Cowtown! Calgary’s Stampede City!

The following article 1st  appeared in  Ranch & Reserve Magazine’s  8th issue.

Many years ago, as a young, British immigrant, I found myself at the Calgary Stampede…..one of the most famous and largest rodeos in the world. It totally blew me away!  I had never experienced or seen anything quite like it. An amazing kaleidoscope of events, from a foot stomping, mind boggling opening Parade of marching brass bands, flamboyant floats, honorary marshal, parade queen and princesses to heart-stopping feats as cowboys and cowgirls showed off their skills and competed for major prize money in the huge Stampede Grandstand arena. The rodeo events were an eye-popping spectacle of calf roping, steer wrestling, barrel racing and, most thrilling of all, bare-back riders exploding out of the gate astride big bucking bulls or broncos. Between various events, nimble rodeo clowns kept the stands laughing and rearing animals distracted, when a rider tumbled to the ground!  Every night, enthusiastic aficionados of chuck wagon racing filled the stands to hoot and holler and cheer on their favourite teams as wagons careened and thundered around the track.  After that heady rush of adrenaline, it was time for spectators to sit back and enjoy big-name entertainment at the evening concert, climaxed by a brilliant firework display at the evening’s close.

During the day and into the night, good-natured crowds jostled and pushed their way around the various venues, trying to take in as much as possible.  Vendors hawked their wares and sold everything from hot dogs and cotton candy to the latest kitchen gadgets. The constant hustle and bustle was an infectious mix of good times and fun-filled days that invoked a true carnival atmosphere.  Among the major attractions, was an authentic Indian Village recreated on the banks of the Elbow River, representing the six local tribes, replete with tipis, native art and tribal members resplendent in ceremonial dress and traditional attire.  Other big draws were the many agricultural exhibitions and magnificent prize livestock on show in the cattle sheds, polished and groomed by their proud owners, as visitors gingerly picked their way around bellowing animals and sawdust strewn floors!

Free pancake breakfasts, free barbecues and impromptu street parties were hosted at countless outdoor venues around town… western hospitality at its finest and a sure-fire Stampede staple.  Saloon-type restaurants did a roaring trade happily serving up large plates of steak and eggs to customers from early morning ‘til late at night. White Stetsons, cowboy boots and blue jeans were de rigueur as everyone got in on the act to celebrate Stampede week. Calgary residents and visitors alike lived and breathed in a bygone western era, which then, as now, remains the true essence of the Calgary Stampede.

But what exactly is the Calgary Stampede and how did it come to symbolize and define Calgary as Stampede City, hosting the largest, richest, most successful rodeo festival to date?

Calgary Stampede

Basically, the Stampede is a 10-day annual Rodeo, Exhibition and Agricultural fair held every July in Calgary, a prosperous modern city situated at the confluence of the Bow and Elbow rivers surrounded by foothills and prairies in the Province of Alberta, about 80km from the east range of the Canadian Rockies. The Stampede is run by a “not for profit organization that preserves and promotes western heritage and values.”  Thousands of volunteers help to make the annual Stampede possible, which bills itself as, “The Greatest Show on Earth!”  Only the present-day midway funfair is a for profit run business by an entirely separate entity.

But let’s go back to the very beginning when Calgary was truly deserving of its nickname Cowtown!   Like all great and enduring ventures, it has an uneven and colourful history dating from 1886 when the Calgary and District Agricultural Society put on its first fair and exhibition to encourage farmers to move west.  At that time, Calgary was a small town with most of the 2,000 population involved in farming, ranching and raising cattle.  The society’s fair enjoyed a modest profit and success which continued in one form or another until 1895 when poor weather, failed crops and declining attendance put an end to it.  However, in 1899, the Western Pacific Exhibition stepped in, took over the Victoria Park facility and resumed the fairs which began to grow annually. In 1910 the fair became known as the Calgary Industrial Exhibition.

The big break came in 1908, when the Canadian government chose Calgary to host the Dominion Exhibition and provided necessary funds. The city, seizing an opportunity to promote itself, invested a further $145,000 to build six new pavilions and despite a recession the Exhibition was a total success.

