New Jersey Rodeo Has Roped in Fans for 50 Years One of the longest-running weekly rodeos takes place not in Texas or Wyoming but in south Jersey. Grant Harris runs Cowtown Rodeo, which was started by his father and has been family-run since 1955.
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New Jersey Rodeo Has Roped in Fans for 50 Years

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New Jersey Rodeo Has Roped in Fans for 50 Years

New Jersey Rodeo Has Roped in Fans for 50 Years

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  • <iframe src="" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
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This is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Melissa Block.


And I'm Michele Norris.

Back in 1955, when Dwight Eisenhower was in the White House and American suburban sprawl wasn't quite so sprawling, the Harris family started staging a rodeo in a place called Cowtown. It's not in Texas or Wyoming. It's in New Jersey, just off the Turnpike. And after all these years, it's still going.

NPR's Frank Langfitt paid a visit.

(Soundbite of moving vehicle)

FRANK LANGFITT: To get to Cowtown from the south, take I-95 to the Delaware Memorial Bridge and cross into Southern New Jersey. Just before you hit the Turnpike, get off on a two-lane road that runs past the sod farms, cornfields and livestock of Salem County.

(Soundbite of bull bellowing)

LANGFITT: It's like a patch of Iowa, just off the northeast corridor. Grant Harris puts on a rodeo here every Saturday night in the summer. He says people are always surprised to hear what he does and where he does it.

Mr. GRANT HARRIS (Cowboy, Cowtown Rodeo): So many people have a very skewed conception of New Jersey. They think of Jersey as Joisey, you know. If you ride around in Salem and Cumberland counties, it's mostly all open farmland, and beef and dairy and vegetable farming, grain farming.

LANGFITT: Countryside like this gives New Jersey its nickname, The Garden State. Cowtown is commuting distance to several cities, but suburban sprawl hasn't arrived yet.

Mr. HARRIS: As the crow flies, we are about 20 miles from Philadelphia. I'm not quite 10 miles from Wilmington, Delaware. Closter County, New Jersey is only about three miles. A crow flies north of us right now and they're improving developments up there - four, five, six thousand houses at a time nowadays.

LANGFITT: Harrises have lived here for at least 12 generations. Running a rodeo is a family business.

(Soundbite of bull bellowing)

LANGFITT: Just after dawn, Grant and Katie, his 24-year-old daughter, bring the animals in from the fields. Grant looks at home. He wears a straw cowboy hat, jeans, boots and spurs. The summer sun has left his face lined and ruddy.

(Soundbite of metal gate opening)

LANGFITT: Opening and closing metal gates, they sort the horses for the evening's competition.

Mr. HARRIS: Bareback. The saddle broke.

(Soundbite of bull bellowing)

Mr. HARRIS: The saddle broke again.

LANGFITT: Katie's on horseback. Using a whip, she tries to coax a bull down on a wooden shoot.

(Soundbite of bull bellowing)

Mr. HARRIS: Easy, Kate. While that bull is looking through the fence at the other bulls. And at that time, she can whip and holler and do everything she wants to do. He is - until he is looking for another way to go, no sense aggravating yourself or him. Now, you see he's looking at the shoot right now. You got it on his mind.

LANGFITT: Many of the people who work here are neighbors, who grew up around the rodeo. Others come from out west.

Marvin Nash(ph) is a rodeo clown. He spends most of the year in Cheyenne, Wyoming. But on summer weekends, he's in Cowtown, New Jersey. Nash isn't working tonight. He's wearing a neck brace after being blindsided by a bull.

Mr. MARVIN NASH (Rodeo Clown): I'm been on this 30 years, and this is the first thing that's ever happened.

LANGFITT: Well, not the first thing. He's broken six ribs, busted his jaw and suffered a punctured lung. But this was the worst. His wife Darlene(ph) describes what happened.

Ms. DARLENE NASH (Marvin Nash's Wife): I was up on a hill and I saw the bull come out and he had - his back to the bull. No one had said that the bull was going to come out. And when it hit him, I never saw anyone's neck snap back so violently. I mean, I just knew he was dead.

