Tonight the stars in the Western sky are so bright they seem almost alive. It is the kind of a night that makes any man on the range want to forget all the tired old tales of the West and stir up a few new legends. On such a grand night, let us bypass Laredo and the O.K. Corral. Let us not sing of old John Wayne of Hollywood or even give a thought to Tonto, the Injun, or to Midnight, the great wild horse that made all the best bronc riders pull leather and eat dirt. As the last pot of coffee spits on the chuck wagon fire, let us turn our eyes East and sing instead of Cowtown, N.J., the cow capital of the oldest frontier, and of Gene Lorenzo, the great Eastern wrangler who taught his wonder horse Buck to chase steers on a railroad siding in the Bronx.
For 20 of his 38 years Gene Lorenzo has been wrestling steers and riding wild bulls and horses in the rodeo arenas of the East. Since the steers, bulls and broncs of the East are every bit as big and ready as those of the West, in the course of winning fame and a modest pile of money Lorenzo has occasionally been knocked silly and has broken a few ribs and twice has been gravely injured. Although the scars he carries from previous engagements suggest otherwise, Lorenzo insists that rodeo is the sort of wholesome diversion that a 38-year-old commuter needs to offset the humdrummery of modern living.
In a good rodeo year Lorenzo may win more than $6,000 wrestling steers and bouncing around on bulls and broncs. In a good year his best horse Buck will bring him another $2,000 by serving as a mount for rival steer wrestlers. While this income is important to him, Lorenzo earns the greater part of his livelihood operating a liquor display service in the Bronx of New York City, where he was born. He now lives on a two-acre spread in Spring Valley on the west side of the Hudson River and, after spending an honest eight hours of turmoil in the liquor display business, Lorenzo must battle his way home among fellow commuters on 35 miles of highway. When most commuters reach home, they relax in some simple way like downing a jugful of martinis. When Lorenzo gets home after a hard day, his method of unwinding is a complex one that goes something like this: 1) he kisses his beautiful wife Janet; 2) he shovels manure from three horse stalls; 3) he kisses his beautiful 5-year-old daughter Lisa; 4) he shovels manure out of the main paddock; 5) he tidies up the tack shed and scrubs a water trough; 6) he reprimands his 6-year-old son Chris for having ravaged the tomato garden; 7) he shovels more manure; 8) he reprimands his 9-year-old son Gene for one reason or another; 9) he hauls five hay bales from the barn to feed his four steers and three horses. If there is daylight left after he finishes these relaxing chores, Lorenzo may unwind still further by going into his practice rodeo arena and wrestling a 700-pound steer—one fall, no time limit, winner take all.
As Gene Lorenzo keeps insisting, there must be something therapeutic or at least widely appealing about rodeo, for in recent years it has attracted quite a variety of devotees in the East. Some of the professional ropers, bulldoggers and riders now competing on the Eastern circuit are executives and men of academic degree—men who do not need the money but love the game. In the other extreme, some of the competitors are rough-and-tumble highschoolers who crave a form of artistic violence that has more individuality than football. The Eastern rodeo man is not a special breed, nor does he occupy a particular niche. He can be found here, there and almost everywhere: on farms, in small towns and in the densest warrens of big cities. At an Eastern rodeo, cowboys from Greenwich Village, the strident, arty heart of New York City, compete against cowboys from Piscataway, N.J., Peach Bottom, Pa. and other towns that seldom make any noise. It would be stretching things to say that the sport of rodeo is spreading through the East like a prairie fire. Indeed, at this point it would be rash even to predict that it will someday supplant tandem bicycle riding as a recreational outlet for the masses. Be all that as it may, it is a fact that already the professional Rodeo Cowboys' Association has as many active members living within 50 miles of Philadelphia and New York as it does around Cheyenne and Calgary.
