Amongst the green pastures and windy dirt roads of Pilesgrove, NJ lies the oldest and longest-running professional weekly rodeo show in American history. This slice of Americana invites guests of all ages to experience the traditions and thrills of the rodeo circuit without having to travel down South. Established by generations of the Harris family, Cowtown Rodeo offers residents of the Garden State and beyond a taste of the Old West with heart-racing bull riding, barrel racing, and team roping events since 1954. 69 consecutive seasons later, they are saddling up every Saturday night with more than 2,500 families in attendance. Learn about how this family tradition began and why it continues to pioneer a class of passionate bull riders for generations to come.
The Very Beginning
Cowtown Rodeo has a rich family history dating back to 1929. Founded by Howard Harris Sr. and his son Howard “Stoney” Harris Jr, a livestock auction was first presented on the original North Main Street grounds, drawing in large crowds of people from all over New Jersey. Inspired by the entertainment factor of Western shows, Stoney organized the first rodeo in Woodstock, NJ, in partnership with the Sales County Fair. The rodeo was a smashing success and became an annual family tradition for many county fairs until 1938.
Unfortunately, World War II caused a temporary pause in operations until their official comeback in 1955. The rodeo got back on its feet when Stoney’s son Howard “Baldy” Harris arrived home from the University of Idaho boasting the 1954 National Intercollegiate All-Around Rodeo Championship saddle. This achievement brought hope and life back into the organization, beginning a new era for the “oldest weekly professional rodeo in the United States.”
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The next move for the Harris family was to head out on tour, eventually raising and breeding their in-house bucking stock. They toured across the country, bringing in money and national acclaim with Baldy officially taking over operations. The rodeo eventually became part of the Professional Rodeo Cowboys Association, providing official recognition as a professional rodeo. The arena in Pilesgrove was eventually built in 1967 for all future endeavors.
The Next Generation
Fourth-generation Howard Grant Harris grew up in Cowtown, NJ, and entered into the bull-riding scene at the age of 14. Obtaining his rodeo license at 17, he competed throughout the United States and was crowned the Northeast Circuit Saddle Bronc Champion in 1975, 1977, and 1978. With the support of his wife Betsy, Grant made the difficult decision to leave his professional riding days behind to take the reins from his father after he moved away to Oklahoma in 1978. His experience and passion for rodeo made running the behind-the-scenes operations a grand success as they continued to gain national TV recognition throughout the country.
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Today, Grant and Betsy continue to assist with the daily operations of the rodeo with Besty as the supervisor. Betsy has plenty of experience as the former president of the First Frontier Rodeo Circuit, overseeing the entire Northeast branch. They already began the fifth generation of Cowtown Rodeo with the birth of their two daughters, Courtney and Katy. Courtney and her husband Jake own and operate Three Hills Rodeo, holding tight to family traditions. Katy and her husband RJ have recently gained ownership of Cowtown Rodeo, with RJ standing as President since 2020.
The Cowtown Rodeo boasts a plethora of cowboy contests sure to wow spectators. Seating up to 4,000 guests in the arena, they showcase all seven professional rodeo events each Saturday night during their regular season: Bull riding, steer wrestling, bareback riding, saddle bronc riding, team roping, tie-down roping, girl’s barrel racing, and the All Around Cowboy Competition. These events are not only for entertainment but serve as a professional sport with extensive training for participating riders.
“This is a family show and there are a lot of spills and thrills,” Grant Harris shares in an interview with WHYY-TV, “It’s a part of Americana.”
The most popular and thrilling event is bull riding, known as the “most intense eight seconds you will experience in a rodeo”. It takes immense mental and physical strength as it is extremely dangerous with the possibility of serious injury. The performance includes a cowboy riding the back of a 2,000-pound bull with one hand as he tries to stay on as long as possible. To stay onboard, the rider clings to a braided rope that is wrapped around the bull’s chest soon after the bull explodes into the arena. There are even Bull Fighters on standby when a rider gets bucked off, ready to step into danger to keep both the bucks and riders safe.
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However, a common misconception is that bucking distresses and harms animals. However, RJ Griscom, the current President of Cowtown Rodeo, reveals the true nature of the animals used in competitions. “They are born to buck,” he explains. “We cannot make them buck. There is a soft flank rope that feels more or less like a fly on their back. If they don’t want to buck, they are not going to buck. They are athletes; they know their job.”
At the core of Cowtown Rodeo’s performances is the care and maintenance of their beloved animals. They take pride in providing a safe and nurturing environment for their stock and have strict safeguards in place to avoid aggravation or injury. The theme of family tradition is also seen with the bucking horses and bulls raised right on the property. In fact, some are the grandchildren of the animals ridden from the 1970s Cowtown performances.
To experience “the best show on dirt,” tickets can be purchased online at Cowtown’s official website. The show runs every Saturday night during their rodeo season, which begins Memorial Day until the end of September. A family-friendly event, the show kicks off at 7:30 p.m. with gates opening at 6 p.m. Rain or shine, the show goes on.
About the Author/s
Laura DeSiena is a certified Jersey Girl with a passion for music, playing the guitar, and binge-watching 90’s sitcoms. As an aspiring writer and author, she hopes to publish a book someday. When she’s not writing, you can usually find her browsing the shelves of Barnes & Noble in search of her next read.