An old event venue can be as comfortable as a well-worn cowboy boot. Sure, it may look a little worse for the wear, but it’s proven itself over the years and there’s that reliable familiarity that warms the heart.
Daly City, California’s Cow Palace, a stone’s throw from San Francisco, is one such old-reliable.
The facility was constructed in the depths of the Great Depression as part of a Works Progress Administration (WPA) program to build a home for the Grand National Rodeo, prompting press wags to label it a “palace for cows.”
Thankfully, the name stuck.
Since opening in 1941, the imposing concrete barn has been an old friend to all those who live near her.
I’ve seen more than a few ear-splitting rock shows there over the years, from the legendary Ronnie Lane Benefit while in high school in 1984 to Neil Young and Crazy Horse tearing the concrete roof off the sucker in 1986. Neighborhood folks remember it fondly when the circus came to town, and later as the home of epic professional wrestling extravaganzas.
The old girl, now more frequently the site of cannabis fests and gun shows, also made me smile in my now somewhat quieter years during the annual San Francisco Flower & Garden Show.
In an ironic twist, cutting-edge tech giant Salesforce also held its Dreamfest there in 2016, but only used the “reimagined” parking lot—cleverly dubbed “The Cloud Palace”—when the indoor offering was deemed too antiquated for a 30,000-strong show boasting U2 as its headliner.
Modern-day event planners have issues with The Cow Palace because it takes so such money to spruce up, and you might even catch the whiff of cow from the lower bays. But that’s part of the charm to me, and being such, the real warm fuzzies are sure to occur when the Grand National Rodeo comes calling.
Once the top rodeo in the world, the vaunted Grand National now plays second fiddle as a qualifier for the National Finals Rodeo, held in Las Vegas like everything bigger and bolder, new and improved.
But the authentic, storied charm of the Grand National Rodeo at the Cow Palace will hopefully never fade in my lifetime. It certainly won’t fade from my memories.
An Uncle and Niece Assignment
Tyler Davidson and Katie Frank at the Grand National Rodeo
Living just over two miles from The Cow Palace facility, I frequently drive by it on my way to, of all things, the city dump. One day the billboard advertising the Grand National Rodeo caught my attention.
Wouldn’t it be wonderful to see my facility crush at her finest?
And wouldn’t it be a special if, as an editor, I could actually get behind the scenes to cover it with my niece Katie Frank, who inadvisably followed her uncle into the publishing racket and combined her love of horses and western culture to become the digital editor of Western Horseman magazine?
Well, after flying out from Fort Worth for the assignment, Katie taught this old cowhand a thing or three about just how special that rodeo is, along with the people who’ve worked it for decades.
After tapping her cowboy contact to secure parking outside the load-in dock near the interior stables, we came across the Flying U Rodeo Company’s trailer and Mustang trainer Bobby Kerr, who hails from Hico, Texas, but holes up at the Flying U ranch in Marysville, California, when he’s contracted to tour the West Coast during rodeo season. More on him later.
The Power Behind the Throne
Cotton Rosser and Katie Frank at the Grand National Rodeo
Flying U Rodeo Company is the engine that drives the Grand National, supplying the specialized livestock and other essentials that power the spectacle of Americana.
Founded by rodeo legend Cotton Rosser, who was forced to abandon competing when he nearly lost a leg in a horrific hole-boring auger accident in 1956, Flying U also brings the showbiz to the ring by producing the emotive opening ceremonies at the Grand National Rodeo, the National Finals Rodeo and the Houston Livestock show. Although 90-years-old, Cotton is most definitely the master of ceremonies, surveying the proceedings either from his golf cart or riding into the ring on his trusty white steed.
But while Cotton is out and about making sure everything meets his high standard of entertainment, his daughter Cindy Rosser—the business end of the Rosser rodeo empire—is working hard with her crew in one of the spartan interior offices to herd the tangle of logistics that accompanies any show relying on that hard-to-corral combo of cowboys and livestock.
Both seem bred to be wild, and Cindy’s the one who keeps them on the trail.
Cindy Rosser, The "Business End" of the Rosser Empire
I soon discovered that Cindy is but one of the many multigenerational stories that follow the rodeo around, such as Ellen Carr, a 70-year-old former competitor whose granddaughter tested her skill at jackpot barrel racing while her mom supervised the proceedings at the arena gate to make sure everything was just so.
[LISTEN: Go Behind the Scenes at Grand National Rodeo With Cindy Rosser and Ellen Carr]
I also discovered that rodeo is in one’s blood, and neither age or society’s pressure to conform to a life of structured monotony can tame devotees such as Cathey Vallerga, a 68-year-old jackpot barrel racer who gave all the credit for her previous-year win to her horse, but whose eyes lit up when asked about the secret of her longevity.
“Drink beer and raise hell,” she offered, with a mischievous smile and a wild twinkle in her eyes before entering the ring and driving her horse like a bat out of hell.
Katie Takes the Stage
Katie Frank and Bobby Kerr at the Grand National Rodeo
Nothing could make an uncle prouder than seeing his niece follow in his journalistic bootsteps.
But the sheer magnificence of Katie Frank’s powers of source persuasion was soon made evident to the entire crowd at the Cow Palace.
Making friends with Bobby Kerr paid even larger dividends than securing parking next to his rig near the loading dock, as the veteran rodeo showboater suddenly invited her to ride out into the ring on his wagon with him for his show. Kerr masterfully directed his trick horse and cattle dog during his gun-blazing show all while Katie—now adorned in colorful fringed cowgirl gear and a cowboy hat—sat sentry beside him as he rode triumphantly around the ring.
Now, cowboys ain’t supposed to cry, but this beaming uncle certainly fought back some sentimentality as his one and only niece owned that soil stage.
Sure, the rodeo certainly evokes images of sad-faced yet funny rodeo clowns, the elegant athleticism of barrel racers, some barbecue and maybe a beer or two.
And yes, it is at its heart about the death-defying danger of bucking broncs, bull riding and on this night the headlining entertainment provided by French bull jumper Emmanuel Lataste.
But tonight it was about stories told just for the asking by the folks who make rodeo their life and bequeathment, and that old concrete barn that has a few stories of her own.
So this song goes out to you, Grand National and Cow Palace.
And as that old-reliable Neil Young lyric goes, “Long may you run.”
Go Behind the Story: Tyler Davidson and his niece Katie Frank talk about the creation of this article, including some background on their connections with the Cow Palace and the Grand National Rodeo (MP3 audio).
Check out some additional Grand National Rodeo photo highlights below!
Future Stars of the Grand National Rodeo
Just a Couple of Cowboys Gearing Up for the Grand National Rodeo
Grand National Rodeo's Unofficial Mascots