By 1912, it was clear that the days of the wide-open unfenced prairie were numbered in Alberta. That year a special demonstration of cowboy work and skill was arranged in Calgary as “a fitting finale to the glorious history of this justly celebrated range.”
But far from being a farewell to cowboys and dogies, bucking horses and wild cows, Calgary’s first Stampede opened a new era in cowboy sports. The rodeo has become an annual event – July 5th to 10th this year—with each year’s attendance topping previous records.
The Stampede idea grew out of spontaneous contests amount the cowhands themselves, and the events stemmed from the daily work of a cattle ranch. These tasks called for special dexterity with a rope, thorough knowledge of the job, co-operation of the cowpony, and split-second timing. They still do. Top riders from the rangelands of Canada and the United States risk life and limb for the valuable purses and trophies awarded.
The correct name is the “Calgary Exhibition and Stampede,” and the displays of livestock, agricultural machinery and household appliances form a showcase of western industry. But somehow the Exhibition pales beside the Stampede, “the greatest outdoor show on earth.” A prize Hereford, knee-deep in fresh straw, laundered and marcelled and placid, doesn’t kindle the same excitement as his wild-eyed cousin fresh from the coulees, snorting and tossing a rider into the dust.
The Exhibition and Stampede grounds cover 60 acres of Victoria Park in Calgary. The northwestern corner is reserved for the Indian village, where Blackfoot, Sarcee and Stoney Indians set up huge gaily-painted tipis. Ponies are tied to nearby hitching rails. Camp dogs snooze in the shade of prairie wagons, and children play, or pose for visitors’ cameras in fur and feathers.
Stampede Week opens with a colourful parade of pioneers, officials on palomino horses, dude ranch floats, Mounted Police in scarlet uniforms, Indians in beads and buckskin, high-stepping drum majorettes and school bands, to mention but a few. The parade takes all Monday morning.
Each afternoon, the events in the arena are varied with horseracing, with trick and fancy riding, and clown antics. The centre-field events include riding bucking horses, with and without saddle, calf-roping, catching and saddling wild horses, decorating steers, boys’ wild steer riding, and wild cow milking. It is a program crowded with tension and hilarity.
The evening program begins with the chuck-wagon races. These covered wagons represent the cook-wagons that follow the roundups on very large ranches, and serve as home for the cook. Four wagons, each with driver and four outriders and four matched thoroughbred horses, compete in every heat of the evening event. These races are found only in Alberta stampedes, and the dust and excitement rise to a dizzying pitch. Immediately after the races comes the grandstand show of vaudeville and fireworks. Prizes are awarded to contest winners on Saturday night.
To keep this huge exhibition running smoothly calls for a full-time general manager and board of directors, and months of preliminary effort. During Stampede Week, the small permanent staff is increased by hundreds of temporary employees.
The success of the Calgary Exhibition and Stampede is due not only to the efforts of these people, but also to the active participation of Calgary citizens. Clerks and waitresses, and even the street-cleaners, don western garb. Their colourful silk neckerchiefs, wide hats and snug-fitting clothing plus the informal friendliness of the Foothills City contribute immensely to the gaiety and animation of Stampede Week.
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