Bettie Cram: A historic voice in an evolving landscape

By Abby Tillinghast

When Bettie Cram first moved to Denver, cattle filled the National Western Stockyards year-round and the railroads ruled the land. Back then it was the middle of the depression-era 40s and while the country struggled to stay afloat, the cattle industry thrived and the National Western Stock Show continued to grow. Bettie was in her early 20s and working in downtown Denver, but was determined to break into the livestock industry.

“One day I went out to the train station and said I thought I’d like to drive a train,” Cram said with a laugh, “and so they called me the next day and said okay, we have job for you out at the stockyards.”

Cram worked with the brand inspectors and veterinarians to record the livestock as they came in. At that time, she estimated there were more than 40,000 cattle and 130,000 sheep coming through the yards every day. Each morning she would report to the Livestock Exchange building and update the big chalkboard in the lobby with the current market prices and available animals. The now-historic building was a hub of activity in those days, and Cram loved it.

Bettie Cram

“The people were so friendly and being in the building itself was something,” she reminisced. “Every office had its own “tude.” The cattle people would come in and wait for their bill after they’d sold their cattle and they could sit on one side of the room and spit into that spittoon and get right in. Across the room! I was always so glad they didn’t miss.”

The Stockyards became the center of Cram’s life as she met her closest friends and eventually her husband, Eddie Cram, who was a cowboy who worked in the yards. Those years were what Cram calls the “hay day” of the cattle trade, before computers were invented and livestock exchange left the cities. Every cold January, thousands of people would gather to see the National Western Stock Show, and Cram was sure to be right in the middle of things.

She remembers inviting some city friends out during the Stock Show to see the horses and cattle that filled the yards. Between her husband and herself, the group had full access to the entire complex, and Cram remembers running and laughing across the yards at 2 a.m., with only the cows around them to hear.

As the 1950s brought modern trade practices, buyers started going direct to suppliers and trains bringing cattle to Denver became less and less frequent. Cram and her husband soon found themselves parents and were forced to find new work as the stockyards grew quiet and jobs at the National Western grew scarce, but the couple never left the livestock industry far behind.

“As the children came we moved around a little bit to different places, but there was always a little ranch where there were cattle to take care of, so there was always something to do with the livestock,” Cram said.

Cram and her family returned to Swansea in 1952, and bought the house that Bettie still lives in today. She quickly grew close with her neighbors as took a job as a door-to-door saleswoman. Every day found her at a different kitchen table selling her home goods and talking to her new friends. At that time, Swansea was still its own little town of sorts, with every handyman you could need living nearby and helping his community.

While the stockyards had grown quiet by the 1950s, the agriculture industry was still prominent in the area. Vegetable gardens thrived in Globeville while five active dairies sat between Elyria and Swansea.

“I still have one of the creamer cans from one of the dairies in my kitchen,” Cram said with a smile. “I don’t think it was even pasteurized or anything. We used to go over there with our containers and get our milk straight from the source.”

As Denver began to modernize, agriculture slowly began to leave the young city. Cram watched her neighborhood evolve around her as the agriculture workers moved away and the area became home to many Hispanic immigrants. Cram’s own family slowly spread as her children grew up and started families of their own, and her husband passed away due to cancer. As she watched her neighborhood slowly change, Cram stayed put and vowed to help her community return to its former glory.

“I think when you just get used to a place, it becomes special to you anyways,” Cram replied when asked why she loves her community. “Nobody has money. Everybody’s just common and cares about the neighborhood and is hoping we can get grocery stores and things.”

Cram has been fighting for her neighborhood to get access to simple amenities for several years, and has been actively involved in the National Western Center Citizens Advisory Committee (NWC-CAC). She was among many in her area who were concerned when the National Western Stock Show considered leaving Denver in 2011. When the partnership was formed between the Western Stock Show Association, the City and County of Denver, and Colorado State University to create the National Western Center, Cram was determined to help represent her neighborhood at the new facility.

“I don’t say much at the (NWC-CAC) meetings; I have small dreams,” Cram remarked, “I just want to make sure we try to keep the history, the heritage, and the local western atmosphere, which is slowly, or not too slowly, going away.”

Cram wants to see the new campus as not only a destination of western heritage, but also an inclusive Center that fully involves its neighbors and recognizes its historical location. She recently suggested that Denver’s Regional Transportation District (RTD) rename the new light-rail stop on the future National Western Center Campus, “National Western, Historic Elyria.” The idea was popular with the NWC-CAC and Cram hopes RTD will accept the recommendation and recognize the historic neighborhood. Cram additionally pushes for future programming opportunities that will involve and engage with the local community.

“My dad was a trombone player, so we were always around bandstand with local music. I’d really like to see some local bands there with live music for the community, maybe even Mariachi so its historic and close to the neighborhood,” she said.

At 95 years old, Cram is determined to live out her days giving back to her community and pushing for positive change in her historic corner of Denver. In honor of her continued dedication to her community, a new street on the National Western Center campus has been named “Bettie Cram Drive.”

“I had a hard time adjusting to it,” Cram said with a laugh when asked about her new road.

“I thought, why would I even have a road named after me? Who would ever have thought that? I had a hard time really believing it, but now I wouldn’t give it away for all the pennies in China! That’s my road!”

On Thursday, October 26, 2017, Cram got to see “her road” put in place as members of the National Western Center Citizens Advisory Committee and staff from partner organizations gathered around to cheer. The new street sign was revealed in front of the National Western Complex, the future site for the new road. As the new campus begins to take shape, Bettie Cram Dr. will stand to honor the legacy of a long-time advocate of the National Western Stock Show and community icon.

Colorado State University and the National Western Center

Colorado State University has made a long-term commitment to the reimagining of the National Western Center in North Denver, and the communities surrounding the project. Efforts are under way to create partnerships with community schools, non-profits and businesses, and to actively engage in the community.

A key and founding partner in the National Western Center, CSU will have three buildings within the 250-acre campus upon completion. The project, which will break ground in the coming years, expands and regenerates the current National Western Stock Show site, turning it into a vibrant, year-round experiential, community-centric, life-long learning destination in the heart of Denver.

As Colorado’s land-grant university, CSU’s mission of research, service, and access, fits with the outreach mission of the National Western Center. CSU’s plans at the new campus focus on research and education programming in the areas of food systems, water, environment, energy and health. The university has initiated programming and service outreach efforts before buildings are constructed, as part of its commitment to the area. For additional information, visit