AK-SAR-BEN RIVER CITY RODEO AND STOCK SHOW

The road to Omaha hasn't always been through the nation's 1 college baseball parks.

Nor through the companies 1 of Berkshire Hathaway.

A national championship baseball tournament and a shareholders meeting attract thousands of visitors to Omaha each year, but some of the original roads to Omaha were a riverboat landing and a muddy cattle trail.

This week an estimated 97,000 people will take myriad routes - nearly two-thirds of them from outside the Omaha area - to be part of Ak-Sar-Ben's River City Rodeo & Stock Show.

Omaha's blow-out celebration of its Western heritage returns Thursday for a four-day run in and around the CenturyLink Center Omaha.

City slickers, urban cowboys, baseball fans and Berkshire shareholders welcome. Cowboy and cowgirl attire optional.

Most activities and events — outside of three nights of championship rodeos and two concerts — are free.

The nation's largest 4-H stock show and

the Douglas County Fair will take center stage at the CenturyLink Center. Sprinkled everywhere else will be the annual Heritage Parade in downtown, stage shows, interactive family activities, a chess tournament, a robotics competition, barbecue contests, vendor shopping, agricultural displays, a rodeo after-party and a pancake feed.

You can even dance on the rodeo dirt in the same arena where Creighton University plays basketball and the University of Nebraska at Omaha plays hockey.

Most Nebraskans are long removed from the farm, but agriculture is the No. 1 industry and the economic driver. So the annual event is a way of exposing more people who live in the nation's breadbasket to how their world-class food is produced, where it comes from and how American producers of meat and grain are feeding the globe, said Matt Gunderson, executive director of the rodeo and stock show.

The big tent of activities and events isn't simply a celebration. It's sharing and perpetuating the culture — and it starts with third-and fourth-graders, Gunderson said.

The Knights of Ak-Sar-Ben Foundation, which manages the rodeo and stock show, is expanding its school tours this year. The organization will bus 2,500 to 2,700 third-and fourth-graders from the greater Omaha area to the Animal Zone exhibit Thursday and Friday to put kids face to face with beef cattle, dairy cattle, goats, poultry, swine, rabbits and more.

Kids can experience the feel of sheep wool. They can see the size of cows, what they eat and how they smell. Other stops will include a farrowing exhibit where kids can watch the births of piglets and a stage presentation for a Thank a Farmer Magic Show.

A Shadow Camp pairs city youths with 4-H livestock exhibitors for a day-in-the-life experience of a 4-H'er at the show. Campers will learn about cattle, sheep, goat, chicken or swine projects and help with daily chores Friday and Saturday.

The stock show is a regional livestock competition open to 4-H members from Nebraska, Iowa, Colorado, Illinois, Kansas, Minnesota, Missouri, North Dakota, South Dakota and Wyoming. About 1,200 exhibitors will be showing more than 2,500 head of livestock.

A county fair speech competition and dog show help kick off events Wednesday.

Food vendors will set up daily in a Chuckwagon Corral in Lot D north of the CenturyLink Center. Trading Post commercial vendors will set up in the convention center's Grand Hallway.

Whether or not you attend the Friday and Saturday rodeos, join the cowboys and cowgirls in the Hilton Omaha ballroom each night following the arena action for the Buckle Bash. It's four hours of dancing to live music by the Mackenzie River Band, wrapped around buckle presentations to each night's top rodeo performers. Thursday night's rodeo winners receive their buckles at a band-less Buckle Bash.

Omaha-bound horseback riders saddle up today in western Iowa and northeast and western Nebraska for trail rides to Omaha as Ak-Sar-Ben ambassadors. They'll ride past schools and community centers in small towns on the way to Omaha for Saturday morning's parade.

The riders will join drill teams, huge balloons and marching bands from at least six high schools and the University of Nebraska at Omaha in the parade. Parade grand marshals are Gary and Kathy Gates of Omaha. Gary Gates is president and chief executive of the Omaha Public Power District.

Outside CenturyLink Center along the 10th Street plaza on Saturday, visitors may kick the tires on a tractor or check out the latest in mowers and all-terrain vehicles. Or learn how a round bale of alfalfa is created. Or ride a mechanical bull. Rodeo cowboys will be signing autographs during the afternoon.

A high school rodeo championship is back for the second year Saturday afternoon. And a college fair Saturday will feature representatives from eight two-and four-year institutions sharing information about their schools.

There's no carnival midway, but the Douglas County Fair will feature more than 1,000 exhibits of everything from quilting and home brew to cake decorating and horticulture. Exhibits will be open daily.

The chess tournament Saturday and Sept. 28 pits four-member teams in a regional championship. Sit down with one of the Midwest's highest-rated players for an exhibition match.

Regional middle school and high school robotic teams show up Sept. 28 for a mission briefing before constructing and programming their robots. Competition begins in the afternoon.

Profits from the rodeo and the post-stock show livestock auction benefit the Ak-SarBen scholarship fund. The organization raises more than $150,000 a year for college scholarships, prizes and awards.

Gunderson, the rodeo and stock show executive, said the event has cinched a permanent place in Omaha's cultural landscape since its creation in 1982.

"There are a lot of competing fall activities — the Huskers and high school sports — but the rodeo and stock show have grown because Omaha knows how to lay out the welcome mat," he said. "Visitors feel the hospitality, and love to come to Omaha.

Once folks attend the rodeo and stock show, they tend to come back."

Contact the writer:

402-444-1127, david.hendee@owh.com

COMING MONDAY

Our River City Rodeo & Stock Show special section offers an overview of all the family-friendly events, including a full schedule.

Check out a collection of photos from/\k-Sar-Ben Stock Shows of the 1930s.

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