LANGFITT: Darlene ran to him. His microphone was still on, broadcasting his words throughout the arena.

Ms. NASH: I heard him say, I can't feel my arms and my legs. Well, from the front of the rodeo to when I got to him, the grounds, I started thinking, okay, and do I have a room in the RV for a wheel chair?

LANGFITT: Marvin recovered, in fact, he went back out that night and kept performing.

(Soundbite of crowd cheering and applauding)

LANGFITT: The rodeo kicks off at 7:30.

(Soundbite of song "The Star Spangled Banner")

Unidentified Man: (Singing) O'er the land of the freeā€¦

LANGFITT: Tickets are $12 for adults, $6 for kids. Nearly 3,000 people - many of them local - pack the stands. Events include steer wrestling and barrel riding. The prize money is modest.

Betsy Harris, Grant's wife, writes the checks. The biggest payout this evening - $551 for first place in bull riding.

The best-known bull rider comes from New England.

Mr. JOHN CONSTANTINOPLE (Bull Rider): Hello. My name is John Constantinople. I'm 51 years old. I come from Prospect, Connecticut.

LANGFITT: Constantinople grew up in West Haven, a middle-class suburb, just a few miles from the Yale campus.

People don't think Connecticut as rodeo country, how did you get into it?

Mr. CONSTANTINOPLE: My dad took me to a rodeo and I watched a calf rope, and I was intrigue with that.

LANGFITT: Where did you grow up?

Mr. CONSTANTINOPLE: I live on (unintelligible) acres, right in the middle of the city. So, I mean, during the day, you know, I'll be on the beach, you know, I'd be a beach bum and at night I was a cowboy.

LANGFITT: Tonight he's drawn a mean bull named Kamikaze.

(Soundbite of bull bellowing)

LANGFITT: That's the same animal that leveled Marvin Nash, the rodeo clown, and ruptured two of his vertebrae.

In the bucking shoot, Kamikaze rears up so high, he almost smashes Constantinople on the face.

(Soundbite of bull bellowing)

LANGFITT: Out of the gate, he throws his haunches in the air, sending the rider tumbling into the dirt.

(Soundbite of buzzer)

LANGFITT: Afterwards, Constantinople opens up and says he's been struggling.

Mr. CONSTANTINOPLE: I feel like I pretty much ride everything and I'm not - I'm going through like a little slump and just fight my head over it. This is the first time in - for over 28 years that I'm - well, it's not coming easy to me. It's always been easy to me.

LANGFITT: Most of the other riders are in their 20s.

Mr. CONSTANTINOPLE: People start to tease me about my age, because being at 51, I'm not supposed to be in this game. I just love riding bulls.

LANGFITT: Is there a point in which you would get out?

Mr. CONSTANTINOPLE: Yeah, I'm starting to think about it. You know - well, the problem is when you've been like this successful through the years and all of the sudden things are not going right, you start to think is my time gone? Have I had my run? And then again, when I get home, that same desire will make me straighten it out because I going to quit when I'm ready to quit. And that's what it is.

LANGFITT: Grant Harris wonders about his future, too. He's sitting on 1,200 acres. Because Cowtown is so close to cities, real estate agents say the value of the land has soared over the years.

Harris' developers routinely make offers.

Mr. HARRIS: When we get up over $25 million, you start getting my attention, and it's been over that before.

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

Mr. HARRIS: The place is not for sale it's what I like to say. But if somebody offers me what I think is way, way, way, way too much money, I'd be foolish not to consider it. Fact is, they're making people a lot faster and they're making this land and it won't be today or tomorrow, but sooner or later. I imagine a lot of this will be build on. I hope I don't - I'm not around to see it.

LANGFITT: Until then, the Cowtown Rodeo continues. Every Saturday night from May through September, amid the pasture land of South Jersey, and just a few miles from exit one on the Turnpike.

Frank Langfitt, NPR News.

(Soundbite of music)

NORRIS: You can see some of the Cowtown Rodeo stars in action. There's a video at our Web site,

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