December 8, 1969
Some of the present Eastern performers were drawn into the rodeo game because of a boyhood association with beef and dairy stock. A red-blooded farm lad who has seen the thundering action of big-time rodeo on television is naturally tempted to try riding the local Guernseys and Holsteins. After a farm boy has bounced around the pasture a few times astride Old Bossy, there is no way to keep him down on the farm. On Saturdays he is off to the rodeo to try his luck on the big bulls. After landing on their heads four Saturdays in a row, some of the boys learn there is more to rodeo than glamour. They return to the farm, older and wiser, and start saving their dollars to buy a McLaren-Ford.
A good number of Easterners—Gene Lorenzo for one—grew up in metropolitan areas near riding stables. After serving as barn boys, grooms and instructors, many of the city boys tire of riding English saddles on urban trails. They move on to jobs at dude ranches such as Cimarron, a 30-year-old spread near Peekskill, N.Y., where there are weekly rodeos to entertain guests.
A few of the good Eastern competitors never gave a thought to rodeo until they suddenly woke up, as it were, to find themselves in the middle of the arena receiving ovations. Consider the case of 30-year-old Arnold Desiderio, a native of Dover, N.J. who earns his living as a pulp manager at the Whippany Paper Company and now gets rid of his own excess pulp by roping calves and wrestling steers. Desiderio was not a horsy man until he bought his kids a Shetland pony five years ago. Because his kids were having a ball on their pony, in a spirit of togetherness Desiderio bought himself a saddle horse. Within a year, craving more action, he moved from an English to a Western saddle and a year later into the rodeo arena.
Consider also Jack Meli, the bareback rider and bulldogger who owns a minor interest in Gene Lorenzo's two-acre enterprise. Thirteen years ago, 13-year-old Meli was making good pocket money by shining shoes in Irish bars and cleaning up after the horses of the New Kentucky Riding Academy in the Bronx. Then Lorenzo led him astray. Since Meli, the stableboy, had often put flank straps on the New Kentucky saddle horses and bucked them after the proprietor had left for the day, Lorenzo suggested that he was ready for the big time. Qué serà? And why not? Thirteen-year-old Meli went to his first rodeo expecting to take his chances on a wild horse, but, alas, a friend entered him in the wrong event. Before he had time for a change of heart, Meli was in a chute at the end of a floodlit arena astride 2,000 pounds of discontented bull. He remembers Lorenzo giving him some last-minute advice on how to hold the rope and how to avoid being gored after leaving the bull in midair. Meli spent seven seconds on the bull before going into the air. Although he did not ride long enough to qualify for a score, he broke no bones and was hooked on the game.
Although in Eastern arenas the action is getting livelier and the purses bigger by the year and the entry lists are loaded with new, young heroes, Gene Lorenzo, the old cowhand from New York, remains the consistent winner. Despite his record Lorenzo can never expect too much personal glory. For one thing many of the best-paying Eastern rodeos are part of a larger carnival—just one of a wild variety of attractions offered at county fairs and expositions. At the county fair Lorenzo competes for public attention with tattoo artists, sideshow barkers and the vendors of cotton candy, Farmall tractors and whirly rides.
As Lorenzo climbs aboard a bucking horse in the arena, on the fair midway a spieler shouts out, "Lost Worlds is a family-type show. Come in now and see Asian flesh-eating fish from the rivers of the Amazon jungle. These fish are truly remarkable in their ability to devour a body as large as a human."
In counterpoint to the midway talker the rodeo announcer proclaims, "And, now, the next contestant. In chute No. 3 a steer wrestler, bronc rider and all-round athlete. Gene Lorenzo of Spring Valley, New York."
As Lorenzo's bronc lunges from the chute, the rodeo band strikes up a sparkling galop in double time. On the midway another spieler cries out, "See the killer rats from the sewers of Paris, France. Don't miss this one. Rats larger than cats. The residents live in constant fear of these giant killer rats that are slowly destroying the great city of Paris."
The fairgoers who pay 35¢ to see the Asian man-eating fish find inside the tent a couple of carpy-looking fish and one small piranha that would have a hard time eating its way through a slice of liverwurst. Those who pay 15¢ to go into the show stall where the killer rats of Paris dwell find on the inside a solitary, somnolent creature that resembles, as much as anything, a muskrat that has been dyed with shoe polish. By contrast, no one in the rodeo arena feels cheated. Although Gene Lorenzo's spectacular ride on a bronc lasts only eight seconds, it is the real thing. He is a favorite with the crowd, and they give him a big hand. The judges award him 64 points and first money of $211.68.
