This classic 1978 photo shows legendary Chuckwagon ‘king’ Tommy Dorchester reining in another winner in front of a packed and thrilled crowd at the Ponoka Stampede. The late Mr. Dorchester’s long and colorful rodeo and racing career began at the Ferrybank Stampedes in the 1930s

The glorious saga of the thrilling sport of chuckwagon racing

This week's Reflections looks at the history of chuckwagon racing.

The flash, dash and thrills of the long-standing and overwhelmingly popular sport of professional chuckwagon racing likely had its roots deeply set in the wild and wooly history of the old west dating all the way back to the late 18th century. Legend has it that in this very early era out on the rolling prairies, the rugged ranch hands would work long hours tending to the massive and wandering herds, and at the end of each day those rugged cowboys always looked forward to returning to camp.

After shaking off the dust and maybe even a quick dip in the nearby creek, those hardy lads loved to gather around the chuck wagon for a bountiful meal of beef, beans, biscuits and coffee. It was then the best time to relax around the roaring fire for some grand old songs and stories with friends followed by a few hours of well earned rest. At the end of the week all the cowboys in the area would meet up and head to town for some entertainment and fun, with the rule being that the last one in would buy the first round at the local saloon. This would result in an exciting session of hustle and bustle as everyone rushed to break camp, loaded up their wagons and headed out onto the dusty road to race into town.

That same keen spirit of camaraderie and competition to show the best team would carry on each and every summer, and would magnificently result in Alberta’s first official chuckwagon racing competition at the Calgary Stampede in 1923, with six outfits competing for over $200 in prize money. This initial dream of early rodeo legend Guy Weadick created instant success, attracting avid family fans from near and far and encouraging many communities in Alberta and beyond to add chuckwagon racing to their local rodeos and fairs in the exciting years to follow.

The Canadian Professional Chuckwagon Association started in the late 1940s in farming communities all across Alberta and Saskatchewan, where farmers and ranchers would gather at a local track in a level field and race horses hitched to a grain wagon. Some of the early legends of the track included Josh Delaronde, John and George Stupka, Glen Ronald and the Ouelettes, and then heading in the mid-60s, the more serious chuckwagon rigs such as Allan Bensmiller from Dewberry and Slim Helmig of Esterhazy, Saskatchewan began showing up at the races. As the sport became more popular and the prize money grew into the late 1960s and early 70s, an Association of Rodeo Committees was formed and organized racing events in many new towns and cities throughout Alberta and Saskatchewan. Probably the most significant occurrence in the colorful history of chuckwagon racing came in 1995 when the Canadian Professionals Chuckwagon Association was formed as a new image and concept going into the 1990s and roaring into the 21st century.

When the chucks came to Ponoka

The 5 cent Souvenir program of the July 1-2, 1942 Ponoka Stampede announced that the thrilling spectacular of the first covered wagon races of 1887 would be enacted in front of the big grandstand in traditional western style and starring Alberta’s finest chuck wagon outfits driven by Tom Lauder, Slim Swain and Theo Thage. As our local stampede and fair grew by leaps and bounds so did the wagon racing programs, with six to nine heats a night of thundering hooves and wagons, all vying for a piece of the prize money, that grew rapidly from $300 in 1953 to the present day purses of many thousands of dollars.

Over the years the 5/8 of a mile track at the Ponoka Stampede has been carefully groomed to become one of the finest in the world of professional chuckwagon racing, which has attracted the very best wagons, drivers and highly skilled outriders on the prairies for nine thrilling four wagon heats before huge and avid crowds every night. Household and legendary family names on the summer chuckwagon circuit for many decades have included Shecktar, Shantz, Burkinshaw, Vigen, Glass, Dorchester, Cosgrave, Normand, Sutherland, Sandquist, Bawden, Wagenbach, Fraser, Bensmiller, Johnston, Gorst, Flad, Bremnar, Knight, Irvine, Tournier, McGillivray, Motowylo, and on and on, with the keen and thundering competition getting tougher each and every season thanks to the dedicated generations and a host of gung-ho newcomers, who can’t wait to circle the barrels and hit the track at every meet. So get ready to relax in the stands from June 28 to July 3, pick your favourite rig, brings lots of toonies, and cheer on the greatest wagon racing sport in the world.

 

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