, locally fattened livestock. An editorial in the March 8, 1938, Austin American cites statistics from the Federal Bureau of Agriculture Economics that in January of that year, the state of Texas had more than 7.24 million head of beef:
So far as mere figures go, it is a fine showing. There are some things wrong with the livestock picture in Texas, however. Entirely too many Texas beeves are sent elsewhere to be fed for market, entirely too few are fed in Texas. That is in spite of the fact that Texas can raise the feed its cattle need. Another unfavorable feature of the figures is in the number of hogs. Texas raises far less pork than it did 20 years ago. It does not raise nearly enough for its own consumption. The livestock industry means much to Texas, but it still means far less than it might mean.
The Austin chamber’s 1938 annual report echoed the same concerns: “Experience has demonstrated for many years that it costs about 60 percent as much to produce a pound of weight on livestock in Texas as it does in the extreme northern states.” The report noted that growing attention was being focused on livestock production in Travis County.
The area’s smaller communities—including Elgin, Buda, and Lockhart—were holding calf, hog, and poultry shows at this time for FFA and 4-H students (primarily boys). And statewide, the Southwestern Exposition and Livestock Show in Fort Worth, founded in 1896, and the Houston Fat Stock Show and Livestock Exhibition, which began in 1931, offered large, well-known events that included rodeos and fairs.
Chamber Plans Austin Baby Beef Show
Around 1938, it appears the seeds for an Austin stock show were planted. The chamber’s Agricultural Bureau announced plans in that year’s annual report to stage a “fat stock” show in 1939 for fat calves raised by “4-H Club boys and girls in fourteen Central Texas counties.” But the idea apparently never came to fruition, and the 1939 annual report, published in January 1940, announced more detailed plans for a show: “The County Agents, knowing for a long time the great value of baby beef production, have the backing of the Agricultural Bureau and in 1940 a fat stock show will be held to encourage the growing of more feed and live stock on the farms of Travis County. The Chamber of Commerce will not only offer cash prizes in this program, but it is also helping find a market for this stock.”
During this time, the Travis County Extension Agent’s annual summary of the agency’s activities was regularly included as part of the chamber’s annual report. In his 1939 report, Agent T. H. Royder detailed plans for the 1940 show and sale and encouraged community participation in the auction. “Austin business men, markets, hotels and cafes can assist in building the beef cattle industry and assure themselves better quality meat to sell by their cooperation in this sale.”
Calves Judged on Temporary State Capitol Grounds
City residents were no doubt curious the morning of Wednesday, March 6, 1940, when men, boys, and their calves began to gather in the heart of downtown across the street from the Texas State Capitol. According to newspaper and chamber reports, Austin’s first Baby Beef Show and sale, scheduled from 2:00 to 5:00 p.m., was held at the temporary State Capitol grounds on the southwest corner of Eleventh Street and Congress Avenue. The event was a joint effort by the chamber’s Agricultural Bureau and Agent Royder. The oddity reportedly attracted an audience of 5,000 to 6,000 in a community of about 88,000.
Competitors were divided into two groups: men and boys who were members of 4-H clubs in Travis County. Each group’s entries were split into classes according to animal weight. In the boys’ group, the 755-pound grand champion calf, owned by Vernon Carson of Creed-moor, sold for 27.5 cents per pound to Harry Akin of Night Hawk Restaurants. Raymond Hees of Richland won reserve champion. The Driskill Hotel purchased Hees’s 1,040-pound animal for 15 cents per pound. The chamber distributed ribbons to the winners, as well as $18 in prize money to Carson and $8 to Hees. Sixteen boys in all entered the event. The men’s competition apparently had four entries, with Calvin Hughes taking first place in the heavy class and H. E. Wattinger winning the light class, with a calf “raised and fed out by Joe Davis, Jr., a young farm boy on the Wattinger place.”
D. S. Buchanan headed up the judging, and Joe McBride served as auctioneer for the sale. Walter Gunn, manager of the Austin Stock Yards, also assisted. The chamber committee members directing the event were George C. Quinn (chairman), a manager with South Texas Cotton Oil Co.; Charles Schneider, a manager with Swift & Co.; E. R. L. Wroe, president of American National Bank; Reece Meador, president of Home Mix Feed Co.; Gordon B. Rogers, manager of Armour & Co.; Agent Royder; Akin; D. S. Buchanan; Ira E. Stacy, of Stacy’s Meat Products; Steve Heffington, Travis County tax assessor and collector; Gunn; and Irwin W. Popham, Travis County superintendent of schools.