Lorenzo today might stand half a head taller than he does on the sport scene were it not for the fact that over the years a number of people—himself included—have screwed up his public image. His true given name is Eugene Di Lorenzo. Even though he long ago pared it down to Gene Lorenzo to make things easier for announcers and rodeo record keepers, he sometimes still turns up on entry lists and in the press as Gene Lawrence, Gene de Lorenzo or some such approximation. After a bull nearly killed him in 1955, Lorenzo purposely altered his identity for two years, competing as Gene Newman to keep his parents from fretting. (His sister Louise abetted him in this deceit by quickly switching channels when he showed up on televised rodeos in his own home.)
In the early 1950s Lorenzo won one steer-wrestling contest in New York State in 3.6 seconds, just .4 shy of the world record. The press dutifully led into the account of his feat by saying, "An Oklahoma cowboy last night came within .4 of a second of the world's bulldogging record." Although to this day Lorenzo has never been west of Fort Worth, in his early years rodeo announcers sometimes told the crowd that he was a native son of California, Wyoming or some other far part of the West. Because of his fame Lorenzo always gets a correct billing now, but the announcers still change the addresses of lesser-known Easterners whenever they feel the show needs a little artificial Western flavor. When Wayne Hall, a promising New Jersey bull rider, performs, for example, sometimes the crowd is told he comes from his real home town of Piscataway and sometimes that he hails from Tulsa or some other place out thataway.
In Western rodeos the purses are bigger than in the East; consequently the entry lists are also longer and the competition tougher. While such things contribute to the splendor of Western rodeo, there is no reason for an Easterner to be ashamed of the local shows—nor any need for announcers to adulterate them with Western flavor. Rodeo is not and has never been a closed shop, for Westerners only. Competent Easterners who have gone West into the big arenas have always managed to hold their own, taking a fair share of the purses along with the bumps and the knocks. Harry Tompkins, the famous bull rider and all-rounder who won a bundle on the Western circuit in the 1950s, learned the trade in Peekskill. Indeed. Tompkins won the first of his eight national titles in the West a mere two years after taking up the sport.
Anyone who believes that only Westerners are good at their aboriginal game of rodeo can convince himself otherwise by reaching back into history precisely 100 years. At Deer Trail, Colo. in 1869 (the same year that the effete Eastern game called football was born) the cowhands of the Hash Knife, the Mill Iron and the Camp Stool ranches held the first rodeo contest of which there is any flimsy record. At that first rodeo staged by rough-and-ready men of the West, the title of Champion Broncobuster of the Plains was won, not by a Westerner or an Easterner, but—oh, my God—by an English cowpoke named Emilnie Gardenshire.
Last August, when rodeo returned to Madison Square Garden in New York after a 10-year lapse, the affair attracted 130 competitors from the East and West. The three classic riding events of rodeo—bareback, bull and saddle bronc—are scored by judges who are understandably human and possibly affected by a competitor's origin or his reputation. In these three judged events at the Garden the Westerners won about $12,500 of the total $13,809 offered. In steer wrestling, where the results are read from the cold hand of a stopwatch, the East and West split the purse of $5,684 right down the middle. In calf roping, the other stopwatch event, the East took a sliver more than the West, although statistically the honors certainly went to the Westerners since they were outnumbered in the event by more than three to one. When the Garden rodeo was done, the star and hardest working performer turned out to be a Western-Easterner: the 13-year-old, Oklahoma-born wonder horse named Buck. Lorenzo had brought Buck East and trained him to chase steers on a Penn Central Railroad siding that protrudes from under the overpass of a six-lane toll road in the Pelham Bay section of the Bronx. (Buck is probably the only Oklahoma horse that ever learned to chase steers while Mercury Cougars were chasing Chevrolet Impalas overhead.) In the Garden, Buck made 32 appearances (far more than any other beast or man), serving as the mount for 16 of the 40 steer-wrestling competitors and winning more than $3,000.
