Although many of the traditions and practices originated in the Spanish and Mexican ranching systems, the Western American rodeo has its origins in the cattle drives of the late 19th century. Following the Civil War and the expansion of the railroads west, long cattle drives took place to move livestock from the ranches of Texas north to the railheads. Western townsmen began to invite cowboys to demonstrate their skills during local celebrations. In 1872 the first known organized contest took place in Cheyenne, Wyoming. The fencing of the frontier brought the era of the long cattle drives to an end but the rodeo tradition survived and flourished.[i]
Image caption: Southwest International Livestock Show and Rodeo Parade, 1950s.
Image provided by the El Paso County Historical Society Collections
El Paso, Texas held its first rodeo on February 13, 1896. The next day, an article appeared in the El Paso Herald describing the modest event as a “cowboy show” that was “a novelty and worth seeing.”[ii] As ranching became an important part of West Texas and southern New Mexico, cattlemen organized livestock shows and rodeos were occasionally part of the festivities. The first time El Paso businessmen and cattlemen joined together to host a exhibition and rodeo was in January 1902 when the Texas Livestock Association held its annual convention and carnival in the city.[iii] In January 1903 a “roping event” and an “animal show” were held and similar events took place the following year. By the 1910s occasional stock shows and rodeos were held in the city. The cattle industry experienced a great boost when in 1916 the Peyton Packing Plant was built as a major meat processing center.[iv]
The origins of the present-day Southwestern International Rodeo and Livestock Show date back to the late 1920s. On April 27, 1929 the El Paso Commercial Club sponsored a “Ranchmen’s Reunion and Rodeo” in El Paso. The event was so popular that later that same year another one was held in September in conjunction with a range stock show.[v] In 1930 the El Paso Optimist Club started a livestock show for young members of the 4-H Club called the Southwest Baby Beef Show. The Kiwanis Club later organized a swine division and the 20-30 Club sponsored a sheep division. The annual event became known as the Southwestern Baby Beef, Hog, and Sheep Show.[vi] By 1934 the annual exhibition had become so large that the El Paso Chamber of Commerce became the official sponsor and named the event the Southwestern Livestock Show.[vii] 4-H Clubs and Future Farmers of America members were regular participants. In February 1938 the El Paso Police Department sponsored a rodeo the same week as the livestock show. In February 1939 the El Paso County Sheriffs’ Posse Rodeo was held during the livestock show and at the end of the week the Sheriffs’ Posse made an agreement with the Chamber of Commerce to merge the two events the next year. In 1940 the first combined rodeo and stock show took place allowing for the rodeo profits to be used to finance the livestock exhibition. The event was re-named the Southwestern Livestock Show and Rodeo and in 1943 the Chamber assumed full control.[viii]
Facilities for the livestock show became a problem as the annual event grew. In 1936 the city and county governments joined together to construct a small building and some stalls at Washington Park. The new facilities were far from adequate and in 1941 the R.E. McKee Company was contracted to construct a large exposition facility.[ix] The El Paso County Coliseum was opened in May 1942 and became the show’s permanent home. By the 1950s major expansion of the coliseum took place. New events such as a horse show and range bull show were added and the Chamber helped get new barns and facilities built. A rodeo parade became a standard part of the celebration with hundreds of riders, the Sheriff’s Posse, rodeo clowns and high school bands.[x]
The rodeo and livestock show thrived during the 1940s and 1950s. By the 1960s hundreds of El Pasoans and many local businesses worked in organizing the annual event. Following the 35th show in 1964 the livestock show and rodeo were incorporated as a non-profit organization and officially re-named the Southwestern International Livestock Show and Rodeo.[xi]
[i] Richard W. Slatta, Cowboys of the Americas (New Haven, CN 1990), 128; (El Paso, TX) Times, Feb. 4, 1968; Nora E. Ramirez, “The History of the Southwestern International Livestock Show and Rodeo,” (M.A. thesis, Univ. Of Texas at El Paso, 1969), 62.
Ramirez, Nora E. “The History of the Southwestern International Livestock Show and Rodeo.” M.A. thesis, University of Texas at El Paso, 1969.
Slatta, Richard W. Cowboys of the Americas. New Haven, CN: Yale University Press, 1990.
(El Paso, TX) Herald-Post
Mar. 14, 1936
Feb. 3, 1969
(El Paso, TX) Times
Aug. 30, 1939
(El Paso, TX) Sun Shopper
Jan. 30, 1969