Show Participation Grows Quickly
The size of the show more than doubled in 1941, with the chamber reporting conflicting tallies (in separate publications) of 40 entries and 51 entries by 4-H and FFA boys. Vernon Carson and Raymond Hees repeated their wins from the previous year. Carson’s 945-pound calf won grand champion and was auctioned for $0.45 per pound to Austin & Barrow supermarket for $425.25. The grocery store also purchased 11 additional calves during the show. Hees sold his reserve champion calf for $0.16 per pound to Charles Balagia of Balagia Produce and Market.
In 1942, the growing event was moved to the Municipal Market House at the intersection of East Avenue (which is now Interstate Highway 35) and Seventh Street. The chamber and the county agricultural agent referred to the event by slightly different names that year—the Travis County Club Boys’ Calf Show and the Travis County Boys’ Livestock Show, respectively. It had grown enough that it now took two days to accommodate the show’s expanded classes for Angus and Herefords, a few hogs, and the animal auction. The chamber reported that 70 calves (the extension agent reported 71) sold for an average price of $0.16 per pound; the Aberdeen Angus calf shown by Ted Lehman of Pilot Knob won grand champion. The 250-pound grand champion Hampshire hog, shown by Oswald Cumby of Manor, sold for $0.51 per pound. The Statesman reported that it was the highest price ever paid for a hog on the Austin market.
“They had the show down where the [Austin] police station is now. There was no security. You could walk anywhere you wanted to,” said Marvin Hamann, who was a Richland 4-H Club member at the time. “The second day I came down there, and my calf was grazing on that [Waller] creek.” Hamann was able to collect his calf in time for the auction. He won third place in the showmanship contest during the 1942 show and today remembers his treasured prize—“a genuine leather belt” from Grove Drug on East Sixth Street.
According to the chamber, one individual and four area businesses—R. E. Janes; Armour & Co.; J. C. Penney Co.; Sears, Roebuck Co.; and Kash-Karry Stores—provided “special prizes” to the winners to supplement cash and ribbons received from the chamber. This is the first mention of prizes being provided by sources other than the chamber.
The City of Austin operated the Austin Municipal Abattoir, at the intersection of East Fifth Street and Pleasant Valley Road, and processed the auctioned animals at no charge during the show’s early years. The slaughterhouse opened in 1931 and closed in 1969.
Volunteer support to ensure the event’s success grew in 1943, in part because of the country’s growing involvement in World War II and its effect on chamber staffing. That year, the chamber noted that its agricultural secretary, Jim Boswell, was away serving with the military in New Guinea, a fact that made it “necessary to rely almost entirely on volunteer help in this agricultural work. Eight volunteer sub-committees handled—most ably—the work for the Beef and Hog Show.” More than 80 people worked on the show under the leadership of Joe C. Carrington, general chairman.
As early as 1944, both boys and girls were involved in the show. Carolyn Voelker Sandlin’s family farmed land between Elgin and Manor, and she competed with calves at the Austin show for three years during the 1940s under the tutelage of longtime Elgin High School agricultural teacher J. Z. Hattox. She and five other girls exhibited calves in 1945, and her calf won reserve champion. A retired teacher today, Sandlin recalled the judging that year. “It was very close between the grand champion and my calf,” she said. The grand champion winner Joe Ed Johnson and she made an exciting trip to Austin after their wins to celebrate at a chamber dinner. Sandlin put her earnings from the sale of her winning calf toward the cost of her college education.
Youth stepped up to help lead the event in 1945. Chairmen and vice-chairmen of the 11 chamber committees responsible for the show apparently felt that the boys and girls involved would develop consistent interest in it if they took some of the responsibility for its staging, under the guidance of the chamber. The chamber reported that on December 9, 1944, county agent K. D. Willingham called a special meeting to organize the next show, now named the Travis County Junior Livestock Show. The following youth officers were elected during the meeting: president, Elwood Nelson, Elroy; vice-president, Leo Luedtke, Pflugerville; secretary, Lanelle Riedel, Turnerville; treasurer, Miles Mehner, Manor. At this meeting their constitution and bylaws were formulated, and the rules and regulations for the 1945 Livestock Show were completed.
By the mid-1940s, the Austin community’s involvement and support for the event had widened. In 1944, the Bergstrom Air Field Band performed during the evening program prior to the awards presentation. A growing list of individuals and businesses made in-kind and cash donations during the 1940s to help the chamber cover its costs for the show, and a growing list of buyers paid top dollar at the sale—support that would continue to grow throughout the decades to come.
