Livestock Show Museum Showcases a Rich History
There’s photographs of old television stars and cover girls to go with show ribbons and student exhibition pins in a Mercedes building chronicling eight decades of history.
A walk around the museum of the Rio Grande Valley Livestock Show provides glimpses of the 80-plus years of an iconic yearly event closely tied to Mercedes as its host city. It goes back to 1913 with the first agricultural and livestock shows in Mercedes. The city was less than 10 years old back then and the shows were part of recruiting efforts to attract more investors, land developers, and farming and ranching interests to Mercedes and the Rio Grande Valley as a whole.
It wasn’t until 1939 when the first real livestock show kicked off as a yearly March event. The RGVLS would blossom over the decades to include horse shows and rodeos, carnivals, concerts – and most importantly – being the region’s premier platform to showcase the best steers, goats, sheep, and all manner of exhibits from area students representing agricultural educational programs.
Portions of this history are on display at the RGVLS museum on the show grounds. The museum is normally open only during the days the livestock show is running, which this year will be March 10-20. The different eras of the RGVLS are seen in the photos of the big 1960s TV stars of the western series that were a dominant part of prime-time programming. Ben Cartwright of the Bonanza series was a centerpiece star of a 1960s-era RGVLS, as were the stars of High Chaparral, which was also a popular western series of the time.
There’s a windowed wall where the dresses of the livestock show cover girls are featured. Another section showcases old show ribbons and student exhibitor buttons going back to the 1940s. Sofia Pena recalls wearing one of those yellow exhibitor buttons as a student participant from Sullivan City in bringing her steers, pigs, sheep, and other animals for display and eventual sale.
Pena today is a member of the McAllen school board member and the program and events director for the RGVLS. She worked for years as high-level administrator for South Texas College. When a job opportunity came up recently to fill a manager’s job at the livestock show, Pena took it and is thrilled to be back on grounds she visited as a child during her growing-up years.
Leading a tour of the museum, she recalled how the exhibitor buttons were “like gold’’ in giving her access to show grounds as a self-described “farm girl from Sullivan City.’’ Pena still has those old buttons as mementos of her youth. She knows the RGVLS history better than most and wishes more people would take the time to learn about the long and colorful history of the livestock show.
“There’s a great story told here,’’ she said. “I don’t think they, (livestock show visitors), come through this museum enough and take the time to learn about the history we have here.’’
Times changes and years pass but the livestock show seems as timeless as ever with new generations of FFA and 4H students bringing their animals for exhibit to go with the over 300,000 visitors who stream through the show’s gates every year.
“It’s still the place to be during spring break, just like it was when we were kids,’’ Pena said.
The 2022 show will provide a fresh set of memories. Some of them just may end up on the museum’s wall or behind a windowed display.
- Ricardo D. Cavazos