A Night at America's Oldest Weekly Rodeo Show

cowtownAmerica’s oldest weekly rodeo show, The Cowtown Rodeo, is not in Colorado or Oklahoma or Texas, or anywhere else that most people might imagine cowboys still roam. It’s in New Jersey, past the oil refineries of Newark and Perth Amboy, beyond the reedy Raritan Bay, west of Springsteen Country and south of the Pine Barrens, just off Highway 40, in a small town called Pilesgrove. In a place like Pilesgrove, a kind of anonymously American space that is everywhere and nowhere at once—a repeating, hypnotic pattern of rolling hills, tall grass, cornfields and strip malls—you may as well be in Ohio or Missouri as in New Jersey.

Cowtown Rodeo sits just off Game Creek, a tributary of the Delaware River. A little farther down the highway, two women were selling flowers out of the parking lot of the defunct Richman’s Ice Cream manufacturing plant. Tickets to the rodeo were available across Highway 40, at the Cowtown Cowboy Outfitters (“Jeans $20,” “Boots Cheap”) which is where I met Angela Speakman, author of a recently published history of Cowtown. A Salem County native, Speakman has worked summers at the rodeo for almost twenty years, selling t-shirts and plastic air rifles at the arena. On Saturday, however, she had been given the night off to watch the rodeo, which she had never seen before. “I get why people like it,” she said later.

Speakman asked me, twice, if I was an animal rights activist. Last summer, Cowtown attracted controversy when a horse dropped dead in the middle of a show. An advocacy group called Showing Animals Respect and Kindness posted footage from the event—which ended up on TMZ, of all places—that appears to show Duke being shocked with a “hotshot,” an electric prod, as he hesitated to exit the chute with his rider. According to Grant Harris, third-generation owner of the rodeo, the horse died from an aneurysm of the aorta. “People die running marathons all the time,” Speakman told me. Before the rodeo, we prayed at Cowboy Church, an outdoor chapel tucked away behind the arena, that nothing like it would happen again.

The Bible at Cowboy Church was old and held together with duct tape. The preacher, a woman with short white hair and a slow, pan-American drawl, reminded everyone in attendance that it is not good to say that you know Jesus when you don’t. She paraphrased, and misattributed—to Corinthians—one of my favorite lines from the Book of Revelation (KJV Revelation 3:16 – “So then because thou art lukewarm, and neither cold nor hot, I will spue thee out of my mouth”), before going on for a bit about Miley Cyrus and Satan and the Grammys. Tim Kent, 2013 Cowtown Rodeo Bareback Riding Champion, lead the closing prayer as we all held hands in a circle, thanking God for the green grass and the blue sky and the perfect rodeo weather (it was about seventy degrees). The men on either side of me gripped my soft, pale, unremarkable hands in theirs, heavy and gnarly and strong.

After the service, I wandered over to the arena, drawn by the sound of mooing. The calves and steers who are destined to be roped, tied, and wrestled into the dirt are kept in two pens, a berm separating them from the arena. A walking bridge passes over the berm; a sign asks you not to linger. Two cowboys perched on the fence assessed the steers by some mysterious calculus. One was leathery, with a handlebar mustache, the other fair. Both were sunburned and wore cowboy hats. (Everybody wore cowboy hats.) The fair-featured one held a clipboard and jumped down into the pen off the fence, wading amongst the steers. One of them, white with brown spots and the number “116” carved into his left horn, approached me as I leaned on the fence. “Are you happy in your work?” I asked. He stared at me without mooing. I could see that the tips of his horns had been blunted, which seems to me to just be adding insult to injury; he was castrated, like every steer.

On the other side of the chute are the calves, with wet noses and long, long eyelashes. They mooed incessantly; their mothers, kept in a pen on the other side of the arena, mooed back just as incessantly. If you are very still, a calf might start to edge towards you, dragging all the others behind it. Their ears are surprisingly soft and floppy, and behind their glassy eyes, you can see a mammalian fear and confusion; Nearby, a small herd of horses, mostly pairs of foals and mares, was running. They moved like water, all joints and muscles and violin-bow hair; no wonder people write books about them.

At the beginning of the rodeo’s opening ceremony, an announcer proclaimed that it was his pleasure to introduce a lady who is over two hundred and thirty five years old: Old Glory. “More free than ever,” the announcer told us, “She stands for everything that us as Americans stand for.” A woman in a sparkly shirt, sitting on a brown horse, hoisted a large American flag aloft. The animal became uncomfortable, shuffling back and forth and baring its teeth. Other women on horseback, also in sparkly shirts, emerged, carrying slightly smaller flags. Old Glory lead their parade around the arena, followed by the banners for: Cowtown Rodeo, New Jersey state, Dodge Ram, Pendleton Whisky, and Outback Trading Corporation.

At this point, I began to wonder why, when a cowgirl is wearing cowboy boots or a cowboy hat, they are still referred to as cowboy boots and a cowboy hat, and shouldn’t we call them cowgirl boots and cowgirl hats? Then I wondered whether anyone else in this arena cared, and I started maybe judging them for that, and then I judged myself for my urban elitism, and then I was watching men try to hold on to angry animals who weigh about a ton and wanted to gore or maybe trample them to death.

In order to win money, bull riders must stay on their bull for at least eight seconds. In the first round, no one stayed on for that long. Some bulls threw their riders and bolted for the exit; others kept bucking and spinning as the rodeo clowns—also known as bullfighters—tried to get their attention, jumping in and out of the twisting circle of muscle and horn to hit the bull on the face (!) to get its attention. Some bulls threw their riders and stood very still, leaving the arena on their own time, no sooner or later than they wanted. Funky Chicken immediately threw his rider and stood as still as that dumb bull statue on Wall Street with massive balls, eyeing the bullfighters and the cowboys, until he chased the Dusty the rodeo clown into his Coors-branded barrel, headbutting it repeatedly. After charging at three other cowboys on horses, Funky Chicken retreated, satisfied with the havoc he had wrought.

Steer wrestling was my favorite event. “Hmm,” I thought to myself after watching a few rounds, “I could do that.” Here is what happens in steer wrestling: two men on horseback chase a galloping steer. One man jumps out of the saddle, and tackles the sprinting steer by the horns. Then he wrestles the steer to the ground in a maneuver that mostly seems to involve falling over backwards. Upon further consideration, I thought maybe I could not do that.

After the rodeo ended and “Happy Trails” played, sending most people for the door, a diminished audience lingers to watch the “slack.” The slack riders were mostly young men trying to break into the professional circuit, but a few were older guys for whom this is just a bucket-list type adventure—guys who go to the rodeo and think to themselves, “Hmm. I could do that.” I ran into Speakman again at the conclusion of her first real night at the rodeo. A rider lost his hat, exposing his gray hair as he dove off of his horse to wrench a steer into the ground. “That’s going to hurt tomorrow,” Speakman said. “I wonder what his wife thinks.”

Brendan O’Connor is a reporter in New York.

Photo by Randy Pertiet