By Mike Rainone
For the News
The thrilling sport of rodeo has over the years attracted millions of avid fans and generations of all ages annually to indoor and outdoor venues in Canada, the United States and throughout the world. Thousands of gritty and multi-talented men and women have been given the exciting opportunity of being able to travel down the road and compete for huge prize purses and distinction. But do we ever pause to wonder where this wild and wonderful confrontation of man and beast really began?
It was likely on our wide-open prairies in the early 1900s that young wranglers took time out of their grueling day on the cattle drive or in the field to have a little fun! The robust challenge was to try and rope a frisky steer or ride a wild horse, and the only reward was the bragging rights around the camp-fire with their buddies, as well as a whole lot of bruises!
We can thank our forefathers and the Ponoka Agricultural Society for introducing the humble beginnings of rodeo and racing to their annual County Fair in our then tiny community. When so many pioneer families invaded Railway Street for the popular one-day event at the turn of the century it had to be eventually relocated to a grassy hill on the southern outskirts of town, which is now the location of the original Ponoka Stampede and Fair grounds.
Early events of this gala summer celebration included games of chance, a few carnival rides, competitions and sales of garden produce and fine home cooking, music, dances and a gala parade. As well as running races for the children a western flavour was added featuring Indian races, bronco busting, wagon races and much more each and every year.
The Ponoka Sports Association was formed in 1920, and as activities and popularity increased on the grounds many facilities were added, including the first wooden grandstand, barns, buildings and on and on. One of the first Stampede events that same year was a fundraiser for the much-needed Ponoka Women’s Restroom, which stood at 5014-51st Avenue for many decades. Prize purses at those early events were likely a few dollars, a ribbon, or a shiny buckle or trophy.
Our first official Ponoka Stampede was held in 1936, and a former First World War veteran and 1922 Alberta Bronc Busting Champion and rodeo legend George McKeddie became the first manager. The thrills and chills of the sport of rodeo attracted fans from Town/ County and afar, and for the 1938 event a total of 6,000 fans would jam the grounds for the one-day hoopla! The action slowed down a little over the war years, but took off again in the mid-40s, as new rodeo stars emerged and many more exciting events were added to accommodate the entire family.
Stories have it that chuck wagon racing came to Ponoka about 1941 with the help of the Dorchester family, who had also been involved in introducing and competing in a host of dare-devil racing events in the surrounding countryside. An early description of this wild new adventure, which first began on the open range, featured the cook’s covered meal wagon being pulled from camp to camp by four of the strongest horses available. It eventually became a grub race, with steel rims added to the wooden wheels and four outriders assigned to toss in an 85 pound stove and tent poles, then lead the charging outfit around a figure eight and on to the dusty track for the dash or crash for glory. Three wagons ran in that first Ponoka race, Slim Fenton was the winner, and so the colourful and thrilling tradition of chuck wagon racing was born
Here are some of the early highlights and milestones of the early years and successes of the little Stampede that just keeps on growing!
*Going into the 50s prize money in the five major rodeo events had reached $400 for the now two day annual rodeo. Harry Vold (Mr. Rodeo) had become the arena manager and always made sure that the best and rankest stock was brought in for the Ponoka Stampede.
*The local Kinsmen and Lions Clubs were very much involved with the carnival part of the Stampede, and other community organizations agreed to join in. Because of the steady growth of the popular rodeo each year the Ponoka Stampede Association recommended that all local clubs be approached regarding the appointment of two members from each group into the non-profit organization.
*In 1952 new bleachers were built on the south side, the chutes were painted, and added attractions to the family event included a dare-devil show, zoo train, bigger midway, and an evening entertainment show and dance.
*In 1954 the Ponoka Stampede Association proudly supported the town’s 50th anniversary celebration, then in 1955 the new event added to the five majors was the Treaty Indian Bareback competition. Prize money had now reached $2,400!
*1956 was a huge year for the Stampede, with a record crowd of 10,000 spectators attending the two-day event, which drew 90 of the nation’s top rodeo stars. The first rodeo Queen contest was also featured.
*In 1959… 28,000 fans took in the rodeo, which had now extended to more days, as well as adding more grandstands, better rest room facilities, a park area, and constantly upgrading infield and track. Local household names in rodeo included the Butterfield boys, the Dodds family, the Volds and on and on. The first old-timers rodeo was held in 1980.
So has it really changed that much over 100 years? The thrills and spills of the sport are still provided to the same huge and knowledgeable crowds by an ever-growing list of talented competitors from throughout the world. These professional athletes face all conditions to challenge the toughest of stock with their best efforts to win just a small piece of the cash and the glory each and every time they enter the infield.
The ongoing growth and success of the Ponoka Stampede has been achieved by the continued dedication and efforts of generations of association members, working very closely with hundreds of super volunteers, and a community that has always been front and centre in keen support of many decades of local rodeo and family fun!