Passing the reins at South Jersey's Cowtown Rodeo

Katy Harris Griscom, left, carries the American flag during the grand entry on this year’s opening night of the annual Cowtown Rodeo in Pilesgrove, N.J., on Saturday, May 26, 2018. Griscom and her husband, RJ, took over rodeo operations this year from her father. The weekly rodeo is now in its 64th consecutive year.

PILESGROVE TOWNSHIP, N.J. — The rodeo heiress sat high in the saddle on a Saturday night, the Stars and Stripes billowing out behind her bay horse in the dirt ring.

Up in the crow’s nest, Katy Harris Griscom’s mother, Betsy Harris, sat on a stool with a stopwatch and a pencil.  Katy’s little boy, Nate Griscom, 5, chased calves around in the chutes, just the way she did decades ago.

During the national anthem, her father, Grant Harris, and her husband, R.J. Griscom, covered their racing hearts with cowboy hats, and when it ended, the bull and bronco riders who traveled here from as far as Idaho yanked their leather gloves tight and paced by the pens.

America’s oldest weekly rodeo was about to kick off its 64th season.

“It’s Saturday night, so get hootin’ and hollerin’ ’cause you’re in Cowtown, New Jersey,” the announcer called out to the crowd of 2,000.

Cowtown is a living, kicking, and bucking piece of Americana, home to funnel cake and trick ropers, the Wild West 37 miles southeast of Philadelphia in rural Pilesgrove Township, Salem County. To second- and third-generation fans who’ve been coming here on Saturday nights from late spring to early fall, Cowtown has remained distinctly unchanged, aside from a fresh coat of red and white paint before opening night each year.

Grant, 64, and Betsy Harris, 61, are loosening the reins at Cowtown this season, though, as Katy and R.J. take over the day-to-day operations.

“I’ve been doing it for 40 years now, and it hurts,” Grant said on opening night with a distinct drawl. “I’m trying to stay out of their way the best I can. I’m going to stick around a little longer, though.”

Opening night’s never easy, no matter who’s in charge, they all repeated. Cowtown has 52 employees across its 1,750 acres, and that number swells on Saturday nights when the contract bull fighters and barrel men and judges come in. Grant said the best part of the job is the livestock.

“My dad had a saying that the more time you spend around people, the more you like cows,” he joked.

Camera icon TIM TAI / Staff Photographer
Ben-Jammin Havill competes in bull riding on this year’s opening night of the annual Cowtown Rodeo in Pilesgrove, N.J., on Saturday, May 26, 2018. The weekly rodeo is now in its 64th consecutive year.

Memorial Day would be extra stressful for the family after the night turned tragic, but early on, Katy, 35, was running, literally, around the venue as the tasks piled up.

“You’ve got to give me a minute,” she said an hour before the anthem while sprinting toward the souvenir shop.

Family friends from Chester County greeted her as “Madam Vice President,” then she took off again.

“She sure is running,” said Dennis Byrne, of Nottingham.

The Harris family thanked a higher power for keeping the rain away. At the 6:30 p.m. Mass at the little Cowboy Church, a preacher read from Psalm 138, in praise of God’s kindness. Riders bowed their heads on the benches. Paramedics leaned on their ambulances around the corner.

In 2016, a 19-year-old rider from Pennsylvania died here after falling from a bucking horse, the rodeo’s lone human fatality.

A little after 7 p.m., Katy emerged from a tiny office with a sequined shirt and leather chaps and laced a big, polished belt buckle with the letters “CT” through the loops of her jeans.

“It’s been busy, busy, busy,” she said.  “You want everything to go good, and you want to make sure everything is in place. You can’t be perfect, though, ’cause nothing’s perfect.”

Camera icon TIM TAI / Staff Photographer
Wilhelmina Horzepa competes in barrel racing at Cowtown Rodeo.

Six weeks earlier, on a breezy April afternoon, Katy and her family sat on horseback on the rodeo grounds as a small crowd of elected officials and conservationists celebrated the preservation of 374 acres of pasture they own here. In a nearly $3 million deal, they sold the development rights to the New Jersey Conservation Foundation of Far Hills, Somerset County, ensuring it will never be built upon or even tilled for crops — although the family can continue ranching on it.

Salem County, where hundreds of farms have been preserved, is the most fertile patch of the Garden State but also hemmed in on all sides by development and industry. Suburban sprawl and strip malls have been staved off thanks to help from nonprofits, though Grant Harris said there were temptations to let all of Cowtown go.

“People have offered ridiculous amounts of money,” he said at the news conference. “I don’t know what it’s worth because to me, it’s not about money. It’s priceless. ”

The family goes back more than 13 generations as farmers and ranchers in Salem County, Grant said. His great-grandfather Howard Harris Sr. and his grandfather Howard “Stoney” Harris Jr. held the first official Cowtown Rodeo in 1929 just down the road at the Salem County Fair. The rodeo gained steam after World War II, and in 1967, the family built the current 4,000-seat outdoor arena, adjacent to a farmer’s market they also own.

“Trust me, it was a long evolution,” Grant said. “The first 10 years we ran it, it lost money.”

Stoney Harris bought Cowtown’s iconic, 25-foot-tall Cowboy statue from a Dodge dealership in 1975.

Grant, a junior bull-riding champion when he was just 8, acquired Cowtown from his father, Howard III, in 1978. Aside from the weekly rodeo, the family raises about 100 horses used in the show and more than 500 head of cattle and grows their feed.

