The year was 1906, and there was no rodeo in sight. In the inaugural year of the National Western Stock Show, any display of roping and riding skill was still 25 years away. There was no food court hocking giant turkey legs, either.
Back then all the action happened in the stockyards, where ranchers and buyers sized up beef cattle, bid on train car loads of the prized animals and struck deals. The first permanent structure built for the show, the now-historic Stadium Arena, didn’t open until 1909.
Nowadays, the stock show is a multifaceted entertainment experience. It offers rodeos, music and dancer performances, a trade show with room for 900 vendors and, of course, food courts hocking giant turkey legs. Showgoers can spend days at the National Western Center and never go near a pen full of Hereford cattle.
National Western organizers are putting special emphasis on the stock show’s core purpose in 2019, dubbing it the “Year of the Yards.” Big changes — a billion dollars’ worth — are coming over the next four-plus years, including the relocation of the stockyards from the site they have sat on for more than five decades to property to the north. When the show gets going Saturday, Keith Fessenden, a historian and archivist who works on the property, recommends that folks take the path that leads west under the railroad tracks to the yards and drink it all in.
“Be sure to go up on the walkway and look down and just get a feel for what it’s like with the cattle and everything,” Fessenden said. “It’s where the show came from.”
The yards are being uprooted from their historic home to accommodate a new 526,000-square-foot equestrian center, one of eight buildings expected to rise on the National Western Center grounds by 2023.
Paul Andrews, the National Western Stock Show’s president and CEO, points out their future home also is historically cattle country. The 20 acres they are moving to on the north end of the grounds at one point were part of a massive complex of stockyards in the area, active year-round with cattle, pigs and sheep brought in by rail to be slaughtered and processed in the surrounding meatpacking plants.
When the new yards are completed in 2021, the pens won’t be permanent, wooden structures anymore. A majority will be temporary, giving the National Western Center Authority, formed to manage the 250-acre property into the future, flexibility to book concerts and other special events when the area isn’t crawling with critters for 16 days each January.
“Between now and 2023, you’re going to witness a rebirth that, frankly, has never happened at this site,” Andrews said. “I’m excited for this time period.”
An artist’s rendering of the new National Western Center project in Denver.
Not everyone is enthusiastic for the changes ahead.
One of the best things about going to the stock show for Joey Freund, manager and co-owner of Running Creek Ranch near Elizabeth, is seeing people he has gotten to know through the years. The yards, with their maze of pens and catwalks, are where a lot of business and catching up take place.
“Gosh, if they tear down the old stockyards, can we ever duplicate what happened in the old ones with the new set of pens? It will definitely have a different feel,” Freund said.
He wonders if the all the construction, including on Interstate 70, which runs along the southern edge of the National Western complex, will discourage visitors in the years ahead.
One upside to the renovation: “Less slivers from all those old boards,” Freund said.
Official say construction work will shut down every year at stock show time. But the campus will be squeezed, shifted and shuffled to accommodate it. The process is sure to disorient longtime participants, even if construction crews go out of their way to minimize disruption.
This week, Andrews is focused on the task at hand: the 113th National Western Stock Show. Early demolition work has cleared the way for about 500 to 700 more free parking spots on the grounds this year. Andrews is touting it as the most parking in the event’s history, a welcome luxury after work on a now-completed Brighton Boulevard snarled event traffic last year.
He, too, recommends a visit to the old yards.
“This is the most prestigious livestock show in the world,” he said. “To win here puts you on the map forever as a livestock producer.”
Where better to appreciate that than on the ground where the animals have been shown for more than a century?
A bit of historical context to keep in mind regarding the bovines: The grand champion steer in 1906 sold for 33 cents per pound. In 2018, the top steer sold for $140,000, roughly $104 per pound.
The old yards, and the National Western complex itself, may have been abandoned altogether had Denver not thrown its municipal weight behind redevelopment. There once was talk of moving the stock show to Aurora, near where the Gaylord Rockies Resort is today.
