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The dream of the American West fires the imagination today, as much as it ever has. Even as a little girl growing up in Argentina, where I spoke little or no English, many an afternoon was spent in a fringed suede cowgirl outfit calling out, “Hi-yo, Silver! Away! Today, four million visitors travel to Fort Worth each year, many seeking a western experience in the “City of Cowboys and Culture.” And they find it at the Fort Worth Stockyards, where the Old West comes to life.
Read About Cowboys
Before heading to Fort Worth, introduce kids to the rough and wild frontier of the Old West through children’s books. A classic from one of the best nonfiction authors for kids, Gail Gibbons’ Cowboys and Cowgirls: Yippee Yay! colorfully illustrates the world of the men (and women) who rode the range, and you can find many more in the Cowboy & Wild West Children’s Books list on Amazon.com.
Plan an in-depth study of the cattle industry and/or tour of Texas heritage sites with The Chisholm Trail: Exploring the Folklore and Legacy, a free brochure from the Texas Historical Commission, and then test your knowledge with this lesson plan.
Learn About the Old West
Once there, make your first stop in the Fort Worth Cultural District where a number of museums tell the story of the American cowboy and the Chisholm Trail.
Amon Carter Museum of American Art – Picture the Old West of history and imagination in paintings and sculptures from American masters such as Winslow Homer, Georgia O’Keeffe, Frederic Remington, and Charles M. Russell.
Cattle Raisers Museum – To understand the Old West, you have to know about the cattle industry. From the 1860s to the 1890s, more than six million cattle were herded out of Texas along the Chisholm Trails to satisfy the demand for beef. Those longhorn cattle grazed on open range, and wealthy ranchers hired cowboys to round them up and move them on trail drives–as long as 1000 miles–to the closest railroad station where they were shipped to feed demand for beef. The Cattle Raisers Museum illustrates America’s ranching heritage with interactive displays that are both informative and fun. And since it’s set within the Fort Worth Museum of Science and History–which also includes a Children’s Museum, state-of-the-art Noble Planetarium, Dinolabs, Omni IMAX Theater, Innovation Studios, and major traveling exhibits such as Titanic–you could easily spend the whole day learning while playing.
National Cowgirl Museum – Telling the story of the pioneering women who helped shape the American West, the National Cowgirl Museum honors women–such as Georgia O’Keefe, Annie Oakley, and Sandra Day O’Connor–who embody that spirit “that anything is possible if you work for it.” Several exhibits display sparkly artifacts from the rodeo circuit, but nothing beats the coolness factor of the lifesize bronco ride.
Historic Fort Worth – Not far from the Cultural District, see how the cattle barons lived on docent-led tours of local mansions: Ball-Eddleman-McFarland House and Thistle Hill.
Experience the Old West at the Fort Worth Stockyards
The 15-block Stockyards National Historic District looks much the same today as it did 100 years ago.
Fifteen minutes before 11:30 am and 4:00 pm, visitors line Exchange Avenue to see cowboys and Texas longhorns on their twice-daily cattle drive.
For a few bucks, you can get your picture taken astride a particularly tame beast, or test your rodeo skills on a mechanical bull.
Throughout the day, observe the herd in the Cow Camp pens, and explore a number of attractions such as the Texas Cowboy Hall of Fame or the Grapevine Vintage Railroad Station where you can catch the Trinity River Run, a one-hour round trip that travels along the Trinity River to 8th Avenue downtown Fort Worth and back.
EAT – Cowboy cuisine, which began with the chuck wagon that accompanied long cattle drives, now inspires hearty, rustic fare at a number of family-friendly restaurants: Riscky’s Barbeque is famous for all-you-can-eat beef rib, calf fries, and black angus steaks; while Cattlemen’s Steak House specializes in aged, charcoal-grilled steaks from corn-fed cattle.
PLAY – Every Friday and Saturday night, historic Cowtown Coliseum, site of the world’s first indoor rodeo, hosts Stockyards Championship Rodeo. And every night is a hoot at Billy Bob’s Texas, the world’s largest honky-tonk, or one of several historic bars like the White Elephant Saloon.
STAY – Spend the night at the Stockyards Hotel, which has welcomed cowboys, cattle barons, and outlaws–ask to see the Bonnie and Clyde suite!–since 1907.
Beaumont Ranch (just South of Fort Worth) – Live the cowboy life where the “Mini Texas Experience” includes a carriage ride ranch tour, and a choice of line dancing lessons, gold mining, roping lessons, and lunch with the cowhands. Stay a little longer for the full cowboy experience: roping, trail rides, cattle herding, shooting lessons, and horse care.
Annual Cowboy Events
- Fort Worth Stock Show and Rodeo (January-February) – The oldest stock show and rodeo in the country, it’s held in the Will Rogers Memorial Center which hosts equestrian and cattle events more than 200 days each year.
- The Red Steagall Cowboy Gathering and Western Swing Festival (October) – Lively Weekend events include: Wagon Train and Trail Ride, Rodeo, Chuck Wagon Camp and Competition, Trappings Show, Cowboy Poetry and Cowboy Music, Ranch Cutting Horse Assn. Rodeo Finals, Youth Poetry Contest, Youth Fiddle Contest, Youth Chuck Wagon Cook-off, Texas Trail of Fame, Cowboy Church, Cowboy Gospel Concert, Western Swing Dances
Travel Tip – Get a great deal on authentic cowboy boots at Justin Boot Outlet, where they carry workhorse models as well as all the pink & glitter that any cowgirl could love.
More Enriching Family Travel in Texas:
- Tips for a Family-Friendly Tour of the Kimbell Art Museum in Fort Worth
- JFK Tribute – Retracing President Kennedy’s Final Days
- Get to Know Texas at the Fort Worth Botanic Garden
- Spunky, Spirited, and Surprising Fort Worth (Guest post on Visit Fort Worth)
- Dallas Art Lives at the Omni
Disclosure: A big thank you to Visit Fort Worth for hosting our stay.