The Calgary Stampede at 100

It may be over-the-top and at times dangerous, but Calgary’s Wild West show is the best party in Canada

A bronc’s tale

Photograph by David Campion

A bronc’s tale
Photograph by David Campion

How did Calgary become the world capital of rodeo, the annual home of the “Greatest Outdoor Show on Earth,” the place most specially consecrated to the spirit of the cowboy? It is a rather odd circumstance: Americans must think something went badly awry on the map to have “Cowtown” end up north of the 49th parallel, in the old British Empire. It turns out that the whole thing was thought up by a johnny-come-lately who had nowhere else to turn.

Guy Weadick was born into a New York family of fast-talking Irish-American lawyers in 1885. That’s the year the last spike was driven into the Canadian Pacific Railway and Louis Riel helped the Metis stage their doomed bid for autonomy in the West. Weadick was only eight years old when the historian F.J. Turner blew the game-over whistle on the march of the American frontier. But with a head full of dime novels, young Weadick skipped Rochester to seek out the last cooling embers of the Wild West. The northern edge of the Great Plains is where he found them, spending time on Alberta ranches in 1904 and 1905.

Weadick developed riding and roping skills good enough to earn him a spot in Buffalo Bill Cody’s Wild West Show. Cody’s show and others like it brought the splendour and drama of the West to the world. But unlike Cody, the stylish, audacious Weadick was motivated by a sense of sacred mission: he thought the frontier should be commemorated in the West, for the West, with the world as invited guests.

Calgary became the venue for that dream because, when Weadick went looking for backers, the city’s business elite still consisted of cattlemen who mourned the open range and could remember young manhoods spent on horseback. The “Big Four” who bankrolled the original one-off 1912 Stampede are still revered, as is Weadick, in Calgary. The exercise was repeated as a war victory celebration in 1919, and within a few years the city’s flagging industrial exhibition was merged permanently with the Stampede.

Weadick’s generation of latecomers to the West included influential friends like Charles Russell, the dean of Old West painters, and Hollywood cowboy Hoot Gibson, who competed in steer roping at the first Stampede. Gibson starred in a hit 1925 silent movie, The Calgary Stampede, that helped establish the event as the de facto world championship of rodeo. Weadick insisted on driving this home with the highest judging standards and the biggest purses. They’re still the biggest in outdoor rodeo: today the prizes run to $2 million, including over $1 million for the Rangeland Derby chuckwagon races. (Although the derby is a particular target for animal-welfare activism because of the frequency with which it kills horses, it is considered nearly untouchable—not only because the event was substantially invented for the Stampede, but because the coverings on the wagons make it a big earner of advertising dollars.)

Bronc's tale
Photograph by David Campion

By the 1930s, the Calgary Stampede had become synonymous with rodeo competition; a 1933 print ad for Camel cigarettes uses it as a credential and it features the dazzling grin of double all-round Stampede champion Eddie Woods, who says “it takes healthy nerves to stay on board a fighting bronc.” By the 1950s, it was routine for the Stampede to attract both Hollywood royalty and the real thing. Performers associated with the West have followed Gibson’s example consistently in making the pilgrimage, from Roy Rogers and TV’s “Cisco Kid” Duncan Renaldo to Kevin Costner and Robert Duvall. The Queen has visited four times, including once in 1951 as Princess Elizabeth; the Prince of Wales was parade marshal in 1977, and his son, the duke of Cambridge, brought his new bride to open the Stampede last year.

Yet there are those in Calgary who, in their most secret of hearts, would love to abolish the Stampede and wipe out its memory. The Stampede, to the Calgarian, is both curse and blessing, and when all the curses are thrown into the balance, you cannot help being impressed by their weight. For starters, the Stampede kills. And we’re not just talking about the chuckwagon races. There’s a scholarly paper from 2006 in which statisticians from Montreal and Edmonton wrote about their efforts to develop forecasting models for EMS demand in Calgary. They found the numbers don’t quite work unless the Stampede is included as a variable: ambulance and rescue services become so busy during the 10-day party that it throws all the equations off-kilter.

The Stampede itself is very solvent, earning an operating surplus of $3.1 million in 2011, but if the costs and benefits to the city were all counted up, the former would have to include the salaries of the thousands of high-paid Calgary professionals who see major parts of their calendar devoured by Stampede preparations and aftermath. It would include the tacit outright cancellation of nine-to-five work for the duration of the Stampede at key Calgary oil patch companies and law firms. And it would include the arms race of conspicuous consumption that sees expensive entertainers like Cirque du Soleil and the Tragically Hip brought into town for exclusive corporate affairs at Stampede time.

Meanwhile, the perceived importance of the Stampede has led to the entrenchment of a shadowy, at least slightly sinister relationship between the city’s government and the Stampede board. It took a long skein of bailouts, sweetheart deals and low-interest loans from Calgary’s city government to make the show what it is today. Over the decades, Calgary has repeatedly used its power to borrow cheaply to fund Stampede expansions, and even expropriated land outright in the Victoria Park neighbourhood in the late 1960s when some homeowners were reluctant to sell. Because the city technically owns the Stampede grounds, the Stampede pays no property tax on them. Conflicts of interest are rampant and ignored, except on those occasions when the Stampede tries to pull off some particularly ambitious business or real estate deal. Local media know they must tread carefully before broadcasting or printing anything even slightly negative about the various entities that sustain the city’s totemistic event.

