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What a Hat Trick

How did South Jersey become home to one of the country's longest-running rodeos?

By Anya Sostek
Special to The Washington Post
Wednesday, September 1, 2004; Page C02

The bulls are bucking and the cowboy hats are cocked. Batter-dipped Oreos sizzle in the deep fryer. Members of the local 4-H club sell programs, and a little boy ogles a John Deere tractor. It's just another Saturday night at the Cowtown Rodeo in . . . New Jersey.

Yes, New Jersey.

A merchant sells hats at the Cowtown Rodeo in Pilesgrove, N.J. The Saturday night rodeo has been running almost continuously since 1929. (Anya Sostek For The Washington Post)

Every single summer weekend for the past 50 years, spectators have come to a roadside arena in Pilesgrove in South Jersey to see men battle bulls and wrestle steers, making it the longest-running Saturday night rodeo in the country. On a noncontinuous basis, the Cowtown Rodeo has existed even longer, dating back to 1929 but taking a break during World War II.

The scene, just eight miles from the New Jersey Turnpike and the Delaware Memorial Bridge, is more "Dukes of Hazzard" than "The Sopranos," and more Toby Keith than Bon Jovi. Almost immediately after crossing the bridge from Delaware and exiting onto Route 40, the scenery is transformed from truck stops to tractors. After passing the Wrangler jeans outlet, the Cowtown Rodeo is hard to miss, marked by a 30-foot statue of a cowboy and a giant bull.

Even an hour before the rodeo's official start at 7:30 p.m., the line to buy tickets stretches far back into the parking area. (Unlike at other rodeos, the Cowtown parking lot does not double as a horse latrine, so sandals are perfectly acceptable footwear.)

Before the rodeo begins, the arena functions as a virtual shopping mall. Merchants sell everything from bridles to cowboy hats to T-shirts proclaiming "If They Can't Ride or Rope, Don't Mess With 'Em." Sadly, there is no mechanical bull to ride, but visitors can pay to have their picture taken atop a live 2,000-pound Brahman bull. The in-rodeo sales actually pale in comparison to the Saturday flea market in front of the rodeo from 8 a.m. to 4 p.m., when 500 vendors show up. On Tuesdays, the market also sells livestock.

The arena is also filled with food, which is as big a part of the rodeo experience as the bucking broncos and the sweet smell of manure. The food is not for the faint of heart. Artery cloggers abound, from chili dogs to cheese fries to funnel cakes. The star of the show is the Oreo pie. For $3, four Oreos are dredged in funnel cake batter, tossed into the deep fryer and doused in powdered sugar. My friend and I returned for a second helping.

The most entertaining – and economical – pre-rodeo activity is crowd-watching. To say the least, the rodeo draws a mixture of people who don't get together very often. There are cowboy punks – young Hank Williams III look-alikes with expansive tattoos and cowboy hats. One teenager wore a homemade T-shirt proclaiming himself "100% Redneck." There's also the urban crowd arriving from the 30-mile drive from Philadelphia, including African American kids sporting Allen Iverson jerseys. And then there are the young ones. The rodeo is paradise for kids, from little boys chowing on cotton candy and candy apples to teenage girls gazing at rodeo hotties.

Before the rodeo starts is the best time for shopping and dining, because once the action begins it's hard to tear yourself away. Skillfully narrated by an announcer who explains the events to the first-timers and tells jokes during breaks (the kind about selling a bucking bronco to his mother-in-law), the two-hour program seems to end almost as soon as it begins.

The show starts with the elaborate Grand Entry, an opening ceremony resembling a square dance on horseback. Riders parade in, carrying flags of various sponsors, including Wrangler and U.S. Smokeless Tobacco. The final entrant is Grant Harris, current owner of the rodeo and grandson of Howard "Stoney" Harris, who started Cowtown in 1929.

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© 2004 The Washington Post Company


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