History of the Cow Palace
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History of the Cow Palace

Black and white photo of the first ever Grand National Rodeo inside the Cow Palace (1941)

Since opening in 1941, the Cow Palace has welcomed over 50 million visitors through its doors. The Cow Palace is officially the 1-A District Agricultural Association, a State agency of the California Department of Food and Agriculture's Division of Fairs and Expositions.

The idea for what was to become the Cow Palace was born at the 1915 Pan-Pacific International Exposition in San Francisco. When the fair's huge livestock exposition proved to be one of its most popular attractions, local business leaders met and resolved to build a permanent structure to house a great animal livestock exposition in San Francisco.

For ten years after the Pan-Pacific Expo, the idea lay dormant. In 1925, the San Francisco Exposition Company was formed to finance the project. Nineteen firms and individuals each contributed $20,000, and the land was purchased in the Marina District, the site of the 1915 fair.

A legislative appropriation of $250,000 was passed in 1931. This appropriation was to be used in part to purchase a suitable site. However, as the depression of the 1930's worsened, resistance developed to using public funds for construction of a livestock pavilion. The economy was in a state of shock. Millions were unemployed. A local newspaper asked, "Why, when people are starving, should money be spent on a "palace for cows?" A headline writer turned the phrase around, hence the origin of the world famous name.

Company A302 Ordinance Regiment standing in front of Cow Palace (2/11/1943)

Twenty years after the inception, and a change from the original site, the first spadeful of dirt was turned. Through the W.P.A. Program, the construction of the Cow Palace put to work thousands of the unemployed.

The Cow Palace was completed in 1941. The new arena boasted a concrete and steel roof that covered nearly six acres. The first event to be held in the new arena was the Western Classic Holstein Show in April, 1941. In November of that year, the first Grand National Livestock Expo, Horse Show and Rodeo was held, featuring a tribute to the late Will Rogers. The show was declared a smash hit.

Two short weeks after the close of the first show, Pearl Harbor was attacked. Rented by the Federal Government for $1.00 per year, for the next five years the huge structure was filled with troops embarking for combat zones in the Pacific Theatre. As World War II progressed, the pavilion was turned over to the Ordinance Department and converted into a huge repair garage.

Following the war in 1946, the facility was again readied to host the Grand National Livestock Expo, Horse Show and Rodeo. The show was again a success, despite rain and wind storms that flattened the enormous outdoor livestock tents. This near disaster led to the construction of the permanent storm-proof pavilions that had been in the original plans.
The Beatles performing on stage at the Cow Palace (8/31/1965)

In the spring of 1946, the Junior Grand National was established to encourage the youth of California in their livestock projects. In December of 1947, inter-collegiate basketball came to the arena, beginning the Cow Palace's nationwide reputation as a major sports arena. In 1948, the Ringling Bros. Barnum & Bailey Circus started its tenure as the Cow Palace's oldest continuous renter.

In 1949 legislation was passed officially opening the facility to general public use. In October of that year, the Cow Palace was host to the U.S. Heavyweight Boxing Championship. From then on, all manner of events came to the arena, such as ice shows, political conventions, Roller Derby, tennis, wrestling, professional basketball, and ice hockey.

Other Cow Palace highlights include appearances by the Royal Canadian Mounted Police, Liberace, the Billy Graham Crusade (with attendance of 696,525), John F. Kennedy, Martin Luther King Jr., Evel Knievel, the Beatles, the Rolling Stones, and Elvis Presley. In addition to these, the Cow Palace has been the host of many successful sold-out concerts. Some of the more memorable are those by the Grateful Dead, the Who, the Doors, Rod Stewart, Santana, ZZ Top, Yes, Metallica, Paul McCartney & Wings, Neil Diamond, Elton John, U2, and Prince.

The long term tenants of the Cow Palace include the Ringling Bros. Barnum & Bailey Circus, the San Francisco Sport & Boat Show, the Golden Gate Kennel Club Dog Show, Body Art Expo, Dickens Christmans Fair and Disney on Ice. In addition it is home to the Grand National Livestock Exposition, Horse Show & Rodeo.


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