City Coliseum Becomes New Home
The Municipal Market House barely held the growing event, which was adding new animal classes and staging the show in conjunction with others. In 1945, the swine entries alone taxed the pens to capacity. The first exhibition of the Travis County Registered Hereford Breeders Association show was held in conjunction with the Austin show in 1945, as were shows for students from the Texas School for the Deaf and the Austin State School. In 1946, capons and lambs were part of the Travis County Junior Livestock Show, and in 1947, dairy heifers were exhibited.
Show leaders had formed a Coliseum-Auditorium Committee in 1945 to identify a new venue that could host the livestock show and other community events. Travis County dairyman Herman Heep chaired the group, which included Max Starcke, Raymond Brooks, R. E. Janes, A. G. Adams Jr., Fred S. Nagle Jr., and Joe C. Carrington. But until a new home could be found, the show moved to temporary headquarters at the Union Stock Yards, at 521 Pleasant Valley Road, for the 1947 and 1948 shows. John L. Moulden, manager of the yards, had assisted the chamber’s Agricultural Bureau since the early 1940s and served in leadership roles with the show.
Finally, the show moved in 1949 into the City Coliseum, a former B-52 aircraft hanger that the City of Austin purchased and had recently erected on city property called the Butler Tract. The Quonset hut, on Riverside Drive near downtown Austin, was surrounded largely by undeveloped land with the Missouri Pacific Railroad tracks and West Bouldin Creek to the west and Riverside Drive to the north. Disch Baseball Field sat to the south.
Capital Area Farm and Ranch Club Takes Over
When the annual exhibition moved into the Coliseum for what would become a long-term residency, the show finally had accommodations that allowed leaders to think big, or at least beyond Travis County. But to grow, it may have needed more funding than the chamber could provide, as well as a wider base of public support. For those or perhaps other reasons, the chamber helped form the Capital Area Farm and Ranch Club, which took over the show’s sponsorship starting with the 1950 event. In its 1949 report, the chamber noted: “With this new organization, further impetus can be given to an agricultural show which will include not only Travis County but neighboring counties as well.”
The club also took charge of many of the other agricultural development activities and outreach efforts made to surrounding communities that had been the responsibility of the chamber’s Agricultural Bureau. The chamber assisted by providing administrative support to the club and the show. The Capital Area Farm and Ranch Club’s membership came close to 200 during its first year. The show’s new leadership and the larger venue of the Coliseum, which could seat just under 2,000, spurred the rapid expansion of the show (from 1949 to 1956) and the addition of entertainment—including a junior rodeo with evening musical entertainment and a small fair.
Starting as early as 1953, carnival rides, midway attractions, and farm and ranch exhibits set up around the Coliseum. That year, attendees could try their luck at ring toss or take a spin on a Ferris wheel set up just south of the Coliseum as part of the Don Franklin Midway from San Antonio. In 1954, a newspaper account mentioned Fort Worth carnival company Bill Hames Shows as a star attraction. The curious could line up to see the largest living twin Holstein steers and Mitzi, the smallest living cow (24 inches tall), or watch daredevil motorcyclists racing inside “the motordome.”
Visitors in 1954 could also peruse antique and new cars, peer at penned Texas wildlife, and visit commercial exhibits. In 1955, these ranged from a mobile home show and military displays that included a U.S. Air Force plane, to a car show and exhibitors with goods for homemakers, farmers, and ranchers.
Tex Ritter Headlines Parade
The ambitious Capital Area Farm and Ranch Club in the early 1950s also kicked off the livestock show with a parade through the heart of downtown Austin. The Bergstrom Air Force Base Band led the mile-long procession of the first parade, held in 1952, followed by country-music singer and Western movie actor Tex Ritter atop his horse, White Flash.
Also during the early 1950s, the chamber’s Retail Trade Development Committee promoted Go Western Week for the five days leading up to the show’s kickoff. The campaign, which began in 1954 and apparently lasted only a few years (but was brought back in later decades), was meant to welcome visiting stock show participants and to promote the event to Austin residents. Everyone was encouraged to don jeans, boots, string ties, cowboy hats, and other Western garb. Downtown retailers competed for the best Western-themed window display.
The Austin Statesman reported in 1954 that city police sported bright blue string ties and everyone—from hotel bellboys, café waitresses, and office staff—wore their finest farm-andranch wear during Go Western Week. Photos by Neal Douglass (the originals long-since gone) accompanying the story show cowboy-hatwearing Texas Highway Department secretaries in smart-looking pearl-snap Western shirts and knotted neckerchiefs.
