It was then called the Fat Stock Show. The year? Probably 1965 or 1966, I’m not really sure. I was still a kid, but starting to take on more responsibility. Darn it.
That was the year I was a part of the Stock Show. No, I didn’t compete in the rodeo, ride in the parade or anything like that. But I did get a close-up view of the parade of humanity that comes through the Stock Show year-after-year. To me, that was the most valuable sight to see at the Stock Show. That was a rodeo worth watching.
My grandfather’s business, Lowe’s Trailers and Wrecking Yard on Hemphill Street, that year participated as one of the vendors demonstrating our wares – in this case horse and cattle trailers – in the Amon G. Carter Exhibits Hall.
It was a big deal for my grandfather, Ralph Lowe, who was around 60 at the time. The business didn’t do a lot of advertising – an ad in the Yellow Pages and those colored plastic triangle flags that flap endlessly in the wind that are a staple of used auto dealers – that was about as far as it went.
He had owned and run his business since before the Great Depression. That’s when he began building trailers, using spare parts from junk cars to make them cheap enough for customers who – like most of America at the time – were down on their luck.
That idea worked and as the ’40s begat the booming ’50s and early ’60s, the business expanded into other trailers – specifically horse trailers and stock trailers.
My grandfather didn’t build too many when I was young, but we’d occasionally fire up the saws, blowtorches, welders and paint sprayers for a production run or two. But when he decided to display his products at the Stock Show, he was meticulous in the design and construction. This was an opportunity to make an impact.
The horse trailers he built had two axels, a bright, two-toned with luminous white paint, some red accents and matching red pin striping. They looked sharp as a custom Mustang. The car, not the horse. It’s a testament to my grandfather’s management skills that he somehow cajoled exemplary work out of Bible-thumping part-timers from the Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary and occasionally-sober Hemphill Street refugees.
My job, as a 9 or 10-year-old boy, was to stand at our display, answer whatever questions I could from passersby and direct potential customers to my grandfather. On display were a few stock trailers and several of the gleaming new horse trailers looking fit for a king, or the King Ranch as it were.
It was a heady responsibility, but I’d already done similar duties at the business. If you can handle the myriad of humanity that passed along Hemphill Street, you can pretty much handle anything. (Once when I was a 9-year-old manning the storefront while my grandfather went to the junk yard to help a customer, a man with a mustache stole a trailer right in front of me. With a smile on his face. Stole a trailer from a 9-year-old. If you see him in hell, say hello.)
But at the Stock Show, I had an important job to do. When my friends would come by, I’d take a break to head out with them to the midway for some fun. But I was relieved to get back to the Lowe’s Trailers display. That’s where the real adventure was.
The Stock Show experience allowed me to meet people from all over the state, maybe the world. While my grandfather was busy doing business, I was getting a rapid education in how the world works. I directed people to the rest rooms, to restaurants and, with a handy matchbook, provided some flame for smokers. Yes, it was the ’60s. But, lighting up a cigarette kept the conversation going. That Camel smoker might need a horse trailer.
While I thought I was pretty sophisticated for a 10-year-old, some of the West Texas kids involved in showing their livestock, had me beat hands down. Apparently working on a ranch or a farm you don’t have as much time to goof off as an urban kid. They had it together. I recall one boy, a decked out show horse rider my age, who talked to my grandfather about buying a horse trailer as if he was going to pull out a checkbook and make a purchase right there. This kid examined the trailer stem to stern, delineating all the improvements he would have my grandfather make if he bought the trailer. One of them, a metal rod in one of the storage bins to hang a saddle, my grandfather incorporated in his next generation of horse trailers from Lowe’s Trailers. My grandfather liked a good idea.
We didn’t return to the exhibition booth the next year and I was disappointed. I learned a lot. The Stock Show brings the world – an international rodeo of characters so to speak – to Fort Worth. And for that one year, I got a ringside seat to the most interesting rodeo in the world.
Robert Francis is editor of Fort Worth Business Press