While their talents are necessary, the cowboys of rodeo are only the supporting cast. It is the scrambling calf, the reluctant steer, the wild horse and the bull that really make the show and bring down the house. In professional rodeo a bucking bronc or bull must only deliver eight or 10 seconds of action at about every fourth performance. Considering the high price of hay and feed these days, that means the equine and bovine stars of rodeo are doing better by the hour than Barbra Streisand. There is, however, a difference. When the glamour of it pales, Streisand can always retire to Big Sur, Calif. and write her memoirs. The bronc or bull that tires of show biz and bucks no more usually goes to a cannery. Gentle readers, the next time you attend a large sport event, handle the hot dog you buy with awe and respect for it may be made of the remains of one of last year's rodeo stars. The 40¢ frank that you buy enwrapped in a roll at a ball game may contain the grit and gristle of a mighty bull that once threw the national champion, George Paul of Del Rio, Texas. In some hot dogs—who knows?—you may be getting the minced loin of a bronc that bucked off the best riders at Calgary, Pendleton or Cheyenne.
Rodeo flourishes in the East and can afford to play once again in a high-priced arena like Madison Square Garden primarily because today there is a dependable, highly theatrical and completely mixed-up rodeo herd of broncs, steers, cows, calves and bulls prospering in a small south Jersey community that is aptly called Cowtown. Although stars of the Cowtown herd have entertained Eastern audiences for some years and a few of them have played command performances out West, there are a number of people in high places who still do not admit that Cowtown exists. According to the U.S. Postal Department and the Census Bureau and the New Jersey Department of Highways and Rand McNally, there is no Cowtown. Although in a throbbing, busy week more than 20,000 gallons of gasoline are sold within the vague limits of Cowtown, none of the 13 gas companies doing business in New Jersey shows the town on its road map.
Cowtown is real, for sure. Like Shangri-la, it is one of those places you can reach only by consulting the right prophets and having a certain amount of faith. The simplest way to reach Cowtown is to cross the Delaware River at Wilmington, Del, and aim for Atlantic City on the Jersey shore. It is best not to drive fast or you may go through Cowtown without knowing you were there. After eight miles of farmland dotted with rickety-shackety houses and sagging barns, when you come to the statue of a cow on the right side of the road, you are in the middle of Cowtown. There is another cow statue farther along, but there is no mistaking the Cowtown symbol. It is bright red, a trifle smaller than Paul Bunyan's mythical ox, with the face of a Hereford and the bulging udder of a contented Guernsey. Most days there is not much doing in Cowtown, but on Tuesdays the place is aflood with people who have come to buy and sell livestock, produce and just about anything. On Saturday nights in the summer, up to 5,000 adults and kids jam into Cowtown to see the famous rodeo herd perform in its home-town arena.
Cowtown owes its prosperity—indeed its existence—to three men, all named Howard Harris. Howard Harris I, who died in 1936, created the need for a Cowtown. His son, Howard Harris II, founded the place in 1940, and the grandson, Howard Harris III, is now the duly self-appointed mayor of Cowtown, as well as its police chief, sewer inspector, herd boss, rodeo producer and all-round troubleshooter.
