Calgary Stampede at 100

Calgary, Alberta, has evolved into a major urban center, but for 10 days in July, Canada’s fastest-growing city proudly displays its Western roots.
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Calgary, Alberta, has evolved into a major urban center, but for 10 days in July, Canada’s fastest-growing city proudly displays its Western roots.
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My connection to the Calgary Stampede goes back many generations. My great grandmother Martha Hamilton came to Calgary (be sure to pronounce it “Calgree,” not “Cal-gary”) from Quebec in 1884. Drawn west by a brother and the lure of homestead land, she was one of thousands of settlers who came from all parts of eastern Canada and the United States via the recently completed Canadian Pacific Railway (CPR). For my part, I had to ask my Mum how old I was when I attended my first Stampede. “Not very old,” she said.

July 6–15, 2012 marks the centennial of the Calgary Stampede. The organization has spent the past 100 years honoring the historic development of the Western Canadian cowboy, while maturing the Calgary Stampede into a bona fide cultural phenomenon. I grew up on a ranch west of Calgary, and those 10 days every July afforded me many happy memories: Going to my first big parade; hanging upside down in the Zipper with my cousin on the midway of Stampede Park; showing at the very first United Farmers of Alberta Steer Classic; having my first date at the grandstand show; working my first job in the grain museum; admiring my public relations professor for her Stampede volunteer work; and, eventually, becoming part of the Calgary Stampede family as an 11-year volunteer on one of the agriculture committees.

Through it all, I’ve learned that most Calgarians have a direct connection to the Stampede and feel kinship with the famous Calgary Stampede brand—the C Lazy S. Maybe their mom was a 1950s Stampede Queen. Or perhaps they performed in the Young Canadians dance troop during the nightly Grandstand performance. Whatever the connection may be, the Stampede spirit works its way into a person’s heart. Calgary Stampede President Michael Casey goes so far as to say that it “captures your soul.” That’s because the legacy of the Calgary Stampede has always been its people.

More than 3.6 million visitors come to Stampede Park annually. And the Calgary Stampede (a non-profit organization) gathers impressive volunteer support to help make it all happen. More than 2,200 people volunteer on 45 committees, often throughout the entire year. Our mandate on the agriculture media committee was simple: Promote the other 21 agriculture-related committees. I became a part of the Stampede family to pay homage to my ranching heritage, especially since the Stampede’s roots began as an agricultural fair in 1886. The other volunteers and I worked tirelessly out of a small office in the Victoria Agriculture Pavilion (named for the Queen, of course) built in 1919. Located at the core of 210-acre Stampede Park south of downtown Calgary, our office was actually a former dressing room. It had a shower and the stench of WWE-style wrestlers, its one-time occupants; Stampede Wrestling had held professional wrestling events in the Agriculture Pavilion for 50 years.

The original agricultural fair transformed into more of an exhibition in 1908, when the organization received a $50,000 federal grant, a $35,000 provincial grant, and a $25,000 donation from the city of Calgary. With this record budget, the organization’s goal was to stage the biggest fair ever in western Canada. The Calgary Exhibition did not disappoint and drew “wide accolades and over 100,000 people,” according to Max Foran, a University of Calgary professor and editor of the book "Icon, Brand, Myth: The Calgary Stampede" (Athabasca University Press, 2008). Visiting American trick roper Guy Weadick was so inspired that he went on to recreate his vision of the Canadian frontier experience in a “Stampede” rodeo celebration. With the help of his Montana-born partner, H.C. McMullen, Calgary’s CPR livestock agent, the partners eventually persuaded four wealthy Calgary businessmen, a.k.a. the Big Four—George Lane, Pat Burns, Archibald J. McLean, and A.E. Cross—to invest $25,000 each, a deal reportedly sealed with a simple round of handshakes. To ensure the Stampede’s future success, Weadick got his friend Charlie Russell to let him use the painting A Serious Predicament for the first official Stampede poster when the new event was launched in 1912.

The Calgary Exhibition and Weadick’s Stampede eventually merged in 1923, hiring Weadick as manager. A marketing wizard, he quickly introduced two signature Stampede events: the “exciting, potentially dangerous chuckwagon races” and the tradition of getting the entire city to dress Western during the Stampede. Calgary was first established in 1875 as an outpost of the North West Mounted Police, and it was Weadick’s idea to have the whole city go Western. Today, the metropolis numbers 1.1 million, many of whom continue this tradition by wearing their Western pride on their sleeves, literally, for those 10 days in July.

