New Jersey Rodeo Has Roped in Fans for 50 Years

Rodeo owner Grant Harris stands by the horse and bull stalls. i i

hide captionGrant Harris divides the horses and bulls for the evening's rodeo.

Frank Langfitt, NPR
Rodeo owner Grant Harris stands by the horse and bull stalls.

Grant Harris divides the horses and bulls for the evening's rodeo.

Frank Langfitt, NPR
Horses with rider in background i i

hide captionAn early-morning roundup at Cowtown.

Chip Schwartz, NPR
Horses with rider in background

An early-morning roundup at Cowtown.

Chip Schwartz, NPR
Cowtown cowboys in the bucking chute. i i

hide captionCowboys prepare bulls in the bucking chute.

Chip Schwartz, NPR
Cowtown cowboys in the bucking chute.

Cowboys prepare bulls in the bucking chute.

Chip Schwartz, NPR

When you think of rodeo, you may think of Texas or Wyoming. But for decades, a New Jersey family has run a popular rodeo at a place called Cowtown. In fact, it's just a few miles from Exit 1 on the turnpike.

Grant Harris and his family have been staging the Cowtown Rodeo every Saturday night during the summer since Dwight Eisenhower was in the White House. The rodeo sits off of a two-lane road that runs past sod farms, cornfields and livestock and feels more like a patch of Iowa than New Jersey.

Harris said people are always surprised to learn about Cowtown.

"So many people have a very skewed conception of New Jersey," Harris said. "They think of Jersey as 'Joisey.' If you ride around Salem and Cumberland County, it's mostly all open farmland, beef and dairy, vegetable farming, grain farming."

The Harris family has lived in the area for at least 12 generations, and running the rodeo has been a family business since 1955.

Tickets cost $12 for adults, $6 for kids. Events include steer wrestling and barrel riding. The prize money is modest. Betsy Harris — Grant's wife — writes the prize checks.

While most of the fans are local, the best-known bull rider at Cowtown hails from New England. John Constantinople, 51, grew up in West Haven, a middle-class suburb, a few miles from the Yale campus and not far from the Long Island Sound.

Although Connecticut is hardly rodeo country, Constantinople said he was intrigued by calf roping when he was a child.

"On the day, I was a beach bum, and at night, I was a cowboy," he said.

The Harrises are working to keep the tradition alive, even as suburbia slowly closes in. Cowtown is not far from Philadelphia and Wilmington, Del., and there are a few housing tracts — even a golf course — nearby.

Harris does wonder about his future — not because fans aren't packing the stands but because Cowtown is so close to cities. Real estate agents say the value of the land has soared over the years. Harris says developers routinely make offers. He's sitting on 1,200 acres.

"When you get up over $25 million, you start getting my attention, and it's been over that before," Harris said.

Harris said he hopes to pass the rodeo on to his daughter, Katie. But he knows that, at some point, the money may be irresistible.

"The place is not for sale," Harris said. "But if somebody offers me what I think is way, way, way, way too much money, I'd be foolish not to consider it."

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