ESSAYS FROM WEST OF 98: A BIGGER PARKING LOT

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By James M. Decker

One year ago, I used this space to summarize the history of Stamford’s Texas Cowboy Reunion and the importance of its legacy. I wrote how the legendary Will Rogers visited the TCR in 1935 and described it as a “real cowboy reunion...in a real cowtown.” I wrote how the TCR was designed as something more than a rodeo. It was an all-around, multi-generation celebration of the Texas cowboy. I wrote that, in my humble opinion, this was why the TCR has persevered as many small-town rodeos have struggled or disappeared entirely.

This year, something happened at the TCR. We’ve seen growth in the last few years. Crowds have improved. Entries have increased. Presentation of the rodeo as a spectator event has improved. Facilities have been upgraded. But this year, it all escalated. On Tuesday night, the Stamford Art Foundation’s Preview Party kicked off the festivities with a record crowd of 545 people. The rodeo saw approximately 680 entries across the various events. Sponsorships eclipsed $100,000 for the first time. The grandstands were packed for Friday night’s rodeo performance. Saturday night was even bigger, with an estimated crowd of over 6,000 passing through the gates. To top it off, Saturday night’s dance with Parker McCollum broke the TCR’s all-time dance attendance record (set in 1996) with 2,652 paid attendees. 

On both Friday and Saturday night, the rodeo crowds completely filled the parking lot. By the time of the dance, cars overflowed to properties across the highway. There’s a famous line in “Jaws” when the police chief says “you’re gonna need a bigger boat.” As I walked out of the rodeo Saturday night and waited in traffic to leave the grounds, all I could think was “we’re gonna need a bigger parking lot.”

I’ve been told for years that, in this day and age, there was a limit to the success the TCR could have. It’s not 1930 anymore. People have air conditioning and don’t want to sit outside in the summer heat and dust. There are more recreation options on July 4th weekend. People prefer to be at the lake or watching fireworks shows. There are too many live music options to get decent performers at the dance. Amateur rodeos are a thing of the past. The TCR might continue, but it’ll never be what it once was. If the TCR is to survive, you’ve got to move it to the fall and make it a ranch rodeo.

And you know what? That all has logic behind it. When I heard someone make those points over the years, it was hard not to understand where they were coming from. And yet, here we are today. Why is the Texas Cowboy Reunion defying logic? Why does the 89th annual TCR leave me with the feeling that the renaissance is only beginning?

I don’t know that I have all the answers. To some extent, like I wrote last year, the TCR has persevered because of its unique mission. But good leadership matters. Leadership takes vision to see an event’s mission and figure out how to present that mission to a modern audience. It takes a willingness to stick your neck out and try new things. It takes a willingness to spend money on facilities, publicity, and new attractions, without a guarantee of an immediate return on investment. It takes a willingness to know what answers you have, what answers you don’t, and to delegate to others who have those answers. It takes a willingness to attract new volunteers with energy and ideas of their own and then empower those volunteers to run with their ideas.

I’ve heard for years that the TCR was slowly dying. I’ve also heard for years that rural communities are slowly dying. There are supposedly better entertainment options in 2019 than a “danged ol’ rodeo.” There are better places to live in 2019 than a dusty small town. Right? Isn’t that what we’re told? Isn’t that logical? Our communities might survive, but they’ll never be what they once were.

Or is that true after all? The leaders of the TCR might tell you something different. Maybe leadership matters. Maybe, with the right people and the right vision, our rural communities’ renaissance is only beginning. Let us all say one day: “we’re gonna need a bigger parking lot.”

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James Decker is a lawyer, farmer, and mayor in Stamford, Texas, and the creator of the forthcoming “West of 98” podcast and website. He may be contacted through Facebook at facebook.com/james.decker. Listen to our podcast interview with James here.

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