Sam Hands first got involved with Beef Empire Days in the few years between his college graduation and military enlistment. Ray Purdy was a county agent in Cimarron with a new master’s degree in meats. Brian Price had just moved to the area and worked at Reeves Cattle Company. Gale Seibert taught vocational agriculture at Garden City High School.

Today, Hands sits on Beef Empire Days’ board of directors, and Purdy serves as its historian. Price manages Brookover Feed Yard north of Garden City, and Seibert has since moved away from the town and its famous festival. What the four men and many like them share are several decades of volunteer service to Beef Empire Days, an annual event that has left its mark on all of them.

Over the event’s 50 years, volunteers have ushered in new eras of Beef Empire Days, dedicating themselves to the celebration of an industry they care about and molding an event that would become a calling card for the region.

“We all get busy in our day-to-day routines, but to have a general event to come to and socialize within and have the opportunity to do some competitions, it just makes for good entertainment and a fun time for everybody,” Hands said.

Seibert signed onto Beef Empire Days from its conception in 1969, bringing several students from the high school’s Future Farmers of America club to set up pins for cattle on the bricks of Seventh Street by Stevens Park. It was a fleeting setup, Seibert said. In later years, the show would be moved to the Finney County Fairgrounds.

Hands, fresh out of college and ahead of his time in the military, would soon join him, coming to work for the event’s live and carcass shows in 1971. He corralled cattle and recorded data the judges would need to make their decisions. A year later, Purdy would take photos of the cattle and help volunteers at the live and carcass shows, as well.

What Seibert, Hands and Purdy became a part of was the foundation for an event with rich history. While Purdy said he was involved with Beef Empire Days in some way every year, Seibert and Hands weaved in and out of leadership roles over the decades.

Hands would leave to serve in the military and return as a board member in the 1980s. In the mid-80s, Price would move to town and serve on event committees for 15 years before stepping back to participate casually as the manager of Brookover Feed Yard. Seibert would step away after a few of the event’s early years and return as the Carcass Show chairman in the 1990s and early 2000s.

Beef Empire Days expanded and diversified as the years passed. Seibert remembered a popular event where different producers fed their cattle together, and Price said he helped get the event’s first ranch rodeo off the ground in 2007. The ranch rodeo brought a different perspective to the cattle business, Price said, showcasing the traditional elements of the fast-evolving beef industry and incorporating everyday industry workers.

Even the festival’s premiere events, the live and carcass shows, have changed over the past decades. Manual measurements have given way to hyperspecific technology that helps producers choose their best steers, Seibert said.

Seibert, who is also a former meats coach at Garden City Community College, said the innovations had their downsides, giving those with access to the technology an unfair advantage. On the flip side, Price said, more precise methods to select and prepare cattle made for a contest of the best against the best. It was less by the seat of the pants, he said, but fiercely competitive.

Regardless of change, Beef Empire Days matters to these volunteers.

Purdy said the event had brought him many great moments over the years, but one of the most personal was winning the first Mary Hopkins Award, an honor in memory of Beef Empire Days’ longtime collaborator and first female president.

“That was a big, big deal for me,” Purdy said.

Price reflected on a cooking contest featuring eight chuckwagons in Beef Empire Days’ recent history, one he said was well attended and reveled in the history of western cooking.

Hands said one of his favorite nights of each year’s festival is the awards banquet, which recognizes the final winners of Beef Empire Days’ competitions. He said the night had its own glamour, in a ranch hand kind of way.

“You might say it’s kind of the Oscar night … of the cattle feed industry for the Great Plains,” Hands said.

Seibert, who’s been away from Garden City and Beef Empire Days for several years now, looks back fondly on the time he got to be a part of it.

“Beef Empire Days was a big part of my life back then … It was long, long days, but I enjoyed it. It was part of my life, and I look back on it and I still think that there were great things in my career that happened by being involved in Beef Empire Days,’” Seibert said.

As Beef Empire Days rockets forward to its next anniversary, Price said the demographics of the event’s board and committees are changing. There are people like Hands, who have been involved for decades, and there is a good number of younger beef enthusiasts ready to carry the event onward.

In many ways, Price said, these newer members reflect the changing beef industry, one that promotes organic and non-GMO processes and a wider range of consumer choice in their meat. They are of a generation that moves faster and may have less time to commit to something like Beef Empire Days, but Price hopes that they do.

“Some of the older guys have been in for a long time … They’re getting to the age where these younger guys will have to step up a little bit and be as intense and serious about the industry as those guys were...” he said. “These young guys are good to come in.”

 

Contact Amber Friend at afriend@gctelegram.com.