Stampede Traditions: Rodeo & Chuckwagons

Back in 1912, Guy Weadick came to Calgary and persuaded four prominent cattlemen to provide the financial backing to put together a rodeo and wild west show. As it is today, the goal from the beginning was to help preserve the western way of life..its culture & traditions.

 Guy Weadick came to town to pitch a 6-day spectacle titled the “Frontier Day Celebration and Championship.” Weadick, a successful vaudeville performer who had travelled throughout North America and Europe as a trick roper, envisioned a world-class rodeo competition that would celebrate the romance and culture of the “disappearing” Old West. He received support for the event he called the “Stampede” from four prosperous southern Alberta ranchers: A.E. Cross, George Lane, Pat Burns and A.J. McLean, collectively known as the Big Four.

 First held in September of 1912, the Stampede featured roping and bronc events with competitors from throughout the North American West. Women participated in the saddlebronc and trick riding competitions. Members of the Treaty 7 Nations participated in the events as well. The title of world champion bareback bronc rider went to Tom Three Persons of the Kainai (Blood) Nation who was the first person to stay on Cyclone, the famous horse unbeaten by 129 other riders before Three Persons rode him to a standstill. Despite the rainy weather, the first Stampede drew large crowds and was a success.

Guy Weadick & Flores LaDue

Due to the onset of an economic depression followed by the outbreak of the First World War, Weadick’s hopes of making the Stampede an annual event were dashed. But in 1919, the Big Four and Ernie L. Richardson, the Secretary of the Calgary Exhibition, called him back to the city to hold a Victory Stampede that would celebrate peace and the end of the First World War. Once again, the Stampede was a successful rodeo competition and western event.

In 1923, the Stampede joined with the Exhibition holding one event – the Calgary Exhibition and Stampede – in July. This was also the first year of the pancake breakfast, started by Jack Morton offering breakfast to visitors and locals alike from the back of his chuckwagon parked downtown. Within a few years, attendance broke 200,000 and the spectacle continued to grow into the Stampede of today. 

The heritage of rodeo dates back to the 1600s and relates to caring for animals on the open range. Around the world roping, riding and herding were all essential activities that evolved into competitions among the working hands on ranches.

The Calgary Stampede rodeo is profoundly linked to the region’s ranching culture and heritage.

The Wild West shows that toured North America in the late 1800s had a major role in shaping popular images of cowboy life. Performances mythologized the “old west” and created an entertainment culture that featured riding, roping and shooting.

However, Calgary Stampede founder Guy Weadick had a different vision. His dream was to create a genuine cowboy contest that tested the skills and horsemanship required by working cowboys. So for the first Calgary Stampede in 1912, cowboys (and cowgirls) gathered from across North America to test their wrangling skills in the burgeoning sport of rodeo.

Some early events did grow out of the Wild West genre — such as bulldogging (steer wrestling) — invented by Wild West performer Bill Pickett — or buffalo riding, which would never have taken place historically.  Other events, however, emerged from ranching traditions: saddlebronc riding, tie-down roping, and bareback riding all originated from roundup and branding activities.

During spring roundups in the late 1800s, cowboys would gather the cattle that had wandered on the range during winter months, and brand the new calves. Ropers were key figures in the branding corrals, and many went on to win championships in rodeo events. One of the outstanding ropers at the Bar U ranch in the 1920s, for example, was a Nakoda cowhand, Jonas Rider, who was known for his exceptional speed and dexterity. He became the Calf Roping champion at the Calgary Stampede in 1923 and was a top contestant through the rest of the decade. 

Clearly as time has passed the lines between historical working cowboys, rodeo cowboys, and romanticized Hollywood cowboys have blurred. But the western heritage and values that the Calgary Stampede promotes and preserves, in significant part through its western events, have authentic roots in the local conditions, economy, and culture of the region in the late 19th and early 20th centuries.

For decades the rodeo has grown & evolved attracting the top cowboys in the world of professional rodeo. A quick scan of the Stampede list of past winners reveals a wagonload of  legendary names…some of the biggest names in the sport have laid claim to the title of Calgary Stampede Champion.

Prime Minister  Pierre Trudeau takes in the Calgary Stampede Rodeo, July 1978

A major turning point in the history of the Stampede Rodeo came 1982 awarding a half million dollars with a winner take all showdown Sunday  final with the fifty thousand dollars going to the winner of each event. 

