By Mike Rainone and Marty Schmidt for the News
As I was putting all my stories together this month for the Ponoka News Stampede edition I suddenly realized that little old me has been around for 61 of the 83 Ponoka Stampedes that this community looks so forward to hosting each and every summer. Our little English family arrived here in the winter of 1948 when I was just six years old, but I can still fondly remember our first summer when we got so excited about going downtown and seeing our first Stampede parade, where everyone waved to each other and they even tossed candy and treats out to the kids. How thrilling it was to go up to the rodeo grounds, ride my first pony, and then wander around the noisy midway with my parents and being awed by all family fun, glitz, rodeo action, and happy crowds.
Stampede memories are made of this. My good friend Marty Schmidt and I were chatting over coffee last Friday while a June snowstorm was raging outside and had some great fun and chuckles coming up with our favourite memories of growing up in and around our great community during the Ponoka Stampede, and we are always pleased to share them with you.
The humble beginnings of our now internationally famous Stampede likely came in 1931 when the Ponoka Sports Association was formed, and an inspired group of locals took over the grounds at the south-west end of town from the Ponoka Agricultural Society. Over the years new corrals, bleachers, and the first grandstand were built up on the big hill, which would host popular family summer events such as fairs, ball games, races, dances, and the new wild and wonderful sports of rodeo and chuck wagon racing! The extreme popularity of this gala one-day event would catch on quickly in our community and districts, as well as throughout central Alberta and the province. In 1936 the newly formed Ponoka Stampede Association would host their first Ponoka Stampede, which over the years would rapidly expand to the present week long wild-wild west family showdown, which annually attracts thousands of avid rodeo fans and families to party-hardy in our friendly community late in the month of June.
Along the way there were many milestones that would assure the amazing growth and successes of the Ponoka Stampede. In 1945 the Crescent Shows were the first motorized Midway to join the Stampede and in 1946 the PSA became a part of the Cowboy’s Protective Association, which assured the attraction of the best rodeo competitors in the nation to compete for top prize money. In 1954 the PSA would proudly support the celebration of Ponoka’s 50th Anniversary celebrations and then in 2004 would honour our gala 100th birthday, while their yearly parade themes always proudly supports and honours local community celebrations, groups, individuals, and special causes. In 1956 record crowds of 10,000 would attend the two-day Stampede, which also drew over 90 of the world’s best professional rodeo stars as well as celebrating the crowning of our first Rodeo Queen. The 1959 Ponoka Stampede would establish another record crowd of 28,000 to cheer on the two-day event and also welcomed the first Old Timer’s Rodeo. Spacious new grandstands were added to the grounds in the 1990s and again this year, the chuckwagon track was rebuilt, and an exciting list of improvements and new attractions have carried on each and every year.
To those of us who grew up in and around Ponoka, the biggest event next to Christmas was the Ponoka Stampede. It was so exciting when everyone around town started to dress-up and prepare for the big July long weekend showdown. What a joy it was when the Gayland Midway and all the “carnies” rolled into town and teenagers would rush up to the grounds to try to get a job setting up all the rides and booths and teasing the animals. Whatever we earned we quickly spent getting a thrilling ride on the Tilta-Wirl, the Ferris wheel, the Boomerang, and all the others, then got stuffed with candy floss, coca-cola, french fries, mini-donuts, and all the rest. Along the way we will always try to impress our gal-pals by taking them to all the scary attractions such as the haunted house or got close and personal with all the creepy characters from the Jungles of Africa or boldly attempted to win her a big and cuddly stuffed animal by tossing a ball or ringing the bell.
What a thrill it is for everyone to wrangle a spot near the infield or up in the stands to watch, listen to, and cheer for all the hot and heavy action of the talented contestants and their stock in each thrilling event, with an extra holler always thrown in for our home town guys and gals. Everyone always looks forward to the joy of catching the supreme antics and skills of the clowns, the bull-fighters, the trick riders, the hype of the announcers, the appreciative and boisterous response of the packed crowds, and so much more, each and every day. In the evening the whole scene will transform into the thunderous roar of the chuckwagons around the infamous half mile of hell, the sparkling lights of the midway, the magic of the international entertainers, the beer gardens, and the closing splendour of the magnificent fireworks.
Of course everyone has always loved the Ponoka Stampede parade, which will roll out onto the streets of town on Friday, June 28 at 10 a.m. We will cheer as always for the fancy floats, the politicians and special guests in the convertibles, the marching bands, the clowns, the local First Nations people with their traditional song and costumes, the magnificent horses and riders, the amazing vehicles and equipment of yesterday and today, kids on bikes, and a preview of some of the best rodeo and chuckwagon stars in the world. A tip of the stetson to the generations of Ponoka Stampede Association members, to our congenial and welcoming community, and to the hundreds of willing volunteers who have faithfully come together to make it all happen for the past 83 years. The grand tradition of the Wild West of ’36 just keeps on going.