Celebrating our Centennial
The first Calgary Stampede was held in 1912. Guy Weadick organized it as a tribute to western heritage and values. Over the last 100 years, the Stampede has stayed true to that mandate.
By Tina Zakowsky | May 27, 2012
For 10 days every July, the city of Calgary transforms into a tribute to the Wild West era. Downtown lawyers and chief executive officers of multinational corporations trade their business suits for blue jeans and cowboy boots. Companies decorate their office buildings and retail locations 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 Stampede spirit and celebrate our 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, there was a Calgary Exhibition. 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 race track, cattle sheds and an exhibition building. This land remains the site of Stampede Park today.
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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 from September 2-7, 1912.
The 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 people. 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 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 a “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, 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 calf 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.
1946 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 people for the first time. This attendance threshold has been met or exceeded at every Stampede since 1985. 1979 saw the first chuckwagon canvas auction, where businesses 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, at the time the richest prize ever offered in the history of the sport. Today’s Stampede Rodeo is still among the world’s richest rodeos, offering more than $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.
The Calgary Stampede is a nonprofit 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 our cowboy heritage. Here’s more about the four citizens who funded Guy’s dream:
George Lane and his partners purchased the Bar U Ranch. George was an excellent cowboy and a leader. He achieved international recognition as a centre of breeding excellence for cattle and purebred Percheron horses between 1902 and 1925. His world-class Percherons were bred to meet the demand for draught horses by homestead settlers.
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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 Company 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. 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 is currently on maternity leave from her job at the Canadian Angus Association. She may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org