The first Calgary Stampede, held in 1912, was a tribute to Western heritage and values, and that’s a tradition that remains today.
For 10 days every July, the city of Calgary, Alberta, transforms into a tribute to the Wild West era.
Downtown lawyers and CEOs of multinational corporations trade their business suits for blue jeans and cowboy boots. Office buildings and retail stores are decorated with corral fence boards and straw bales. Country music can be heard on nearly every corner. Locals and tourists gather for free pancakes and coffee. Calgarians and visitors alike embrace the Calgary Stampede spirit and celebrate Western heritage and values. After 100 years, there is no end in sight for this amazing festival with humble roots.
Before there was a Calgary Stampede, the Calgary and District Agricultural Society organized an exhibition that was held in October 1886. In 1889, the Calgary and District Agricultural Society acquired 94 acres of land from the Dominion of Canada and built a racetrack, cattle sheds and an exhibition building. This land remains the site of Stampede Park today.
The Calgary Exhibition remained a modest annual event. Then in 1908, a cowboy named Guy Weadick performed in the exhibition as a trick roper. He was also a skilled promoter who wanted to create a tribute show to the Wild West. It took him four years, but he arranged $100,000 in financing from a group of influential ranchers and businessmen who came to be known as the Big Four: George Lane, Patrick Burns, A. J. McLean and A. E. Cross. With their financial support, the first Calgary Stampede took place in September 1912.
The six-day event was a success. Guy arranged for 400 head of Mexican steers and as many wild horses as he could find to be brought to the Stampede grounds from nearby ranches. The funding provided by the Big Four meant $20,000 in prize money drew top rodeo competitors from across North America, as it was nearly quadruple the prize money offered at any other North American rodeo competition.
Nearly 2,000 First Nations people participated in the parade, which was attended by an estimated 80,000 people – an astonishing number because Calgary’s population at the time was just over 60,000. The Duke of Connaught and Princess Patricia watched the Stampede from a viewing box built especially for the royal guests.
Tom Three Persons of the Kainai First Nation won the saddle bronc championship, the most coveted prize, for riding a horse named Cyclone to a standstill. The rodeo events at the first Stampede were much different than today’s Stampede Rodeo. For example, there were no chutes. In the bucking bronco event, horses were blindfolded. The last cowboy or cowgirl who remained on horseback was declared the winner.
Most of the major events offered a first-place prize of $1,000, a saddle and a gold belt buckle. Guy encouraged people to dress western throughout the Stampede and offered cash prizes for the best-dressed cowboys, cowgirls, Indians and even store fronts.
Despite the success, the Stampede was not held again until 1919. That year’s event was the Great Victory Stampede, celebrating the end of the war.
Guy convinced working ranches to enter their authentic chuckwagons and roundup crews into the first Rangeland Derby in 1923. The winner was the first team to round a figure-8 track and light a fire in his stove. Prizes totaled $275. Bill Sommers, a stagecoach driver from the Yukon, won the first Rangeland Derby.
In 1923, the Stampede was held in conjunction with the Calgary Exhibition. The combined event was such a success that it has been held every July since then.
The first Stampede breakfast was also held in 1923. A chuckwagon driver named “Wildhorse Jack” Morton camped at the Canadian Pacific Railway station in downtown Calgary. Jack cooked his breakfast pancakes on a stove in the back of his chuckwagon and shared them with his friends. He began inviting people who were passing by to join them, giving birth to a Calgary Stampede tradition. Pancake breakfasts are held every day at various locations throughout the 10-day festival and are as integral to the Stampede as the parade, cowboy hats and roping.
The first Calgary Stampede Queen, Patsy Rodgers, was appointed in 1946. In 1947, a contest was held, adding a princess to the Stampede Royalty, and in 1948, a second princess was added. The tradition of the Calgary Stampede Queen and Princesses continues today.
It was 1946 that also saw the debut of an internationally recognized symbol of the Calgary Stampede — the white cowboy hat. The Herron ranching/oil family wore the first white felt hats made by Smithbilt that year. In 1949, Mayor Don Mackay donned a white Smithbilt hat on a mission to promote Calgary and began handing out the white hat to visiting dignitaries. The white cowboy hat has become such a symbol of Calgary that white cowboy hats are often presented to visiting dignitaries and celebrities as a welcoming gift to Calgary.
Guy Weadick’s last appearance at the Stampede was in the parade in 1952, one year before he died. He was inducted into the Canadian Rodeo Hall of Fame in 1982.
The 1970s saw several significant developments for the Stampede. The Calgary Stampede Showband led the Stampede parade for the first time in 1971. In 1976, attendance broke 1 million for the first time. This attendance threshold has been met or exceeded at every Stampede since 1985. The first chuckwagon canvas auction, in 1979, provided businesses the chance to bid for advertisement space on the chuckwagon canvasses.
The Stampede announced the “half million dollar rodeo” in 1982. Each main rodeo event competitor vied for a $50,000 prize in the showdown, which at the time was the richest prize ever offered in the history of the sport. Today’s Stampede Rodeo is still among the world’s richest rodeos, offering over $2 million dollars in prize money.
Guy created a template for the Stampede. His vision was to have the city and First Nations people involved, to have good international ties, to invite celebrities, to have a good volunteer program and, of course, to have the ideal location. This template has been followed for 100 years.
Now, the Calgary Stampede is a non-profit organization with approximately 350 full-time staff members, 3,500 Stampede-time staff and 2,100 volunteers on 47 committees who dedicate themselves to making sure that The Greatest Outdoor Show on Earth lives up to its name.
After 100 years of changes and improvements, the Calgary Stampede shows no signs of slowing down. Staff, volunteers, Calgarians and visitors are all looking forward to seeing what the next 100 years will bring to The Greatest Outdoor Show on Earth.
The Big Four
In 1912, Guy Weadick convinced four wealthy citizens to provide funding to establish the Calgary Stampede, a tribute to the West and its cowboy heritage. The four citizens who funded Guy’s dream were George Lane, Patrick Burns, A. J. McLean and A. E. Cross.
George Lane and his partners purchased the Bar U Ranch. George was an excellent cowboy and a leader. He achieved international recognition as a center of breeding excellence for cattle and purebred Percheron horses between 1902 and 1925. His world-class Percherons were bred to meet the demand for draft horses by homestead settlers.
Patrick Burns enjoyed success in the ranching and meat packing industries. The P. Burns and Co. Ltd. meat packing company was established in Calgary in 1890. It became one of the largest businesses of its kind in the world, with branches in London, Liverpool and Yokohama. Patrick also worked as a cattle buyer. He owned large amounts of land, which he used to raise cattle.
Archie “A. J.” McLean came to Alberta in 1886 to work with cattle. In 1887, he became manager of the CY Ranch of the Cypress Cattle Co. near the southern Alberta town of Taber. He established his own company to ship cattle to the British Isles.
Alfred Ernest “A. E.” Cross came to Calgary from Ontario in 1884 as a veterinarian and assistant manager of the British-American Horse Ranch Co. In 1885, he started his own ranch, the A7, near the southern Alberta town of Nanton, thereby becoming one of the West’s most prominent cattlemen. The A7 is still owned by the Cross family and remains one of the largest ranches in the West. Then, in 1892, Alfred founded the Calgary Brewing and Malting Co.
All four of these men were also involved in politics. A. E. Cross, George Lane and A. J. McLean were elected members of the Legislative Assembly of Alberta and Patrick Burns was appointed to the Senate of Canada. They were respected businessmen and great leaders.
Tina Zakowsky (née Schwartzenberger) is a member of the International Agriculture committee and editor of the Profile. She can be reached at email@example.com.
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