Generations of volunteers make the cowboy culture come alive at the annual Denton rodeo.
By: Ilea Milare
Denton Live July-Dec 2011
Eddie Schoenthal knows how to cook, y’all. A Bar-B-Q master extraordinaire, Eddie has participated in every North Texas State Fair and Rodeo cook-off since they first began around 1977. Succulent brisket and chicken, ribs coated in butter and brown sugar, killer jackpot pinto beans – name it and he can make it, putting a personal twist on good ol’ southern comfort food. “Once you get your system down it’s not bad,” says Eddie in his Texas drawl. “But it takes years and years and years of screwing stuff up to figure out what works.”
While Eddie is the master of all things on the grill, his wife Susan, a sunny schoolteacher turned librarian, volunteers to help organize the annual North Texas State Fair and Rodeo Parade, a come-one-come-all procession of vintage cars and tractors, kids on bikes and rodeo pageant royalty in convertibles, all circling the historic downtown Denton Square.
A Denton native, Susan has witnessed the evolution of the fair from a small-town shindig in her mom’s day to today’s extravaganza with professional rodeo riders, top country music acts and a Texas-sized midway. “They didn’t have music,” says Susan, smiling at the memory of the fair in simpler times. “I remember they had a giveaway thing that they raffled off … a TV or something, but, it was not at all anything like it is today.” Now there are cash prizes and custom saddles and spurs to reward the competing cooks and cowboys, quilters and rodeo queens, even parade entries.
Take a pinch of good times, a dash of Western heritage, throw in some great food and music, and you have the North Texas State Fair and Rodeo experience. Established in 1928, the Denton fair captured last year’s Best Overall award for fairs its size in Texas, beating out bigger competitors for the third year running. Performing at this year’s fair August 19-27 are The Randy Rogers Band, Tracy Lawrence, Josh Abbott and former World Champion bullrider Justin McBride, just to name a few. The rodeo draws big-name cowboys from across the nation, all hoping to lasso a title from the Professional Rodeo and Cowboys Association. With events ranging from solo rides on top of thrashing bulls and bucking broncos, to team events such as calf roping and team branding, the rodeo is what sets Denton apart from The State Fair of Texas down in Dallas. The Mutton Bustin’ event offers little tykes a taste of the rodeo life, while the 21 & Under Rodeo, Invitational Ranch Rodeo and the popular Bull Blowout pull in both local and visiting riders.
Scores of families with deep roots in Denton invest their time and love year after year into nurturing the fair, which attracts more than 135,000 visitors every summer. The volunteers, ranging in number from 300 to 400, perform like a “well-oiled machine,” says Eddie. Months before the fair even opens its gates, farmers, ranchers and construction crews from the area turn up to hand-paint booths, maintain the grounds and touch up the facilities – all without getting paid. During the fair, volunteers help with tickets sales, photography, parking, selling beverages and assisting in livestock shows. “It’s everybody just working together to get everything done. Nobody is afraid to get their hands dirty,” he says.
The Schoenthals first volunteered to help at the fair more than 20 years ago. Eddie, who started out handling the beer and ice, now helps maintain the fairgrounds with his two sons Josh and Ben, who’ve been volunteering and participating in the Bar-B-Q cook-offs with their dad since they were kids. His sons take their vacations during the fair so they won’t miss a minute. “It’s been a part of our lives as long as they can remember,” says Eddie, who’s as apt at construction as barbecue. Eddie starts his fair “to-do” list as much as three to four months before August to make sure everything is in top shape. Susan lends a hand in the office, rounding up sponsors and participants for the parade. Her mom used to volunteer at the fair so handing down the tradition to a new generation seemed natural. “Josh was probably 2 months old when he had his first barbecue there,” says Eddie.
Volunteers run all 26 committees, carefully monitoring everything from the beer and beverages to commercial exhibits and entertainment as well as the livestock shows, rodeo, pageant and parade. Without volunteers, the fair would not open its doors, says Nanci Kimmey, executive assistant to the fair’s executive director Glenn Carlton. Many families are on their second, third or fourth generation of volunteers. Kids who showed their animals for 4-H projects now bring their kids and grandkids. “We have a giant volunteer family that is extremely dedicated and they just keep coming back,” says Nanci.
Obviously, with a mom working down at the fair, Nanci’s daughter, Ryan Purcell, has been volunteering for as far back as she can remember.
