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.
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.
First-time rodeo-goers may think that it's all about the bulls and the broncos. Not so. Much of the action involves various ways to subdue a steer (a young male cow that has been castrated, if you didn't know).
In steer wrestling, the rider drops from on top of a horse to a steer running alongside. The cowboy who can wrestle it to the ground in the least amount of time wins the event. In tie-down roping, a wrangler must lasso a calf from horseback, then run to the animal and tie three of its legs together with a piece of rope he carries in his teeth. Another variation of this event is team roping, where two men -- a header and a heeler -- attempt to catch a steer and rope its hind legs.
Although the steer events are surprisingly entertaining, the main attractions are the horse- and bull-riding contests. The classic rodeo test is saddle bronc riding, where cowboys start atop a horse with their feet on the animal's shoulders. The rider must stay on for eight seconds to receive a score, which is based on general style and spurring technique. In bareback riding, the cowboys ride with no saddle and with only one handhold around a piece of leather rigging. If they touch the horse with their free hand during the eight-second ride, they are disqualified.
In bull riding, the scoring system is the same. But angry bulls weighing as much as a ton provide a greater element of danger. Mounted on bulls named Terminator and Knuckle Head and the like, the riders flop back and forth like rag dolls, fewer than half staying on for the requisite eight seconds.
The bulls look even bigger during the junior bull-riding events, when members of the 18-and-under crowd take their turn. Rodeo clowns antagonize the bulls, distract them when a rider gets thrown and perform during breaks, delighting the sizable preschool contingent.
Everybody has his or her favorite event. "It depends on what you're into," says Cheryl Johnson, who lives on a farm nearby and has been coming to the rodeo every week for the past 30 years. "I like the bull riding." The bull riders are the stars of the show for many. After the rodeo ended, one kid wandered around the area where the riders hung out, asking each one if he rode the bulls and getting their autographs only if the answer was yes.
During barrel racing, the women get their turn in the arena. It is extremely rare for women to compete in an event other than barrel racing, where they circle three barrels on horseback as fast as they can, hair whipping from under their cowboy hats and the fringe on their shirts flying behind them.
Many of the male and female riders are local, but others travel from Virginia, Upstate New York and other nearby states. "It's one of the better rodeos around," says Chuck Layne, an electrician by day who drives in every week from Chester County, Pa., to compete in team roping. "There's always a great turnout, and the crowd is real supportive."
The official rodeo ends about 9:30, but die-hards can stick around to see extra riders who didn't make it in the drawing for the prime-time program. Lingering for a while isn't a bad idea: With hundreds of cars leaving a gravel parking lot through a single exit, sitting in your car is the other alternative. But even with a stop for ice cream at the roadside Olympia Dairy Bar, we were back inside the Beltway by midnight, home from the wild west of southern New Jersey.