While Salem County and Cowtown have remained encased in amber, demographic changes here could account for the diverse crowds each Saturday. Both the black and Hispanic populations in the area have been rising in recent years.

The diversity is nothing new at Cowtown, Betsy said. “I really think it draws all walks of life.”

Admission is $20 for adults and $10 for kids to see seven pro rodeo events. Parking is free and tailgating is allowed. It’s also BYOB.

Grant said Cowtown’s crowds grew when Philadelphia television stations began filming segments here decades ago. Movies about rodeo help, as does the rise in country music’s popularity in the Philadelphia region.

Rain does not help, but they still ride broncs and bulls when it pours.

“For generations, we talked about putting a roof over the ring,” he said, “but that has not been economically feasible.”

Attendance has been “steady” over the last decade, he said. “The market is filled with infinite entertainment. We are different.”

Camera icon TIM TAI / Staff Photographer
Levi King climbs over the bucking chute after falling off a bull during the bull riding competition on the opening night of Cowtown’s 64th consecutive season.

At the news conference in April, Grant spoke about preserving the future of Cowtown and turned to look at his daughter and son-in-law. Katy was trying to smile while keeping a keen eye on her son.

“This is a great life. Why would you want to do anything else?” she told reporters from atop her horse.

Nate rode around in the pasture, trying to raise his arm in the air the way the bronc riders do. Sometimes he pulled his cowboy hat over his face when photographers pointed their lenses his way. Sometimes his horse came to a dead stop despite his protests. Nate said his horse’s name was Not Listening.

Nate has a larger pet at Cowtown named Pickle, a bull that outweighs him by a few thousand pounds. Pickle has yet to be ridden for the required eight seconds. On opening night, R.J. would be opening the gate to let Pickle and the other bulls out.

None kicks harder than Pickle, he said.

“Trust me, whoever is riding Pickle tonight, that bull’s already gotten into the guy’s head. It’s usually about two seconds and they’re off,” R.J., 32,  said as he dressed for the night’s action. “With Pickle, I can’t pull the gate fast enough. We just took him down to Kissimmee and he bucked ’em all off down there, too.”

Around 9 p.m., Katy learned that nothing, indeed, is perfect at a rodeo when a horse known as Z13 bucked its rider, ran around the arena, and rammed full-speed into a fence. The horse collapsed onto the dirt, convulsed for a few seconds, then went still as workers rushed into the ring.

“Oh, man, that horse is dead,” one of the announcers said off-mic in the crow’s nest.

The horse was still as more than a dozen workers and competitors loaded it onto a metal gate and carried it to a grass field. Katy rushed out of the crow’s nest to watch from the stairs, frustration and concern on her face.

The horse lay on a tarp by a field under the moon.

Camera icon TIM TAI / Staff Photographer
Cowboys carry off a bucking horse that rammed into a fence during the saddle bronc competition at Cowtown, and later died.

Two weeks later, on a Saturday night in June, Grant sat on a golf cart in Cowtown, lamenting the horse’s death and also the news coverage it received after SHARK, an animal-rights group, sent out a news release with video of the incident. Rodeo has long been a target of animal-rights groups, and Grant is well aware he’s under close watch.

“Animal-rights people just crucify us, but no one feels worse about it than I do,” he said. “It broke its neck. It was instant.”

While Katy and R.J. settle into their new roles at Cowtown this summer, one old-timer was squaring up with something he never imagined riding: retirement.

“I’m standing here right now at 79 with 20 broken bones on my resumé,”  Joe Alloway said.

Alloway, a retired mail carrier who lives in Voorhees, rode bareback bronc in the first of Cowtown’s continuous rodeos on June 7, 1955. Now, he spends his Saturday nights here, hanging up the shoot hooks that men like R.J. use to open the gates and also preparing the “flank straps” that  make the bulls and horses kick hard when they are fastened tight.

“They don’t go around the testicles. Everybody thinks they do, and it’s not true,” he said. “It doesn’t hurt ’em.”

Camera icon TIM TAI / Staff Photographer
Lester Bowman prepares for the saddle bronc riding competition on this year’s opening night of the annual Cowtown Rodeo in Pilesgrove, N.J., on Saturday, May 26, 2018. The weekly rodeo is now in its 64th consecutive year.

Alloway rode horses for decades, sometimes sneaking onto farms in Cherry Hill, of all places, after a few beers to catch a few seconds on the wildest ones. A horse fell on him when he was 14 and he cracked a hip.

“If you come off and a horse kicks you or steps on you, you’re going to have broken ribs,” he said. “I broke almost all my ribs, and ribs are terrible. You can’t cough. You can’t sleep. You can’t laugh.”

Nearly everyone here knew “Joe” and looked to him as a calming force, a smile among the tense faces and painful grimaces. Alloway lost his wife, Shirley, to cancer in 2015 and being here helps, he said

“Focus. Focus,” he said, grabbing a rider’s leg as he straddled the fence above a bull.

By the end of the night, Alloway was sweating with blood from a scrape smeared across the back of his hand. He didn’t look as if he wanted to retire, despite bulging disks in his back.

“I’ll be 80 in August and I think I might retire,” Alloway said. “I might.”

Camera icon TIM TAI / Staff Photographer
Levi King falls off a bull as the bullfighters try to protect him during the bull riding competition on a Saturday night at Cowtown.