There have been Harrises in the general area since 1690 when two Welshmen named Samuel and Thomas Harris sailed to Long Island, found it too goldanged crowded and moved on West to New Jersey. To judge both by legend and fact, all the Harrises were solid, independent characters. Although there is not a jot of truth to the legend that one of the early Harrises sold the whole state of New Jersey back to the Indians in a fit of pique, the latter-day Harrises have all proved, both figuratively and in fact, to be superb horse traders. In 1906, after being flooded out of a livestock spread on Salem Creek, Howard Harris I bought 40 rural acres that abutted the main street of Woodstown, an old, Quakerish community four miles east of modern Cowtown. Life in Woodstown was pretty much the same from one day to the next until Howard Harris moved in and began rocking the place. In Woodstown, he started a weekly livestock sale and auction that by the late 1920s had grown into something bigger and livelier. Howard Harris II, who served as an auctioneer, remembers the boom days: "Because we were situated down on a peninsula, I never thought we'd get volume, but I was wrong. Did people show up on Tuesdays? Lord, they came from everywhere to buy or sell something. We sold just about anything that could walk or could be carried or moved—livestock, poultry, produce, harnesses, paint, household goods, iceboxes, you name it. We even sold peacocks and sometimes monkeys and parrots. We sold a hearse once, and one day we auctioned off a calfskin that turned out to be the hide of a black-and-white bird dog. Women's corsets? We sold them. When we couldn't sell the corsets, we'd throw them around the crowd for the fun of it. My father loved it all. When somebody would put a dead possum up for sale, he'd exclaim, 'By God, here's a different item.' Pretty soon," Howard Harris II continues, "there were pitchmen coming around selling snake oil or some other medicine that would run the worms out of you. On a big Tuesday there would be somebody selling pony rides and maybe a Ferris wheel and merry-go-round."
At the Woodstown auction the zest of buyers and sellers was such that Howard Harris I was obliged at times to brandish his walking cane to move the crowd back from the wares. On one Tuesday when the folks would not heed him, he picked up a split bag of lime and swung it around his head, turning everyone in the front ranks white. "My dad," Howard Harris II recollects, "was quite a character."
To keep the auction snowballing, in 1929 Howard Harris I conceived the idea of holding a rodeo. He bought up intractable draft and saddle horses at the auction to serve as broncs. For bucking bulls he used the biggest, rankest steers he could find and, for riders, any young fool who wanted $2 mount money. As rodeos go, the first Woodstown show was not much. There were no seats except wagons and barn roofs, but it pulled in more than 3,000 people.
What with rodeo and various side attractions, the Tuesday auctions got too big and lively to suit many of the steady people of Woodstown—there were too many cars crowding the town and too many out-of-towners, including some not altogether desirable. "In a few words," Howard Harris II says, "we became a public nuisance. The people parked all over the place. Maybe the mayor's wife would be having a bridge party. Well, the guests wouldn't park near the house because all the spaces would be taken up with cow trucks. It just didn't go across too big. Remember, we were right on Main Street about a block from the Friends Meeting House."
When Howard II took over after the death of his father in the late 1930s, the town fashioned new parking restrictions and other ordinances designed to discourage the auction. Each time a new ordinance was passed, Harris II hired a lawyer to squash it. Finally, tiring of the legal fuss and bother, he told the mayor of Woodstown, "Don't pass another ordinance. By Election Day 1940 we won't be here." Having said his piece, Harris pulled up stakes and migrated four miles to the west. On Nov. 3, 1940, Cowtown was born, and Woodstown went back to sleep.
People of the county who remember the auction squabble of the late '30s are quick to point out that the statue of the big cow that Harris II later erected in Cowtown faces west with its rear end toward Woodstown. "After having to move from Woodstown," Harris II says, "I certainly wasn't going to call our new place West Woodstown. People make a big thing out of the fact that the statue of the cow is sideways to the road with its tail toward Woodstown, but, hell, I just thought it looked better sideways. Why, that big cow is one of the most photographed things in this part of the world. We no more than got the damn thing in place by the road—not even bolted down—before a bunch of Shriners came by headed for Atlantic City. One of those Shriners crawls under the cow and starts milking her into his fez to have his picture taken."
Despite the fact that Cowtown is not yet on any official map, rodeo became a box office success there as well as a profitable television product because Howard II was a showman to the core, a man with a love for all great troopers. Although Cowtown has since produced more famous stock, in Harris' mind, the greatest of the local performers was a pure Brahma bull called simply No. 16. No. 16 not only threw riders and butted rodeo clowns around with vigor but also picked up the knack of spinning around and around kicking at everyone like a wild horse. "People say a cow beast has no brains," Howard Harris II observes, "but No. 16 did. He was a showman pure and simple. In the afternoon when people would start coming in for a rodeo, the other bulls would be up in the pasture somewhere under an apple tree, but not No. 16. He'd be right down at the fence along the road looking over the kind of audience he was going to have that night. Because he threw everybody, at one rodeo toward the end of a season I played him up big. You know, I wrote up something like. The bull that couldn't be rode versus the cowboy who couldn't be throwed.' The trouble was," Harris II continues, "No. 16 ate like a hog. The day of the big rodeo he got into a trough of moldy feed and got the scours. The rider that night—it was Pete Clemmons of Okechobee—rode him easy. No. 16 bucked some after that, but he was never great again. It broke his spirit."
