By DIANE GASPER-O'BRIEN
McCRACKEN -- He grew up in a city, and Friday was Shane Loving's first rodeo.
The Hays man was so impressed with his initial experience at a rodeo Friday night at the annual McCracken Rodeo, he said it won't be long before he attends his second.
"He's a city boy, from Kansas City (area), so I had to bring him to the rodeo," said Loving's wife, Rachel, who grew up in Hays.
The Lovings, along with their two young sons and their cousins, Chris and Michele Kingsley from Ellis, and two of their grandchildren, decided to attend the second night of the annual event for a night of family fun.
They weren't disappointed.
With four young children running around in bright orange decked out in "Duck Dynasty" shirts, it was easy for Shane Loving to spot them in a crowd.
"We bought them in Walmart today, thinking it would be easier to keep track of them," his wife said of their two sons, Alex, 5, and Isaac, 3, and cousins Cooper Betts, 6, and his younger sister, Callie, 4.
"My family is up in the stands, and I'm down here thinking I have to watch the kids," said Loving, who grew up in Independence, Mo., and moved with his young family to Hays a few years ago.
"I can see that they're fine," he added. "Things like coming down the stairs (of the bleachers), and people are helping them. It's awesome."
Loving got a glimpse of why thousands of people make their way to Jack Wilson Mustang Arena in a small rural town in northwest Rush County the second weekend of July each summer.
Good old-fashioned fun with family and friends who are so close it's hard to tell one from the other.
"There isn't much left in town but the gas station and the post office -- and the rodeo," said Roger Legleiter, head of the rodeo committee. "But it's sure a reunion for a lot of people. Everybody knows it's the second weekend in July, and people show up (eager) to see ones they haven't seen since last year's rodeo."
Competitors come from all around Kansas and surrounding states to participate in the event that has been named rodeo of the year for 11 of the past 17 years and also earned committee of the year four years as well.
Several small surrounding towns have hotels, but the closest is 17 miles away. So some of the townspeople open their homes to visitors. And visiting royalty for the rodeo queen contest stay at the former home of the late Jack Wilson, the man who promoted the building of the rodeo grounds in 1987 and for whom the arena is named.
Anita Butler, a niece of Wilson's who lives in Solomon, bought his farmhouse and a few acres approximately 2 miles outside of McCracken, as a second home a few years ago.
"After Uncle Jack died (in 2006), we started coming to (the rodeo) every year," Butler said. "And I always liked the farm; we celebrated every birthday, every holiday, every weekend for pheasant season here. So we bought it from Aunt Verlene when she moved to WaKeeney. It's home."
Now, the house built in 1878 is home to others as well.
"They put in such long hours at the rodeo," Legleiter said, "that it's nice for visiting royalty to be able to have a close place to stay."