Where rodeo and prairie romances were born

This week's Reflections looks at the history of rodeo in the prairie provinces.

In the early 1900s just about everyone from far and wide took whatever transportation they could find and came out in their finest to the annual Ferrybank/Chesterwold Stampede

In the early 1900s just about everyone from far and wide took whatever transportation they could find and came out in their finest to the annual Ferrybank/Chesterwold Stampede

It was several centuries ago that the proud and highly skilled and spirited Spanish cattleman known as Vaqueros worked long and hard hours on the huge ranches of North America driving, tending to and taming thousands of head of cattle and horses. Their riding and roping skills were unmatched in the world, but during their spare time, their daredevil antics and friendly competitions and wagers in a head-to-head match with the rowdy stock was likely the humble beginnings of our colorful sport of rodeo. The history books suggest that the very first organized rodeo event was held in 1864 when two groups of cowboys from neighbouring ranches gathered to settle an argument by challenging a pen of rough stock in Deer Park, Colorado.

Rolling into the 19th century, the new and thrilling sport of rodeo had spread quickly across the United States and into the Alberta prairies at any location where they could put up a set of sturdy wooden corals, a rickety grandstand and a place to sell treats and spirits to rambunctious crowds of all ages. In 1912, Guy Weadrick, Western movie star Hoot Gibson and the world’s first lady trick rider and bull-dogger Tillie Baldwin, headlined the first gala Calgary Stampede, which took over the city in a wild week of whoopla and riding and roping competitions that has just kept on going and growing ever since. By 1920, the horse population of Alberta had outnumbered the people by 800,000 to 600,000 as they had thrived on the rich rolling foothills and had to be patiently tamed and trained by rugged ranch hands to toil on the farms, in the mines and building the roads, for all sorts of transportation, and of course, to work and compete in the now tremendously popular sport of professional rodeo throughout North America.

A grand old country picnic and rodeo

In the early 1900s, folks out in the Chesterwold-Ferrybank districts west of Ponoka really enjoyed taking a little time off work on the weekends to gather for their annual community picnic at the Chesterwold Hall. In 1914, a huge work bee was held at the popular hall sight, and the amazing results would include the clearing and grading of a half-mile race track, a permanent concession booth, a small grandstand and a bucking corral and chutes. The first milestone summer event would be the Chesterwold/Ferrybank Stampede, which attracted hundreds of contestants and spectators from miles around to enjoy a grand day of horse races for men and women, relay races, saddle and Roman racing, bronc riding, children’s races and baseball and basketball games. Everyone always brought along all sorts of fine food for the all-day picnic, and then in the evening, there were suppers and dancing, with lots of beverages available for all ages.

In those good old days, there were some great baseball teams in all the districts, who always really looked forward to competing at the picnics and Stampedes, while Chesterwold also had a real ‘swinging’ ladies’ basketball team. All this action gave the young ladies of the surrounding districts the opportunity to hitch up their horses and ride to the grounds to play, and then of course they would stay to cheer and watch the boys play baseball. After the picnic and dance, one of the boys might agree to ride home with them, and over those early years, countless friendships and matches were generated during these friendly weekend events, and would eventually guarantee that the proud family generations would carry on for many exciting decades.

It was on these dusty early fair grounds that the thrilling sport of Roman racing was born, with pairs of very brave cowboys standing on the back of the horses while racing around the dusty track at high speeds. A few years later, someone came up with a zany idea of hitching up their best teams to the cook wagon and dashing across the rough countryside to see who could make it to the next campsite first, which would later evolve into the thrilling chuckwagon/chariot events. Some of those talented early rodeo stars included Nettie Clark, the Doran brothers and sisters, Guy Kirk, the Aylwin boys, Tom and Len Dorchester, Ray Graham, Ollie Armstrong, Stan Caithness, George McKeddie and on and on. Many of these feisty competitors got the chance to hit ‘the big time’ by going down the road in search of a trophy buckle, saddle, and a little bit of cash or fame on the fast growing Alberta Rodeo circuit, and along the way were followed in later years by the Butterfields, the Volds, the Dodds and countless other local men and women and families who have proudly carried on our proud and colorful rodeo tradition as avid competitors, promoters and fans.