LOVINGTON, N.M. – When Jimmy Wheeler walks into the barn at the Lea County Fair and Rodeo this year, it won’t be much different than the first time.
Oh, sure, the times have changed. There are more modern conveniences than he experienced that first year. But the reality is, he’ll be inside that show barn, holding on to a twinge of nervousness as he watches the action.
You see, 2012 marks the 50th year a Wheeler has shown livestock at the local fair. This year, it will be his grandchildren, 19-year-old Blain Wheeler and 17-year-old Kylie Wheeler, and his great-granddaughter, 10-year-old Addison Marquez. They’ll be showing cattle, but that’s something in which the family has taken great pride since Dickie Wheeler first showed a steer in Lovington in 1963.
“It’s a family oriented project that actually builds families,” Jimmy Wheeler said of showing livestock.
That it is. Dickie remembers 1963 quite well. He also remembers what motivated him.
“It’s always been in our family history,” Dickie said. “My dad showed steers when he was young. When I was old enough, he got me showing. My kids … they all showed the whole time they were growing up.”
So when Addison walks into the ring during this year’s fair, set for Aug. 3-11, she will represent four generations of Wheelers who have shown livestock, three of which have done so in Lea County over the last five decades.
“There’s a lot of responsibility learned there,” said Larry Wheeler, Jimmy’s baby boy and the father of Blain and Kylie. “When they’re younger, it’s a family project. When they’re younger, you have to do more with the kids and for the kids, but as they get older, you turn more responsibility over to them.”
And the cycle continues. Jimmy Wheeler instilled that with his four children, which included daughters Connie and Jan.
“It’s just a great teacher,” Jimmy said. “It’s the greatest thing that family can do. That’s just the way it is. The kids always liked it. Every afternoon at 5 o’clock, we knew where they were. We had the steers tied up, and the kids were out there taking care of them.”
That type of commitment comes with a little sacrifice, too.
“The commitment is primarily monetarily, because it’s going to take some of your disposable income you might have,” said Wayne Cox, the Lea County Extension agent. “The other is the time commitment it takes from other activities.
“I think the big thing everybody gets out of it is very valuable, like the aspect of the sheer responsibility that something is dependent on you, other than the way it seems society is going. We don’t eat until the animals area fed. We take care of the animals first, because they are dependent on you.”
Cox, too, has been very involved in showing livestock. He knows its importance and what it takes to have a great animal led around the ring.
“You have to treat them as if they’re a finely tuned athlete getting ready for the Olympics,” Cox said. “If you want to be competitive, we just treat them as if they’re athletes.”
The Wheelers have seen plenty of success over the past half century doing just that. Jimmy said youngsters get a chance to be on both sides of any competitive scenario.
“They learn you win some, you lose some,” he said. “They learn how to work the finances. Lea County’s sale is wonderful; it’s got the best support of any county I’ve ever heard of.”
Of course, it helps to always be competitive. Over the years, the Wheelers have reeled in 11 grand champions and 10 reserve grand champions at the county fair.
“We’ve bought calves over the years, but for the most part, we’ve raised our own,” Larry said. “I’ve told my kids from an early age that we were competing against some high-dollar steers. If we can raise our own and compete at that level, then I’m happy with that.”
There’s a lot of pride in what the Wheelers do in the show ring, but it’s nothing compared to the work it takes leading up to the annual fair. That’s something the family hopes remains for decades to come.
“We’ve been around this a long time, and it’s a big thing to us,” Dickie Wheeler said. “We’ve always really enjoyed the fair. I still do.
“It’s coming up, and I’m looking forward to it.”