Reflections of Ponoka: A salute to our homegrown Ponoka Stampede legends

As you sit back this week with family and friends to cheer on the thrills and spills of the 77th annual Ponoka Stampede

A jam-packed crowd takes in the nightly chuckwagon and pony wagon racing at the Ponoka Stampede.

A jam-packed crowd takes in the nightly chuckwagon and pony wagon racing at the Ponoka Stampede.

As you sit back this week with family and friends to cheer on the thrills and spills of the 77th annual Ponoka Stampede and casually pause to admire our magnificent surrounding countryside you may not realize that many of our earliest rodeo and wagon racing legends were born or raised in this area many exciting decades ago.

From those rough and tumble early prairie traditions of riding and roping and wrestling the rankest of stock, and from racing the cook wagons to the next camp, stars were born and young generations followed with great gusto to make professional rodeo and chuckwagon racing among the most thrilling and popular spectator sports in the world.

Half a century as a chuckwagon superstar

Tom Dorchester was born and grew up in the Angus Ridge district, lived for a short time in the Sunset district west of Bluffton and then spent most of his married life at Westerose. Always a daring young lad, Tom took part in his first horse race in Wetaskiwin at the age of 11 and won, which likely sparked a lifelong desire to ride and race horses.

As well as competing in chariot races, flat horses and Roman racing in district competitions in the early years, Dorchester started racing cart teams in 1933, then in 1939 he ran his first chuckwagon race in Rimbey. Tom Dorchester’s first chuckwagon milestone came in 1944 at the Calgary Stampede where he out rode for the eventual champion Theo Thage rig; by 1949 he was quickly making his mark as a red hot rookie with his own wagon.

For close to six colorful and exciting decades Tom competed every summer on dusty tracks in Alberta, Saskatchewan, British Columbia, Manitoba, Ontario, and throughout the United States. Along the way with his wife, Joy, and growing family in full support, Tom Dorchester raced his way to over 60 chuckwagon victories, including five central Alberta championships, four world championships, a North American championship in 1976, and so many others. The sport also had its up and downs for the Dorchester chuckwagon crew, including countless mishaps and injuries but because of his sheer grit, great skills, and love for the sport, the legendary Tommy Dorchester would compete with the best for nearly six decades.

Always a daunting but colorful figure on the track or behind the scenes, Dorchester contributed so much to his favourite sport and was rewarded not only with many wins but with countless awards and honours from his peers and his avid fans. These included Chuckwagon Person of the Year, Pioneer of the Rodeo Award, the first chuck wagon driver to be inducted into the Canadian Cowboy Hall of Fame in 1984, a life membership in 1986 for 50 years of competing at the Ponoka Stampede. His last race was at the 1981 Calgary Stampede, after which he retired at the age of 70,and passed his reins, his horses, and his chuckwagon passions onto his sons and grandsons, who have proudly carried on the Dorchester tradition to this very day!

Vigen family came to Alberta in 1919

Alfred, Ernest and Gilbert Vigen, along with Clifford Pickett and Johnny Baumgard, left Dry Forks, Mont. in September 1919 with 60 head of cattle and 40 horses bound for Alberta Canada, where they hoped to claim a new homestead and eventually bring their families to the fertile new promised land. The gruelling trip took 35 days, sleeping under the wagons, outrunning the snow storms and steadily moving the tandem wagons with triple boxes full of settlers’ supplies and effects.

After arriving, Alfred Vigen traded his horses to Phil Becker for a quarter of land in the Iola area and then returned to Montana for the winter and returned in the spring by train with his wife Signa and family, as well as two box cars full of furniture, household equipment and milk cows. After settling in on the farm, they would raise their seven children, Roy, Ernest, Clifford, Vivian, Erma, Ray and Ralph. After completing school, Ralph started driving truck for his father, hauling lumber from the family owned Bear’s Hill Saw Mill.

Ralph joined the army in 1942 and after being discharged in 1945, he and his brother went into the trucking business, hauling for Etter and McDougal until 1948 when he moved to Grande Prairie. He was later joined by Ray and established a lucrative lumber and log hauling business.

Ralph, who married and eventually welcomed six children to the fold, would begin his illustrious career in chuckwagon racing in 1951 as an out-rider for Jack Lauder, then in 1955 he would run his first race with his own outfit at Hand Hills. The diminutive Vigen’s success on the chuckwagon oval became well known throughout the fast growing professional chuckwagon circuit, and would win five world championships, three Calgary Stampede titles, and an amazing eight number 1 finishes at the Ponoka Stampede, where he also suffered a serious leg injury in 1964.

Ralph sold his outfit to Slim Helme in 1969 but would jump back in the wagon box to help out ailing buddy Tom Dorchester in 1970, then drove two of Max Sutherland’s teams, and would mentor an up and coming young out-rider by the name of Kelly Sutherland.

The spirit and successes of Ralph Vigen’s long and outstanding chuckwagon racing career are still proudly represented on the track by family members Mike and Chanse, who you can cheer on, and even make a wager with all the rest every night at 6:30 p.m. from June 26 on at the Ponoka Stampede.