Cowtown Rodeo is Saturday Night Tradition in South Jersey and “Oldest Weekly Running Rodeo in the USA”
Cowtown Rodeo is a Saturday-night tradition In South Jersey and acclaimed as the “oldest weekly running rodeo in the USA.”
Located in Salem County just off Exit 4 of I-295, Cowtown was started in 1929 by Howard Harris Sr. and his son, Howard "Stoney" Harris Jr. Stoney held the first rodeo in Woodstown, in conjunction with the Salem County Fair, at the original auction grounds on North Main.
The rodeo was held annually during the County Fair until 1937. World War II caused the rodeo to be put on hold until 1955 when Howard Harris III, Stoney's son, came back from the University of Idaho with the 1954 National Intercollegiate All Around Rodeo Championship saddle.
Stoney Harris had been holding an annual rodeo for the Salem County Fair for a number of years to supplement the family livestock business, so he was willing to take on his son's idea of a weekly rodeo.
And that began the tradition of running the rodeo as a family enterprise for the Harris family, which has been a fixture in the area for 12 generations.
The rodeo outgrew the original arena and in 1967 Howard built the present 4,000-seat arena.
In 1957 and 1958, Cowtown was syndicated on national television, which attracted cowboys from all over the Northeast and that exposure was reprised in taped exposure nationwide in 1968 and 1969.
Because it has become a national fixture on the professional rodeo circuit, Cowtown Rodeo is the winner of SNJ Business People’s Impact Award.
The rodeo begins promptly at 7:30 with the Grand Entry, in which all the competitors parade into the ring on horseback, waving to the crowd and doing loops a Big Ten college band would envy. Howard Harris's granddaughter, Courtney, 19, leads the procession,
With 8 to 20 contestants in each of seven categories, the weekly events include bareback riding, steer wrestling, saddle-bronc riding, calf-roping, bull-riding, team calf-roping and girls' barrel racing.
In girls' barrel racing, the competitors have to circle three barrels placed around the rodeo ring while being timed. It is the only event for women at Cowtown, but t-shirts emblazoned with “Cowgirls Lead. Cowboys Follow.'' are usually in evidence.
Prize money is limited to several thousand dollars a night, but cowboys come from as far as Florida and Texas to win it, hoping to qualify for regional seedings in the national rodeo finals.
Howard Grant Harris is now the producer of Cowtown, overseeing livestock development, periodic flea markets and auctions, and selling clothing at the Cowtown Cowboy Outfitters shop, as well as overseeing the rodeo itself.
Grant, the fourth generation and oldest son of Howard Jr, grew up at Cowtown and was only one year old when the weekly rodeo started in 1955. He “practically lived behind the chutes” and at 8 years old he became the Junior Bull Riding Champion.
He entered professional competition at the age of 14, getting his Professional Rodeo Cowboys Association card at the age of 17. He attended Casper College, in Casper, Wyoming, with a full rodeo scholarship and competed hard all across the United States.
He was the Northeast Circuit Saddle Bronc Champion in 1975, 1977, and 1978 and was invited to compete in the 1977 North American Match Invitational Bronc Riding in Wolf Point, Montana.
In 1978, Grant, along with his new wife Betsy, bought the Cowtown Rodeo from his father.
The 2016 season will run from May 28 to September 24 and tickets cost $12 for adults and $6 for children.
The Cowtown Farmers Market is open Tuesdays and Saturdays 8:00 AM to 4:00 PM, all year around, rain or shine.