Of course the Stampede has made the name of Calgary world-famous. Calgarians abroad are as sure to be asked about their Stampede as Edmontonians are to be asked about their big mall. But the marketing effect is double-edged. Andy Sayers, a communications specialist for a mid-sized Calgary oil-patch-service company, says he and others in his field “struggle with themselves” every year as the bacchanal he compares to “the last days of Rome” approaches. “I spend most of my time trying to inculcate the image of our firm as ultra-modern thought leaders,” he says. “Then I have to create the invitations to our Stampede event. It’s tricky to wrap yourself in the blanket of the Stampede—to offer a down-home feeling to visitors without making yourselves look small-time.”

The lesser charges against the Stampede could be compounded until the indictment was as long as the midway. Health freaks carp about the way Calgarian arteries are insulted annually by a Black Mass of bad eating, one in which the unholy trinity of red meat, refined sugar and deep-frying all have starring roles (and, as with the surprisingly appetizing doughnut burger, occasionally all appear in the same dish). The pressure on emergency medicine created by the Stampede is matched, if not surpassed, by the chaos it brings to the city’s sexual health clinic. Some critics have complained almost from the beginning that the Stampede casts Indians, however subtly, as fossilized human curios. (As recently as 1968, Indian participants in the Stampede parade were politely asked to leave their eyeglasses at home, for fear it would spoil the patina of pre-Columbian innocence.) And then there are the sticklers for authenticity, the pedants who concede that, yes, the cowboy may have enjoyed a brief heyday in what is now Western Canada, but Stetsons are an odious Americanism, and white sure isn’t a very practical colour for a working cattleman’s headgear. (The white hat was introduced by local hat-maker Morris Shumiatcher in 1946 and became a symbol during the famous Toronto excursion for the 1948 Grey Cup.)

On the whole, however, Calgary wouldn’t have things any other way. Few cities, and none in Canada, have managed to create a homecoming/tourist attraction/feast of such magnitude and allure. Because no one individual owns or controls the Stampede, it is left to evolve organically, and has never suffered sudden top-down rebranding or repackaging. The components of the Stampede are allowed to wax and wane gently in popularity; as polite opinion has become more uneasy with the machismo of rodeo events, for example, the Stampede proper has become a fairly negligible part of Stampede week in the eyes of many Calgarians. Plenty, like articling student and long-time Calgarian Noel Jarvis, have never been.

“I’ve attended about 20 Stampedes and never bothered,” he says. “It’s not that I don’t like rodeo: I actually love going to the one in Strathmore, where I went to high school. It’s more meaningful to the community there, more integrated with its setting. There are hard-core rodeo fans in Calgary, but the rodeo events at Stampede are definitely more for visitors.”

On the other hand, nobody speaks ill of the pancake breakfasts that now dominate the week for many Calgarians, and that serve as something of a probe into the suburbs for the Stampede spirit. Improvised cowboy cookouts in the streets of Calgary were a feature of the Stampede’s earliest incarnations; pancakes signified resourcefulness, hardihood, simplicity. But as Calgary has evolved into a multi-ethnic capital, the concept of the “pancake breakfast” has proved unexpectedly adaptable.

The annual Ismaili Muslim breakfast was regarded as a Stampede essential since long before Calgary elected its Ismaili mayor, Naheed Nenshi. Granola types bring their own plates to the Healthy and Organic Stampede Breakfast, a highly regarded refuge for vegetarians. The Mormons do a breakfast. An animal shelter does a pet-friendly breakfast. Buddhist temples and synagogues do breakfasts. Consciously built-in “diversity” somehow just doesn’t compete with the real, uncoerced, unplanned thing.

University of Calgary computer science graduate student Leanne Wu, who just returned from her tenure as a Google Anita Borg scholar in Silicon Valley, warns against underestimating the power of such symbolism. The Calgarian Wu has, from childhood, seen the Stampede through an ever-shifting kaleidoscope of biography. “It’s sort of been a love-hate relationship,” she says. “Everybody becomes a bit disenchanted with the Stampede in their twenties. Before I moved away from Calgary for the first time, I was mostly interested in who was playing the Coca-Cola stage or Nashville North.”

Now, she is eager to be home for the centennial. It wasn’t just growing up and seeing what’s missing elsewhere that taught her to appreciate the Stampede: it was being in Calgary and having social responsibility for other graduate students from the four corners of the Earth. “They usually want to go all out at Stampede. They want the hat, the belt buckle, the boots. What opens their eyes to Canadian culture is seeing dal and roti served at a ‘pancake breakfast.’ ” Wu, whose boyfriend hails from Cochrane, Alta., adds that Calgarian urbanites and new Canadians alike might be scarcely aware that there was a Canada beyond the city limits if it weren’t for the agriculture features of the Stampede.

The Stampede, in other words, is a great devourer of contradictions. It celebrates the rural—while passing a million people through a 193-acre festival ground over 10 days. It brings reminders of pre-industrial innocence, with sponsorship from TransAlta Utilities, and glories in the beauty of pre-automotive animal power, with sponsorship from General Motors. It exalts the spirit of the cowboy, but was founded by men who exploited actual cowboys for every cent they could extract from their hides. It upholds the virtues of simplicity and making do, even as unseen billionaires guzzle champagne in hotel suites that would stun a sheik. It suffers the endless criticism of “animal lovers” who have never cared for a creature more complicated or intelligent than a budgerigar. It frappés together the fence-cutting American frontier individualist and the paramilitary, imperialist mounted policeman. It is equal parts Hollywood and Rocky Mountain House. Everyone should see and do Stampede once, but there is no hurry: it will always be there, every year, for as long as there is a Calgary.

All images from Cowboy Wild: Photographs by David Campion. Published by Rocky Mountain Books.