North Texas State Fair and Rodeo Ropes in Contestants and Crowds
by Drew Gaines
Denton Live July-Dec 2012
Weldon Burgoon cinches his legs around the horse, his right hand thumbing the lasso tied to his saddle. He nods his hat slightly, signaling the start of his tie-down roping run. The rodeo arena is just stick and wire, a dirt venue for local farm boys and cattleman to show their stuff. A crowd of locals is leaning against the chest-high boards making a semi-circle around the cowboy. He has less than 20 seconds to catch a brown calf. It’ll take less if he wants a shot at the tiedown roping title and the $64 winner’s purse; but at age 16, with 36 hardened cowboys as competition, it’s not going to be an easy win.
Seventeen seconds into the ride and Weldon throws his hands to the air. He stands on his feet next to the calf he’s just roped and the crowd hoops and hollers. The clock puts the cowboy in first place and $64 in his pocket. “I went to school all fall on that $64,” Weldon says.
That ride from the summer of 1946 still sticks with Weldon even after 64 years. He remembers the arena at the Denton County Fairgrounds downtown. His Western saddle shop is just yards away from where it once stood. “Rodeo is pretty glamorous, romantic. We are fascinated with the cowboy,” says the 82-year-old reminiscing. As Weldon sits and talks, his silver and brass belt buckle catches the light and glistens. “I think it [rodeo] goes back to our roots,” he says. “They are a part of our history.”
Part of Denton’s history, too. Generations of farmers, cattlemen and Western showmen gravitated to the land north of Dallas and Fort Worth. Long before the first official rodeo in 1928, local cowboys put on stunt-filled Wild West shows near downtown. They branded Denton with a Western way of life that thrives to this day, a living testament to the city’s history – and a way of life that survives. This year, for the 84th year, a new generation of cowboys and cowgirls will compete alongside the professionals of the Professional Rodeo and Cowboys Association at the annual North Texas State Fair and Rodeo August 17-25. “It’s the one time a year that people … put their boots on again. They may only wear them one time a year, but they come out to get that Western flavor,” says Glenn Carlton, the fair’s executive director and a former bull rider himself.
More than 130,000 visitors attend the annual nine-day event, some traveling each year from England and Italy. The fair’s grown over the years, with higher stakes inside the rodeo arena (the rodeo, once local, is now a qualifying event for the PRCA’s Las Vegas finals), more bull riding (an All-Bull Blow Out), more free family entertainment (20 musical acts) and a Texas-sized carnival (delivered by Talley Amusement of Fort Worth, the same company that works the State Fair of Texas down in Dallas). The authentic fair experience includes a rodeo queen, horse and livestock shows as well as contests for home canning, quilt work and photography. In addition to the Midway, there’s a Kid Zone and a Fun Zone for all ages. This year, the North Texas State Fair won 13 awards from the Texas Association of Fairs and Events, making it one of the leading fairs of its size in the state. The state of Texas recently recognized the long-running rodeo with an official Historical Marker.
Glenn and executive assistant Nanci Kimmey spent months making calls and booking shows in preparation for the 2012 season, lining up musical acts such as Wade Bowen, the Josh Abbott Band and the Casey Donahew Band – and that’s just a few of the headliners. The fair has an award-winning reputation for its music, which capitalizes on Denton’s reputation and has attracted country stars including Pat Green, the Eli Young Band, Jack Ingram and Tracy Lawrence. “We are smaller. Weare more intimate,” says Nanci. But “we’ve got the same quality of entertainment of our larger neighbors,” adds Glenn.
Music featured at the fair’s two stages can be as diverse as the crowd in attendance and as Denton itself, ranging from the red dirt Texas country of Kyle Park, No Justice and Scotty Thurman and The Perfect Trouble Band to the rhythm guitar of Emilio Navaira, sometimes called the “Garth Brooks of Tejano.” The San Antonio native returns to the North Texas State Fair this year with his platinum selling vocals as does Justin McBride, a fifth generation cowboy and world champion bull rider-turned country singer. Wade Bowen and Kyle Park open the season on Aug. 17 while Grammy-nominated John Anderson and Justin McBride close it out on Aug. 25.