Flint Rasmusen In The Barrel

Flint Rasmusen In The Barrel

 

 In 2006, the Stampede made an innovative change by introducing tournament style rodeo. The contestants are divided into 2 pools, with cash prizes for each event, and the top 4 in each pool advance to Showdown Sunday, a single "go for broke" competition. The remaining competitors in each pool compete on Wild Card Saturday, with the top 2 continuing on to the Sunday event, at which more than $1 million is awarded.

 

Rangeland Derby

 

The very first chuckwagon competition at the Calgary Stampede occurred in 1923. Stampede founder Guy Weadick recruited ranchers to enter their chuckwagon and roundup crews in competition, and the Rangeland Derby was born.

Billed as the No. 10 Event evening competition, the "Cowboy's Chuck-Wagon Race" offered purses and prizes totaling $275. An outfit consisted of four horses, a wagon, a driver and four helpers. The Yukon's Bill Sommers won the first race. For the Official Canadian Championship, each outfit was required to "Cut a figure eight around barrels, out through backstretch into track, run around track back to camp ground, unhook team from wagon, stretch fly. No less than two stakes, and make fire. First smoke decides winner."

First place Day Money was $25, with $15 and $10 for second and third. The entrant winning the greatest number of races out of five was awarded a special prize: a $25 John B. Stetson hat.

Over the years the sport and the format evolved. In 1975 entry became limited to the top 32 outfits from the Canadian Professional Rodeo Association. In subsequent years various independents and rodeo associations were invited to compete. Currently the Stampede invites the top 16 drivers and outfits from the previous year's GMC Rangeland Derby back, joining a selection of drivers from the two professional circuits.

That pounding of hooves and trembling of the ground can mean only one thing; the world’s premier chuckwagon event has begun! Witness all the heart-stopping action over nine nightly heats as 36 drivers, supported by their outriders and 216 horses vie for over $1.15 million in total prize money. Races start nightly at 7:45 pm. The world famous Grandstand Show follows.

 

Stampede Ranch

 

The Calgary Stampede Ranch covers a total of 23,000 acres and provides the Stampede with a beautiful natural environment for its renowned “Born to Buck” breeding program. Since 1961, the Ranch has built up its herd of rough stock horses to approximately 600, boasting the most elite athletes of the rodeo world. Bred for specific genetic traits, Calgary Stampede horses enjoy one of the most natural herd environments anywhere, raised for years on the land with minimal human contact and with a focus on natural herd social dynamics.  The herd feasts on a diet of free-range grass, oats and hay, and share their pastureland and meandering Bullpound Creek with indigenous species such as white tail and mule deer, pronghorn antelope, and many species of birds and small mammals.

The herd receives regular medical checkups and maintenance to keep them disease-free and strong. Around 200 horses from the herd compete in pro rodeos in any given year. The busiest will only buck 15 times in a year, spending just 30 days on the road travelling to the dozens of big international rodeos where Stampede Ranch is renowned for the world-class calibre, power and consistency of its competitive horses.

With 600 horses in the Stampede Ranch’s herd, about 200 are actively competing in any given year. Whether they’re competing or roaming the range full-time, all of these specially-bred horses enjoy one of the most natural horse herd dynamics found anywhere - roaming in open pastureland on the expansive 23,000-acre environment, with the benefit of top-notch medical care and maintenance.

Once they have matured, the Stampede uses gradual exposure and positive reinforcement to encourage more of what these horses do naturally – buck off riders. Even those horses who become elite superstars buck only 15 times maximum in a year, enjoying the rest of their time in a pasture setting with their social groups, which include past stars retired to pasture and the breeding stock who nurture the latest crop of strong athletic colts.

Because of the quality and reputation of its breeding program, Stampede Ranch provides horses for more than two dozen of the the most elite professional rodeos across North America, such as Rodeo Houston, National Finals  Rodeo, Canadian Finals Rodeo and more.  The Ranch’s younger and developing stock is provided to rodeo schools and college rodeos to build the horses’ confidence and performance.

The Calgary Stampede is one of the few rodeos in the world with its own herd of rough stock horses, easily spotted by the distinctive C lazy S brand on the left shoulder of Stampede-bred stock.

Six Time Bucking Horse of the Year, Grated Coconut

Cowboys know when they draw a Stampede Ranch horse, they’ve got a great opportunity at being in the money because the horse will do its’ half to score top points.

Thank you to CalgaryStampede.com for the resources contributing to this story. To order tickets for the Rodeo, Rangeland Derby Chuckwagon Races & Evening Grandstand Show head over to CalgaryStampede.com 

In tomorrow’s edition of the Cowboy Courier we take a look back at he Stampede turning 100.  This is Cowboy Courier….Your Connection to the Western Community.