During World War II the livestock business at Cowtown boomed, and rodeo died since no one had gasoline to come see it. The Cowtown show might not have started again except that How-ward Harris III, an independent cuss like his predecessors, kept jumping his traces and running off to compete in rodeos. In the summers of his high school years Howard III was supposed to work on a Wyoming dude ranch that his father had bought. While this would seem to be just what an Eastern boy might love, Howard III found it entirely too phony. Since he had roped and ridden herd for real on the Cowtown spreads in Jersey, whenever he got the chance he took off from the dude ranch and joined authentic cowpunchers to ride herd on grazing lands. In the summer of his senior high school year, when the glacial till of a cellar he was digging caved in on him three times, as Harris III remembers it, he left the dude ranch in disgust and hitchhiked to a rodeo in Shelby, Mont. Because he had ridden scrub stuff back home for the hell of it and already wore a dental bridge because a Jersey cow had stuck her horn in his mouth, Harris III was convinced he was ready for the big time. "If anybody had tried to tell me I was not ready for bull riding then," he says, "they'd have been wasting their time." Armed with extravagant overconfidence, Harris beat the Western pros at Shelby to take $300 first money in his first competition. His father, Harris II, remembers the occasion slightly differently. "My son Howard," he insists, "did not leave for the rodeo because the cellar caved in. The cellar fell in on me. He left before the cellar caved in. And, what is more, he stole my boots."
In the fall of 1950 Harris III went to the University of Idaho. Since he had played every position except offensive end during four years at Woodstown High back home, he made the freshman football team. But when the Idaho frosh took off for their opener against the University of Washington in Seattle, Harris III was not aboard the bus. He was on another bus headed for a college rodeo at Oregon State in Corvallis, thus ending his college football career before the first whistle.
"Since I'd always been a Philadelphia Eagles fan," Harris II relates, "I sort of fancied Howard playing football for Idaho and then coming back to play for the Eagles, but it just didn't turn out that way. From the moment he went to Idaho he majored in rodeo and minored in business. The dean called me a couple of times to come out there and try to keep Howard from drifting off to rodeos."
On the collegiate circuit Harris III learned one thing fast: in the rodeo arena the talents of a working cowhand that he had learned back home counted for almost nothing. The competitors were specialists. "The best of them used everything except slide rules," Harris III remembers. "There were guys who could beat you at bareback who couldn't ride a saddle horse from here to the front gate." Although he never became specialist enough to dominate any one event, in his senior year at Idaho he ranked in the first six in five of the six college events and won the national collegiate all-round title. He was the first performer to carry the Cowtown name successfully in the West.
Last year, in the process of winning $27,822 and the national bull-riding title, George Paul of Del Rio, Texas set a record by staying on 67 consecutive bulls. At the National Finals in Oklahoma last December, Paul was the only competitor to ride more than six bulls. He rode eight of the nine bulls he drew. The only bull to throw Champion George Paul off at the Nationals was a mighty beast called Cowtown from the famous New Jersey town of the same name. Since its fame has spread so far, it bothers neither Harris II nor Harris III nor any Cowtowner that his home town is still not recognized by the United States or the state of New Jersey. "I look at it this way," Harris II says proudly. "We're still one of those wild, unbranded towns."
The coffee pot is empty. The chuck wagon fire is out. Already in the East the light of tomorrow is washing away the Western stars. While there is still time for sleep, how do we end this new cowboy song? It really needs no end. It is enough to say that there are now a host of cowboy heroes like Gene Lorenzo, riding into Eastern arenas with ruptured guts and unshatterable faith. And, just as once there was a Camelot, there truly is a Cowtown in New Jersey.