Bringing in the new should help preserve the old. Andrews said “every piece of wood” from the pens will be used in forthcoming projects. Fessenden, the historian, said he has been collecting and compiling archival material — photographs, catalogs from past shows, etc. — but with the campus in its current state, there is no place to keep and display the collection.
That will change once the “Legacy Building” is built. The future headquarters of the National Western Stock Show, being funded through the organization’s own $100 million capital campaign, will feature space for historic material and the organization’s art collection.
That building is slated to go up across from another historic place on the site: the Livestock Exchange Building. Built in three phases, the exchange dates to 1898 and once was the center of commerce in Denver. It could be at the center of the site’s renewal, too. The National Western Center Authority has announced that it may move into the building in the future.
Tasked with planning programming for the campus year-round, the authority is set to embark on a multimonth planning process once the stock show ends. It’s aimed at working with residents from the surrounding Globeville and Elyria-Swansea neighborhoods, partners including local museums and people from across the state to determine how best to put the area to use when it’s not showtime.
Authority CEO Brad Buchanan left his job as Denver’s planning director to take the lead on re-imagining the National Western Center, an opportunity he compares to what’s happened in the last decade in and around Denver Union Station.
“We’ve got a lot of square footage and lot of opportunity, and we want to absolutely focus on the local, fine-grain mission and vision of this place,” he said. “What does it mean to really, truly bridge the rural-urban divide? We need residents’ help to answer that question. What is their version of answering that question?”
History Colorado recently did an oral history project with residents in the nearby neighborhoods, known collectively as GES.
The area, founded in part by immigrants who worked in area’s meatpacking plants, is dealing with the impacts of two major capital improvement projects right now, the I-70 expansion and National Western. Ten residential properties were acquired to make way for the latter, and 56 homes for the former.
The Colorado Department of Transportation last summer committed $2 million to preserving affordable housing in the area. Longtime residents such as Maria De Luna Jimenez are looking for further support as the National Western project takes shape.
“We are happy people come to the neighborhood during the stock show and for more events in the future,” De Luna Jimenez, an organizer with the GES Coalition Organizing for Health and Housing Justice, said in an email, “but we want to stay living in this area where we have built our community.”
Buchanan and Gretchen Hollrah, CEO of the mayor’s office of the National Western Center, which is leading the redevelopment effort, believe the site will become the year-round heart of the GES when completed.
Hollrah’s office is expected to put out requests for qualifications on March 1 for groups that want to work with the city on “the triangle,” the portion of the National Western complex on the east side of the railroad tracks that is home to the Stadium Arena, events center and other structures. It has been tabbed for five more phases of unfunded work, set to be designed, financed, built and maintained by a private partner with the city. Discussion around the area has included creating a fresh food market that could serve the neighborhood.
In the meantime, the city will focus on scraping off old buildings, doing environmental cleanup and infrastructure work. That final category includes the construction of two bridges across the river, one at 51st Avenue and another on the future Bette Cram Drive. The drive will span the complex east to west and tie the GES neighborhood together.
“This whole connection through here is really going to transform this area,” Hollrah said on a recent tour of the site.
One project partner champing at the bit for construction to begin is Colorado State University. The state’s agriculture school will build three new buildings at the National Western Complex between now and 2021, one dedicated to animal health, another focused on food and agriculture and finally a center dedicated to water.
The university hired former U.S. Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack and his wife, Christie, to advise on its plans for the National Western campus. Vilsack, who also served as Iowa’s governor and is the president and CEO of the U.S. Dairy Export Council, believes the work eventually done there could reverberate across the nation, and even the world.
“Those of who don’t farm or don’t ranch, I think take our farmers and ranchers for granted. We are a food-secure nation and have the most diverse food supply in the world,” he said. “There is an opportunity for us to educate people as they come to this center about where their food comes from and how important water is to the production of food and the economy of Colorado.”