Lemonade from lemons: How the ‘Virtual Stock Show’ came to be

The National Western Stock Show had persevered through two world wars and a Great Depression. As the long summer of 2020 progressed, though, the prospects for the 2021 National Western Stock Show were fading fast.

COVID-19 case counts kept climbing. While promising vaccine trials were underway, it was clear that widespread inoculation wouldn’t happen until well after those 16 days in January.

We consulted with health experts and officials from the City and County of Denver and the State of Colorado. They confirmed what we suspected: that there would be no way to safely host even a fraction of the 700,000 visitors, participants, exhibitors, volunteers and others who converge each year at the “Super Bowl of Stock Shows.”

And so, in September, we postponed the 115th Stock Show until 2022. The subsequent rise in coronavirus cases has underscored the wisdom of that difficult decision even if being right hasn’t made it any easier to stomach.

The National Western is the number-one show for many of our loyal exhibitors.

Local hotels, restaurants, vendors and others will sorely miss Stock Show business that adds up to $120 million in economic impact each year.
Taxes from those revenues help fund vital local and state government programs.

The educational and social voids are equally massive. Some 20,000 kids from schools across Colorado come through the Stock Show each year. For many of them, this is the only place they ever see a live farm animal or, more broadly, have a chance to connect their urban and suburban lives with the agricultural foundations that make those lives possible.

Our rural kids won’t escape unscathed, either: The work they’ve put into raising all sorts of animals for judging will have to wait.

That’s not to mention the incalculable joy that the Stock Show’s rodeos, horse shows and other events bring to so many of us. All of that made postponing the Stock Show an extraordinarily difficult call. Yet it wasn’t an unprecedented one.

In December 1914, hoof-and-mouth disease swept into the United States. It was highly contagious to cattle, forcing the Stock Show’s leadership to make the wrenching decision to cancel the 10th annual show scheduled for January 1915.

In the weeks that followed our own wrenching decision 106 years later, I and a few others got to thinking about what we could do. A very real fact about the National Western Stock Show is that it’s a family reunion of sorts.

People from across the West, the nation and around the world converge in Denver every January; some have been coming for decades and generations. Familiar faces abound. Shared experiences recommence and shape the fond memories of the future. Seeing as technology has come so far in the past 106 years, we asked ourselves: Would there not be some way to keep us connected — and maybe a little less lonely — when we all should be together during the 2021 Stock Show? To let us shape a few fond memories during these tough and uncertain times?

Paul Andrews, National Western’s president and CEO, and the Board of Directors of the Association supported the idea of looking into some sort of virtual event.

An added benefit would be that, if the Honoring the Legacy capital campaign for the new National Western Center led the charge, the event would raise awareness for the campaign and, at least as importantly, keep us all looking forward to much brighter days ahead.

Not quite sure where to start, I called an old friend: Emmy Award-winning songwriter and singer Jim Salestrom. Jim embraced the idea, and together, we started to reach out to our friends.

I was hoping we’d get maybe a handful of musical acts and a smattering of greetings — enough, perhaps, to cobble together a modest program to shine some light on the National Western at a time when it’s usually basking in the full sun of our attention.

Little did I know that the combination of Jim’s charm and the National Western’s draw would bring a response nothing short of incredible.

Dozens of musicians and other entertainers volunteered to contribute videos of their music. Among them include Michael Martin Murphey, Baxter Black, Brooks & Dunn and the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band.

Others contributed greetings just for the Stock Show audience: Luke Bryan, Peyton Manning, John Elway, Ken Burns and others. Famed rodeo clown Justin Rumford agreed immediately to host a Saturday morning for kids. National Finals Rodeo stars said they’d share lessons that only cowboys and cowgirls can teach. No one said no!

What started as a vague idea had, within just a couple of harried weeks, blossomed into a full-on virtual festival: Celebrating the Spirit of the National Western Stock Show, a series of free Virtual Happy Hours and a Marquee Concert happening each evening from Tuesday, Jan. 12, through Friday, Jan. 22.

To these riches we’ve added interviews with Honoring the Legacy campaign leaders including Sue Anschutz-Rodgers, Ron Williams, Doug Jones, Paul Andrews and myself, as well as with “Stock Show icons” such as Pat Grant, Chuck Sylvester, Dr. John Matsushima, Dr. Marvin Beeman and Don Manuello.

We’re carrying on the cherished tradition of the Cowboy Church and Founder’s Memorial service and brought in Dr. Alveda King, Martin Luther King Jr.’s niece, to deliver the sermon. Tying it all together will be Denver television and radio personality Ed Greene, who will serve as host and emcee for the shows and videos.

Generous sponsors soon lined up to help make it all possible and spread the word: Happy Hour and Marquee Concert sponsor Molson Coors Beverage and the Coors Banquet brand; kids-programming sponsor Wagner Equipment Co; official media sponsor The Denver Gazette; and Stanton Dodge and Family pitched in, too.

For more on the schedule, check out our Honoring the Legacy campaign website and make sure you sign up for our emails that will provide you with the access to all this and more. You can also go to The Denver Gazette for special features on the campaign, the virtual events and the National Western Stock Show.

In 2013, the National Western joined together with the City and County of Denver and Colorado State University to reimagine the home of the National Western Stock Show and create a true epicenter of agribusiness in the Rocky Mountain region. We and our partners knew this collaboration would generate a groundbreaking opportunity to connect our rural and urban communities.

Together, with the City and County of Denver as equity partner and builder, and Colorado State University as an equity partner, we will create a global destination for food and agriculture, research, water and Western heritage and culture.

Construction of the 250-acre National Western Center is underway now, and we plan to celebrate the grand opening of the first of our four new facilities during Stock Show 2022: the Cille and Ron Williams Yards.

This year’s virtual Stock Show is all for a good cause. The Honoring the Legacy campaign, the National Western’s first-ever major capital campaign, is making a big bet on the future of the Stock Show — and, more broadly, the future of Denver and the West.

We’ve raised nearly $80 million of our $100 million goal to build four major new facilities as part of the billion-dollar National Western Center redevelopment.

The 20-acre Cille and Ron Williams Yards will transform today’s oft-vacant expanse of permanent pens to a convertible space for a variety of events, concerts, car shows, sales, festivals and outdoor sporting events.

The HW Hutchison and Family Stockyards Event Center will house the proposed 1,000-seat Yards Show Arena and the 600-seat Yards Auction Arena, and it and the Yards will be ready for the 2022 Stock Show.

The Sue Anschutz-Rodgers Livestock Center will be the hub of all livestock activities and provide multiuse, flexible indoor and outdoor facilities yearround.

The Equestrian Center will be one of the nation’s premier centers for yearround horse shows and events.

The Legacy Building will be the new home for the National Western Stock Show’s world headquarters and home to a greatly expanded National Western Club, the Robert and Catherine Wilson Gallery for the National Western’s art collection, the Wold Family Heritage Center to display and share National Western archives and history, and much more.

When fully built out in 2025, the new National Western Center will host hundreds of events a year and accommodate nearly a million additional visitors, helping to nearly double the economic impact to the region, to an estimated $230 million annually.

It will be more than a transformation of the aging National Western Complex into a new home worthy of the National Western Stock Show for the century to come.

We’re building a living monument the West — one celebrating its spirit, its culture, its values and its ideals — that will serve as a global center for agricultural advancement and education like never before.

We hope you enjoy the shows this January — and we’ll see you in person at the National Western Stock Show in 2022.

As originally published in The Denver Gazette here.