Ryan competed in the fair’s pageants as a young girl, dressing as a rodeo clown for one contest. Now she serves as co-chairperson of the pageant committee, helping to arrange the show and ordering prizes for the participants. Volunteering, says Nanci, “is a tradition of Western heritage” along with hard work – both values to be handed down to a new generation. “That is a real important aspect to this fair,” she says.
Young girls and boys, aged 3 to 11, compete for the title of Little Miss or Little Mister North Texas State Fair on the first Sunday, Monday and Tuesday of the fair. It’s a good way for girls and boys to try out pageantry and see if they like it, says Ryan. She and Natalie Smith, her volunteer co-chair, try to make sure that every contestant gets something. “Lately we’ve been [giving] little crown necklaces or crown bracelets. Just so that everyone gets something. We want it to be fun for everyone.” For girls 12 to 14, there is the Miss Teen North Texas State Fair competition and for teens 15 to 18, the Miss North Texas State Fair and Rodeo crown (which includes a scholarship).
This year, Justin McBride, a fifth generation cowboy and former two-time bull-riding World Champion, will show his country music side, crooning songs to State Fair crowds after the dust settles in the rodeo arena. McBride, a cowboy legend, managed to wow the Grand Ole Opry crowd within a year of focusing on music and has played to 46,000 fans at the Cowboys Stadium.
The Randy Rogers Band, darlings of the Texas Red Dirt circuit, will be returning to the fair, hoping to break yet another attendance record. Best known for their hit singles “Kiss me in the Dark” (2006), “Too Late for Goodbye” and “Steal You Away” (both in 2010), the boys keep climbing the Texas Music Chart. Josh Abbott, the lead singer, songwriter and founder of the Josh Abbott Band, heads to the fair after touring with Pat Green, who’s played the Denton fair in the past. Josh says he founded his band after seeing The Randy Rogers Band play to a packed house in Lubbock. Though relatively unknown, Josh is familiar to the local music crowd: He recorded his album “She’s Like Texas” here. Josh’s songwriting connects with audiences because he writes about relationships and small-town concerns. Country music artist Tracy Lawrence rounds out the music lineup. Tracy, who’s had 30 singles on the Billboard country music charts, is best known for his No. 1 singles “Find Out Who Your Friends Are” and “Up to Him.”
Talley Amusements, the Fort Worth-based traveling carnival, is again showcasing its head-spinning, gravity-defying rides on the Midway: adrenaline-rushing rides such as the Mega Drop, the classic 60-foot Ferris Wheel, bumper cars and the History of Horror haunted dark ride among others. “They’re one of the best carnivals in the southern United States,” Nanci says. “They travel from California to here in August. We’re very excited about having Talley. … They’ve just got great rides.”
New to the Kid Zone is the Live Shark Encounter, the only traveling shark show in the United States. Featuring a 7,000-gallon water tank teaming with different species of sharks, trainer Philip Peters educates the audience about sharks, aiming to steer the audience away from the pre-conceived notion of sharks as “bloody” predators. As a “hands-on exhibit,” the audience is encouraged to come and examine the sharks up close. Philip swims with the sharks during his show. “We have actually been trying to bring that exhibit to Denton for about three years,” Nanci says. “We’re very excited and I think the kids are just going to love it!” Robert Liner’s Spirit of the Horse, also in the Kid Zone, has been offering training demonstrations since 1998 at the Denton fair. Robert, who performs more than 90 demonstrations a year, works to help train riders and their horses to work as a unit. “He has such a great time when he is here, and the public looks forward to his return year after year,” Nanci says.
With summer comes a new flurry of activity by the volunteers to get the fairgrounds ready for August. Bobby Jones, wife Judy and daughter Jacee will corral affairs in the Livestock Department while their grandkids show animals at the fair. Glenn Carlton, who served as rodeo chairman for 20 years and now runs the show, roped in his son Chance and daughter-in-law Courtney as volunteers. The Stratton brothers will be everywhere doing 80 percent of everything, says Eddie, who will be there with Susan and their boys. (“The Schoenthals are the fair!” says Nanci.) And Eddie will try once again to win the brisket competition.
While Nanci Kimmey’s daughter talks about the volunteers, grandson Ty Purcell, an adorable ball of energy at age 3, is chattering away in the background. He’s been thinking about entering the Mutton Bustin’ event this year. “I don’t know if he’s just talking a big game, or if he’s actually going to go through with it. But, we’ll see,” says his mom Ryan. “Most people from around the Denton area have grown up there [at the fair]. We call it the fair family. We’ve got second-generation, third-generation kids that are going out there now. It’s just one of those things. It’s just in our blood.”