“The money is here. Come and get it,” touted Guy Weadick of the $20,000 in prize money offered at his 1912 Stampede. Calgary’s cash has long enticed cowboys, including my granddad, Johnnie Munro. He made a whopping $300 riding saddle broncs in the 1926 Calgary Stampede, money that did, in fact, help immensely back on the dairy farm in Springbank, Alberta.

In 1982, the Stampede began to offer an unprecedented $50,000 for first place in each of the five major rodeo events (barrel racing was added in 1996). “It was a “wackin’ amount of money,” says announcer Dave Poulsen, a veteran of 26 Calgary Stampedes. “I don’t think even the top guys were coming anywhere close to that in their entire season’s earnings. One of the things that the rodeo struggled with was the fact that the guys weren’t looked at as professional athletes.”

Poulsen also told me a great story about the craziness of the bull-riding finals in 1990—the year Wacey Cathey won. Surveying the four bulls drawn for the finals, legendary stock contractor Reg Kesler commented that he didn’t think any of them could be ridden. As it turned out, that finals went four for four, with each rider getting a progressively higher score. As Poulsen says: “There have been so many of those great moments at the Calgary Stampede. [Friends] told me they’d never seen anything like that. None of us had.” Cathey was not the kind of cowboy to throw his hat, but after scoring a 92, he sure did.

And Calgary’s big coffers helped validate that cowboys are elite sportsmen. Today, it’s the world’s richest outdoor rodeo, offering slightly more than $2 million in rodeo prize money and another $1.15 million for the nightly GMC Rangeland Derby chuckwagon races. In October 2005, Stampede officials broke away from the Professional Rodeo Cowboys Association (PRCA) to become a non-sanctioned tournament-style rodeo and more able to fine tune event formats—a move that has proved popular and lucrative. (Today’s 10-day cowboy carnival contributes an estimated $127.2 million to Calgary’s economy and $166.3 million to Alberta’s.) The top American and Canadian cowboys receive personal invitations from the Stampede Rodeo Committee to compete. The top-four money winners in each pool advance to the finals, known as Showdown Sunday.

“Calgary caters to the cowboys,” explains eight-time world champion tie-down roper Roy Cooper, who has worn the Stampede crown four times. “I thought, ‘Oh Lord, look what kind of money we can win roping.’”

Cooper’s uncle Jimmie was also named Calgary Stampede calf-roping champion in 1949, and Cooper’s sons Tuf and Clif placed first and second respectively in the 2011 Calgary Stampede’s Tie-Down Roping. Says Cooper: “It really is the ‘Greatest Outdoor Show on Earth.’”

In this case, the whole really is greater than the sum of its parts. The rodeo, agriculture events, parade, Western art showcase, Midway, Indian village, chuckwagon races, and the evening’s grandstand show all combine to showcase our Western heritage.

The organization’s ongoing $600 million dollar revitalization includes new trade and entertainment facilities, expanded green space, a youth campus, agriculture building, hotel, retail marketplace, and a riverfront heritage park. Heck, there’s even a Flapjack Finder website, Facebook page, and iPhone app devoted to helping you find your way to free eats. And a public art initiative plans to add 10 life-sized Western bronzes throughout the city.

There will even be a temporary zip-line (the largest in North America) spanning 850 feet over the midway. A new roller coaster, called the Outlaw (named for a famous Stampede rough stock bull), will also be unveiled at this year’s centennial event and will go on tour throughout North America. Paul Brandt, Canada’s two-time Juno award-winning country artist, will perform with the Young Canadians in the nightly Grandstand show called “Century,” a Broadway-type show featuring popular songs from the past 100 years. (And where did Brandt get his start in music? By winning the 1992 Stampede’s Youth Talent Competition, naturally.) The enormous TransAlta Lights Up the Night Fireworks finale, held nightly after the grandstand show, will shoot simultaneously from four corners of the city. I suspect you’ll see this sight clear down in Great Falls.

I was lucky to grow up with the Stampede Spirit and saw it unfold behind the scenes. There was nothing like crouching down in dirt by the infield bleachers to watch the bull dogging. I’ve stood on the tarmac with my baby asleep in his stroller so that I wouldn’t miss Showdown Sunday. I’ve even had manure fly into my beer while sitting in the corporate infield suites behind the bucking chutes.

All this makes me think of my Stampede mentor, Senior Agriculture Manager Don Stewart, whom we lost too soon to cancer. His stoic cowboy leadership style exemplified the visionaries who make the entire Calgary Stampede like no other rodeo anywhere in the world.

I know where I’ll be in July!