The carnival lights along the Midway shine like a Hollywood rendition of a Texas summer night. The red-orange glow of the fair’s rides can be seen from miles outside of Denton. Every inch of the 33-acre fairgrounds bustles with activity: barbecue cook-off in one corner, trout fishing in another. The 2,750-seat outdoor rodeo arena sits smack in the middle of it all. Visitors walking past the cattle barns can feel the excitement inside the arena ahead. The voice of rodeo announcer Terry Starnes booms over the PA system, his introductions of riders almost lost in the yells of the crowd. Step inside, take your seat and you suddenly realize there are no 1800-pound bulls and the rodeo competitors look a tad small. The bull, it turns out, is an 80-pound sheep and the rider is a hair over 4 years old. The Mutton Bustin’ competition is always a crowd pleaser.
For Glenn Carlton, the age of the young riders reflects the endurance of the rodeo tradition. For the 4- to 6-year-olds, this is their shot at the big arena. A line of half-pint contestants waits for a turn atop a sheep three times bigger than them. They bear hug the animal, grabbing a fistful of wool on either side, and with their heads down, hang on for as long as they can in hope of passing the eight-second mark like the pros do. Few of the young competitors make it more than a couple yards before they tumble to the dirt. But, these young cowboys get the loudest cheers of the night.
Glenn is passionate about the young riders, who he sees as the producers of the future. As Denton grows and becomes urbanized, he worries that farming and raising cattle will be a lost art. Many of the fair activities, in fact, are aimed at agriculture education. Denton County is home to more than 300 farms and ranches, many devoted solely to horse breeding and training, making it a nexus in the horse industry internationally as well as locally. Agriculture in Denton is still an economic force thanks mainly to the horse industry, which has earned Denton County (with its 25,000 resident horses) the title of Horse Country USA. Horse sales in recent years have topped $20 million while the business of boarding horses brings in more than $10 million. The North Texas State Fair itself contributes $7 million annually to the Denton County economy.
Denton’s young mutton busters, rodeo queens and future farmers are not forgotten after the show. The nonprofit North Texas State Fair Association and associates contributes $400,000 a year to local programs that promote agriculture education in youth, such as Future Farmers of America, 4-H, and the Denton County Youth Fair and Rodeo. “With the funds that we raise at the fair, we are able to support these youth groups, these 4-H programs,” says Glenn. Behind the scenes is a network of volunteers who promote this culture of giving back. It is engrained in the cowboy way and passed on from generation to generation, says Nanci.
Back at the saddle shop, Weldon Burgoon points to a framed photo of a 5-year-old mutton buster hanging on the wall – just one of a hundred or so pictures nailed above display cases, over doors and squeezed next to each other. “There are a lot of cowboys and a lot of want-to-be cowboys,” Weldon says philosophically. After 84 years, Denton can still boast about having authentic cowboys like Weldon who turn out every August, lassoing in the good times at the annual North Texas State Fair and Rodeo.
[just the facts]
What: 84th annual North Texas State Fair and Rodeo
Get ready for fun: Aug. 17-25, 2012
Fair festivities: Nine days of fair and rodeo fun, with rodeos nightly, including the Professional Rodeo Cowboys Association, an All-Bull Blow Out, horse and livestock shows, a Texas-sized Midway, a Kid Zone, a Fun Zone for all ages, country music stars, a barbecue cook-off, parade and queen contest, plus much more.
Music: Every night at 6 p.m. & 11 p.m. on the Bud Light Stage and at 9:30 p.m. on the Budweiser Stage. Performers on the Bud Light stage include Kyle Park and Scotty Thurman and The Perfect Trouble Band opening the fair Aug. 17-18, with
Luke Kaufman and Justin McBride performing Aug. 24-25. On the Budweiser Stage after the rodeo: Wade Bowen, Casey Donahew Band and Emilio Navaira perform on the opening weekend, Max Stalling and The Turnpike Troubadours during the week, while the Josh Abbott Band and John Anderson close out the fair.
Find us: North Texas State Fairgrounds,2217 N. Carroll Blvd.
Pony up: $15 ticket for adults will get you into the rodeo, midway and concerts. $5 for children age 7-12, free for age 6 and younger. Parking $5 inside the gates.
For more tickets and info: Visit ntfair.com.
For season passes and four-day passes, call (940) 387-2632.