Capital Area Livestock Show Broadens Scope
The change of the event’s name to the Capital Area Livestock Show in 1952 reflected the exhibition’s widened scope, which the chamber had envisioned four years earlier. The 1952 show grew for the first time to include three exhibitions in one: a Travis County junior livestock show, an 11-county junior breeders show, and an open-class adult breeders show. The Austin Statesman reported, “The exposition will be the biggest livestock show ever held here and the first area-wide agricultural event ever held in Austin.” Stock arriving was expected to fill the sheds and three large tents erected adjacent to the Coliseum. Elgin High School student Curtis Neidig won grand champion that year with his 1,000-pound Hereford.
Dave Shanks not only covered the show as the farm-and-ranch editor at the Austin dailies, the Austin American and the Austin Statesman, but also crowed about the expanded event in his opinion column on ranch and farm issues titled “Reuben’s Half Acre.” “There is no single-shot way to incur area goodwill. But the 1952 Capital Area Livestock show is one way to boost the area and the city. And for that reason, the stock show is everybody’s project. The support for the show this year has been generous,” he wrote. He gave the bulk of the credit for the six-day event to L. N. Kirkpatrick, the event’s general superintendent, “who is on loan from the Lower Colorado River Authority,” and C. J. Schmid, president of the Capital Area Farm and Ranch Club.
In 1953, the show added two new competitions, the Capital Area Horse Show and the Capital Area Rabbit Show. A total premium purse of more than $5,000 was paid to show winners. According to the chamber’s March 1953 Austin in Action newsletter, the show was open to junior breeders from all over Texas, “making Austin the first major show in the state to offer a complete state-wide Junior Breeders’ Show.”
The chamber announced that the 1954 show would be split. The first three days would be dedicated to adult breeders showing beef, dairy cattle, sheep, rabbits, and horses. The last three days would again include junior breeders from 4-H and FFA clubs statewide in addition to the Travis County youth showing fat steers, fat lambs, rabbits, sheep, and poultry.
Rapid Expansion Ends Abruptly
During these early years, the livestock show, fair, and rodeo reached a pinnacle in 1955. What had begun as a small, countywide calf show in 1940 had, in 15 years, grown into a seven-day production during which the livestock judged ranged from shorthorn and dairy cattle, quarter horses and palominos, to rabbits and sheep. In some livestock departments, entrants even came from out of state. The exhibition had expanded to include a mile-long parade, a junior rodeo, crowning of a rodeo queen, a slate of nationally known performers, a carnival midway, and a dozen or more educational and commercial exhibits.
But the Capital Area Farm and Ranch Club could not maintain the larger production it had worked so hard to develop. In 1956, the length of the livestock show was reduced to four days. The club dropped the rodeo entirely but staged a variety show in its place during the evenings. In Shanks’s opinion, the size of the Coliseum was to blame: “The Coliseum, unyieldingly limited in its resources, finally has broken the back of the rodeo enthusiasts, who had worked hard to put on a small-size rodeo as part of the stock show. Even Bill Sandifer, the Manor squire and junior producer who ‘toughed out’ the horseless roping, pig scrambles, etc., hoping eventually for a break, isn’t too sorry to see the junior rodeo pass.”
It’s easy to understand how the size of the Coliseum frustrated and limited rodeo producers.
Although it’s not entirely clear why the Capital Area Livestock Show suddenly retracted from its fast-paced expansion, one reason might be the searing drought that had the Great Plains and the southwestern United States in its grip during much of the 1950s. Texas rainfall dropped by 40 percent between 1949 and 1951, and by 1953, 75 percent of Texas recorded below-normal rainfall. The record drought devastated the region’s agriculture and only started to abate in 1957. By this time, 244 of the 254 counties in Texas had been declared federal drought disaster areas. Crop yields in some areas of the multi state region affected had dropped by as much as 50 percent, and high temperatures and low rainfall scorched grasslands typically used for grazing.
Surely the economic blows dealt by the drought adversely affected the philanthropy necessary to support the show, as well as the ability of individuals to raise and enter livestock and to attend from across the state. Perhaps the event just grew too quickly under the stewardship of the Capital Area Farm and Ranch Club. The multiple livestock classes and exhibits must have strained the Coliseum’s limited facilities. For whatever reasons, the exhibition that had done so much in its first few years to advance the livestock industry in Travis County and the surrounding area had become financially unsustainable.