PILESGROVE, N.J. — The low-lying clouds framing the horizon at sunset were beginning to tinge a cotton-candy pink when the rodeo announcer, Ty Miller, instructed all men to “remove cover.”
He had just finished reciting a prayer. The national anthem — “the most beautiful song ever written,” he said — was next.
“My goodness,” John McKenney, 52, said to friends squeezed thigh to thigh on Cowtown Rodeo’s wooden, no-frills stands. “I don’t think we’re in New Jersey anymore.”
But like Dorothy, he had never left.
Tucked along the rural western flank of a state better known for suburban sprawl, mobster lore and its tangle of highways, Cowtown has held rodeo competitions in Salem County, New Jersey, nearly every week since 1955, rain or shine. The only exceptions were six Saturdays at the start of the pandemic.
No other rodeo in the United States has operated a weekly show for longer, according to the Professional Rodeo Cowboys Association.
Cowtown and its longevity have long been local points of pride in New Jersey. But over the past two years, the beloved if incongruous entertainment oasis has enjoyed something of a pandemic moment as rodeos have surged in popularity nationwide.
Cowtown’s ticket sales last summer were 50% higher than ever before, its owners said. On a recent Saturday, the rodeo’s 4,000-seat outdoor stadium hosted its first-ever event for the Professional Bull Riders — rodeo’s equivalent of the NBA.
The farming family that runs Cowtown says it continues to rebuff offers to sell parcels of its sprawling property to companies hoping to build warehouses on it. Confident in the future, the family has passed the rodeo’s reins to a fifth generation: Katy Harris Griscom, Cowtown’s first female boss.
“Some of the offers were tempting,” said Grant Harris, a former bronc and bull rider who ran Cowtown for decades with his wife, Betsy, before selling it to their youngest daughter and her husband, R.J. Griscom. The older couple still operates a flea market, also called Cowtown, and a 1,700-acre farm where they raise beef cattle and grow food for the livestock.
“My family made a living — at least — doing what we do for 13, 14 generations,” Harris said of farming. “Why would you want to mess with that?”
And so every Friday at sunup, from Memorial Day weekend through September, six riders on horseback begin rounding up horses and bulls and leading them toward the rodeo pens 36 hours before showtime.
The animals thunder through a tunnel that runs under Route 40, a bustling thoroughfare that cuts east to west through southern New Jersey, before they’re herded into groups behind a 22-foot-tall, fiberglass Muffler Man cowboy that stands sentry nearby.
The animals are bred for bucking. That’s what draws the crowds and the occasional group of animal welfare activists. Underscoring the sport’s inherent danger, a 19-year-old rising college sophomore from Pennsylvania was killed at Cowtown in 2016 after being thrown from his horse during a bareback competition.
“It was devastating,” Betsy Harris said.
Ethan Johnson, 27, a bullfighter whose job entails using his body to distract the bull after it jettisons a rider to the dirt, likened the experience of the crowds at the rodeo to that of fans watching a NASCAR race.
“They want everyone to be OK,” said Johnson, who lives in New Mexico but travels the country to work rodeos. “But they want to see a good wreck, too.”
Contestants compete in eight events that recall rodeo’s origins as a competitive showcase for the skills required to work on farms and cattle ranches throughout the United States.
There’s timed steer-wrestling, calf-roping and saddle-bronc riding. Women are permitted to compete in any event, but a second female-only contest, breakaway roping, was added to the professional rodeo circuit last year.
The so-called rough-stock events, which pit a rider’s brawn and skill against the strength of a horse or bull as it kicks its hind legs, are fan favorites. (To encourage bucking, a sheepskin strap is cinched around the animal’s flank, near its genitals; the sensation leads the animal to try to kick it off.)
Bull riders and bareback contestants must stay astride for at least eight seconds in order to be eligible to win and be scored on the quality of their rides. If no riders remain upright for the minimum amount of time, the competition’s cash prize rolls over to the next week.
On a recent Saturday night, the winner of the bull-riding competition was the only person to stay on top for at least eight seconds in three weeks, and he left with a prize of about $4,000.
Tim Kent, 36, a top regional bareback rider who has been competing since he was 14, said the main appeal, for him, was rodeo’s age-old roots and the camaraderie among contestants.
“It’s as ancient as ancient can be,” said Kent, who is among the few contestants who said he “rodeos” more or less full time. “How long has man been working with animals? You’re harkening back to something very primitive.”
“Some of it is to be tough and brave,” said Kent, a father of two from Pennsylvania. “It challenges your spirit.”
The sport is not without its powerful detractors. A New York Assembly member, Linda B. Rosenthal, proposed legislation two years ago that would bar certain events and tools at rodeos, which she has called “blood sport masquerading as entertainment.”
Michael Kobliska, an investigator with Showing Animals Respect and Kindness, a national animal rights organization, said, “We have a problem with most of it.”
“These are essentially tame animals,” he said, “and they want to pretend that they’re wild.”
Nonetheless, the sport appears to have a growing fan base.
This year, 780 professional rodeos are scheduled around the country, up from 635 last year and 720 in 2019, according to Steve Knowles, director of rodeo administration for the Professional Rodeo Cowboys Association.
Richard W. Slatta, a retired history professor at North Carolina State University who has written six books about the American cowboy, said he believed rodeo’s current boom was linked to the economic and social upheaval that accompanied the pandemic.
“The cowboy is an iconic figure that people identify as representing a golden age,” he said.
“When you get these social and economic stresses, that’s when I see an uptake in people lamenting the loss of traditional values,” he said. “It’s a feeling that the good old days have gone and they’re trying to recapture that.”
Indeed, patriotism was on full display on a recent Saturday night, in the announcers’ script and in the American flags waving from trucks parked for tailgates. But politics were not; cowboy hats were de rigueur but there were few partisan slogans evident on clothing in the standing-room-only crowd.
Many people in attendance said Cowtown had become a summertime tradition with family and friends. Others cited its novelty as the main draw.
Sydney Hughes, 24, arrived about two hours early to tailgate with co-workers from a Philadelphia architecture firm. Hughes said she got the same reaction each time she explained her weekend plans to friends.
“When I tell them it’s in New Jersey — they’re like, ‘What?’” she said.
Mannie Brown was there celebrating his 65th birthday, and his first rodeo, with a crowd of relatives.
“I watch a lot of cowboy movies,” said Brown, who is from Brooklyn but now lives in Delaware. “I just wanted to see it live.”
The relative affordability of a night at the rodeo and its outdoor seating have made it an especially appealing entertainment option during the pandemic, Knowles said. At Cowtown, tickets are $25 for adults, and spectators are permitted to carry in small coolers filled with food and their glass-free drink of choice.
Salem County, where Cowtown is located, is one of the most rural areas of New Jersey, filled with large farms that kiss up against each other to form uninterrupted swaths of open space.
But being near Interstates 95 and 295 — and fewer than 20 miles from Pennsylvania and Delaware — has made the region a prime target for companies hoping to erect warehouses, according to officials with the New Jersey Farm Bureau.
The offers are “astronomical” — so large, in fact, that the interest income alone would likely dwarf the family’s annual profit, Harris said.
“How much is enough?” he said. “That’s the question.”
For now, the family said it had no plans to sell.
“I wouldn’t do anything else,” Harris Griscom said as her 3-year-old daughter, Olivia, played nearby.
Her son Nate, 10, already rides a miniature bull named Norman. And he never misses a show.