When Betsy Harris drives across the Delaware Memorial Bridge coming from Delaware into New Jersey, she gets the feeling of home.
She’s not alone, of course; hundreds of thousands of drivers a day get that feeling when they see signs appear for Camden, Trenton and New York. But while many actually continue on to those locations, or nearby, Harris can turn off early to get to her “slice of heaven”: Cowtown Rodeo, located in Pilesgrove, a town in Salem County—nine miles from the Delaware Memorial Bridge on Route 40.
Cowtown is the Garden State’s only weekly professional rodeo. What’s more, it’s the longest running weekly rodeo in the country, starting in Pilesgrove when Herbert Hoover was president, and only taking a break during World War II. Held every Saturday from Memorial Day to Labor Day, the rodeo features bull riding, saddle bronc riding, steer wrestling, tie down roping, barrel racing, and more.
It’s a unique cultural tradition, at home in rural South Jersey (if not exactly on brand for the greater Northeast). Betsy Harris and her husband, Grant, acquired Cowtown in the ’70s and now her daughter Katie and brother-in-law RJ run the rodeo. Harris wasn’t born into the rodeo life, but became enamored with the Cowtown culture.
“I became addicted shortly,” says Harris. “It’s a way of life, and I love the culture and camaraderie that comes along with this way of life. On a terribly rainy night, it’s not a very fun place and it looks like a giant Tide commercial and there’s a lot of mud. But that gets in your blood as well.”
RJ Griscom is in charge of taking care of the livestock at Cowtown and their nearby farm.
“I work on the farm seven days a week,” says Griscom. “We are trying to raise the best bulls, horses and animals that we can. I got married into the rodeo, and you have to kind of make it a part of your life. You’ve got to be a part of it, and I’m glad that I do it. As much as we do the same thing everyday, it’s not the same everyday. I’d much rather deal with animals than people any day of the week.”
But as much as Harris, Griscom and others bought into the rodeo culture, there are people for whom the concept of a rodeo is unacceptable. Animals—and people—sometimes get hurt, animals too old to compete are sent to auction, and critics say the potential use of techniques, like an electric prod, used to get animals to participate are cruel.
Cowtown drew criticism in 2018, when a bronco died after running into a fence; in 2016, after rider Coy Lutz was stomped to death after being thrown from a bronco; and in 2013, after the death of a 9-year-old horse.
Now, the state SPCA found no wrongdoing in the 2013 incident, and it was later ruled the horse died of a heart aneurysm. In the 2016 incident, police ruled the death an accident.
It’s a tricky moral question. People, in good faith, can disagree on the ethics of the rodeo (and everything from horse racing to keeping animals as pets). Cowtown follows Professional Rodeo Cowboys Association (PRCA) care guidelines, which critics call inadequate, but which monitors compliance with animal welfare guidelines and conducts regular surveys to identify successes and failures, among other things.
So while one camp might claim the rodeo is, necessarily, an abuse of animals for our entertainment, another claims the rodeo is a convention of culture that showcases the power and innate abilities of livestock, and the skill of the handlers. Too, while the high-profile incidents may be too much for some people to overcome and while the death or injury of an animal is not their only quibble with the rodeo, the overall rate of injury for rodeo animals is low. The American Veterinary Medical Association held a rodeo animal welfare forum at which the PRCA disclosed that an on-site survey of 21 PRCA rodeos found only 15 animals injured in 26,584 performances, a 0.00041% rate.
“There’s a lot of newcomers who don’t know the sports, and there’s a lot of negativity towards the sport,” explains Griscom. “I try to educate people and show them the correct way we do things, but people already have it in their heads what this sport is, and everyone is entitled to their own opinion.”
Harris says the health of the animals is paramount to the success of Cowtown, and important to them personally: “If your animals aren’t healthy, you’re not doing your job.”
The process to get animals ready for the rodeo begins early, Griscom says.
“At 3 to 4 years old, we start to buck ’em,” says Griscom. “You don’t want to have 6 or 7 years invested in an animal that doesn’t have what it takes. Animals are like people, and bones and muscles are still growing and you want to take care of them the best you can.”
Griscom also keeps the animals on a strict diet that he says keeps them in peak condition for competition.
“In the morning before the rodeo, we give them grains, and in the evening, we feed them hay,” says Griscom. “We don’t want anything heavy sitting in their stomachs come game time. They’re just like humans and you don’t want to play sports with spaghetti sitting in your stomach.”
During the days leading up to the rodeo, Griscom and Harris sort out what animals will be in the rodeo, keep up-to-date with animal vaccinations, and organize participants in the rodeo.
And regardless of how one feels about the rodeo, the cultural impact of it—Cowtown, specifically—is immense. Both Griscom and Harris say the best part of their job is the people and making lifelong friendships. When Harris looks from her seat at Cowtown Rodeo, she looks out for rodeo lifers who come back every week. The rodeo might not be for everyone, but for those who can put aside moral concerns, the spectacle of the event is obvious.
When you enter the Cowtown grounds, there are people tailgating and you hear all sorts of different music. People are drinking and playing cornhole for hours before the rodeo. It’s kind of like going to a concert in Camden or Holmdel, except across the street are farms.
Cowtown’s presentation during the show is similar to a minor league ball game. There’s a gregarious PA announcer who makes jokes during breaks and searches for the rowdiest fans in attendance; plus, there’s sumo wrestling in between events and T-shirt launching.
Participants from all over New Jersey and the rest of the country compete in these events, which peaks with bull riding at the end of the night. Even though the participants are only out on the arena for maybe a minute, the adrenaline and thrill last a lifetime.
While veterinarians are on hand to try to protect animals, the people dressed up as clowns are there to protect the cowboys who are thrown off the bull. They are known as bullfighters; Nick Kaup is one of them at Cowtown.
“I wasn’t athletic enough to do anything else, so out of high school I became a clown and a bullfighter,” says Kaup. “It’s enjoyable. I get to run around and be goofy and just have fun.”
When Kaup is out in the arena, generally he is calm, cool and collected, but there are moments where things do get a little hairy.
“There are times when it gets dicey and I’m definitely scared,” says Kaup. “There have been times where I know I am in a bad spot. I’ve been kicked and run over a couple times and broken my nose, and broke some ribs. “
But it’s the atmosphere that keeps Kaup coming back for more.
“The friends and the atmosphere is what keeps me coming back,” explains Kaup. “These guys have become family.”
For more on Cowtown Rodeo, which runs every Saturday through the summer, go here.