Our little family arrived in town from Wainwright in 1948, which was just two years after the local Sports Association hosted its first gala one-day Rodeo and Family Fair summer event on the same big hill at the north end of town where now, 81 busy and exciting years later, the Ponoka Stampede Association gets set to host Canada’s largest seven-day professional rodeo from June 27 to July 3.
I really don’t remember much about our first few years living in a little shack in the Riverside district, except that we darn near froze to death in the winter, but the summers were hot and great and it was really easy to make lots of friends, especially going to the old Red Brick School. Here are just a few of my favourite early and ongoing memories of growing up in this great town, especially when the cowboys, the noisy Gayland Shows midway and all the rest of hoopla roared into town.
• We couldn’t afford very much in those days, but my parents always took me to the fabulous Ponoka Stampede parade along Railway Street and Chipman Avenue, of which we were all waving and in awe with the horses, the clowns, the bands and baton twirlers, the decorated floats, kids on bikes, the chuck wagons, the old farming equipment, and all the treats that were tossed to the massive crowds. If we had saved up a little money we might get to go up to the grounds and buy some sticky candy floss for five cents, watch the rodeo and races from the big fences, and maybe even get to spend a dime or two on one of the exciting rides or sneak into the spooky haunted house.
• There was always lots of action going on around town day and night during the Stampede, with free breakfasts of stacks of pancakes, sausages, and all the yummy trimmings, super deals during sidewalk sales in front of many of the local stores, entertainment and music at every street corner and in the taverns, and if you were lucky one might get to rub shoulders with a real cowboy, a Stampede Queen, or even a famous celebrity.
• Once we were out of school and old enough we would race up to the grounds to see if we could get a job helping to set up the midway or working in one of the booths or rides. If we made enough money we would blow it on the rides and junk, or we might bring our girlfriend up in the evening to give her a thrill ride or impress her by winning one of those big stuffed animals. Some of us were even brave enough to convince our folks that we were sleeping over with friends, and then all camp out over night in a tent on the grounds to get right into the middle of the action, especially the dances and the fireworks.
• As a Cub Reporter for the Ponoka Herald I got a press pass to cover the rodeo and hang around the media tent. I climbed the fence to try to get a few rodeo action shots but usually got the wrong end of subjects, but my greatest thrill was a face to face encounter with the famous bucking bull Hager one morning in the pens behind the chutes. This huge critter looked kind of docile and bored at the time, but a few hours later out in the infield he had bucked off another determined young bull rider and kept his long standing record of never being ridden intact. I also got to cover the glitzy evening concerts on the big stage in the infield, and really enjoyed volunteering at the beer gardens up at the grounds in the evening or in the big grandstands, but not as a bouncer.
• In later years I helped to greet the dignitaries at the Jubilee Library early on parade morning, then after lunch ushered them quickly into the convertibles that rolled along in the front of the glitzy three-mile long procession. As members and staff of the Ponoka Rising Sun Clubhouse it was a real treat to be able to take part in the parade with our van and float, and then when I worked for the town I got to help supervise the gala weekend Stampede Beer Gardens at the Complex where 1,200 guests enjoyed a great evening of dancing and socializing.
It is always a great week of action and family fun for everyone at the Ponoka Stampede, with the community welcome mat out for thousands of excited rodeo fans from near and far, and this time around the party will also include a glitzy and colourful salute to Canada’s 150th Anniversary. Let’s get ready for the big showdown, submit our order for good weather, and then have a great week, all of you.