But the birth of the Stampede as we know it today, was the idea and brainchild of Guy Weadick, an American trick roper at the Dominion Exhibition, who later returned to Calgary and convinced four Calgary businessmen, Pat Burns, George Lane, A.J. McLean and A. E. Cross, forever immortalized in Calgarian folk-lore history as the Big Four, to back an authentic wild-west type Stampede.  The Big Four thought it would be a fitting, one-time only event to celebrate their lives as cattlemen, and so the first Stampede took place in 1912 as a joint venture with the Calgary Industrial Exhibition and was an instant success. It took another 7 years before Weadick managed to get the Big Four to sponsor another such event, which was the 1919 Victory Stampede to mark the end of W.W.1 and honour returning war veterans.   It too was an immediate rip-roaring success. However, it wasn’t until 1923 that the Calgary Industrial Exhibition, suffering losses and falling revenues, agreed to merge with Weadick’s Stampede group and form the “Calgary Exhibition and Stampede” which became a permanent fixture on the rodeo circuit.

Calgary Stampede

With the discovery of the Leduc 1 oil well in 1947, far-reaching changes took place in Calgary having an enormous impact on the city’s future and that of the Stampede. The former small cattle and farming community was transformed into the present-day oil and gas capital of Canada and financial hub of Alberta. As Calgary grew, so did the Stampede, attracting notables from afar, including the Queen and Prince Philip twice, Bing Crosby and Bob Hope as parade marshals and six Hollywood-made films featuring the Stampede……some using actual footage.  But by the 1950’s it was evident that further expansion was necessary to accommodate the increasing number of attendees and rodeo events to ensure the continuing success of the Stampede.

With this in mind, the organization embarked on an ambitious building program, which included a 7,500 seat Stampede Corral in 1950 followed by a race-track in 1954. The Big Four Building (named after its four benefactors) was completed in 1959, the city’s largest Exhibition Hall at the time.  In 1961, the OH Ranch, in Hanna, Alberta was established to raise and breed cattle, horses and bulls for the Stampede’s six rodeo disciplines using humane methods. By 1968, the Stampede had grown so rapidly that it was extended to its current 10 days. The Roundup Centre came next in 1979 and served as the new Exhibition Hall and finally in 1983 the Olympic Saddledome took its place as the Stampede’s newest and biggest venue. Owing to the improved and expanded facilities, attendance rose steadily until it finally plateaued at around 1.2 million with a one-time peak of 1.4 million in 2012 at the Stampede’s Centennial year celebrations.

In 2007, “Exhibition” was dropped and the event was called simply, The Calgary Stampede. At the same time, the Stampede organization finally acquired additional lands at Victoria Park, expanding the original site, now known as Stampede Park.  Long-term plans include it being a year-round destination for both locals and visitors.  The Stampede Park complex is located in S.E. downtown Calgary in the Beltline district, serviced by a rapid transit line and consists of the following facilities:  the Saddledome and Corral, the Big Four building, the BMO Centre and the Stampede Grandstand.

Calgary Stampede

In the years since my long-ago visit, many new attractions have been added to the Stampede, such as the ever- popular Midway,  an exciting Adventure Park , a Nashville North venue showcasing well-known country and western artists and the Transalta Grandstand, which features a troupe of talented young Canadian performers strutting their stuff in front of a packed house!

The horrendous 2013 floods, which decimated much of Calgary, threatened to cancel that year’s stampede, however, Stampede City literally pulled itself out of the mud and with the help of selfless volunteers the show went on… a testament to the indomitable spirit that has infused the Calgary Stampede since its inception. As a direct result of the floods, millions of dollars were raised from government and private donors for ongoing improvements to the Stampede facilities and future expansion projects.

In the summer of 2015, I had the opportunity to stay at a cattle farm 120km outside of Calgary and got to explore the neighbouring  high country and arid badlands, plus renew my acquaintance with Calgary’s downtown, now an imposing, sophisticated city of skyscrapers, condo towers and trendy restaurants. But at the heart of all this modernity, Cowtown is alive and well with a warm invitation to step back into the past and soak up the spirit of the old wild-west at the next Calgary Stampede!

Sheilan Dove/ June 29/2016

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