Crowd at the Red Deer Fair Grounds. (Photo via Red Deer Archives)

Crowd at the Red Deer Fair Grounds. (Photo via Red Deer Archives)

Michael Dawe: How rodeos started up in Central Alberta

On the Labour Day long weekend, as part of the celebrations of the last weekend of summer, there were rodeos, chuckwagon races and other events throughout Alberta. These included chuckwagon races at Ponoka as well as rodeos at Benalto and Innisfail (at the Daines Rodeo Ranch which celebrated its 60th year).

The history of rodeo in Alberta goes back to the turn of the last century. Many summer and fall rodeo events were held in communities across the province (or more properly “territory” since Alberta was not a province until 1905).

A big boost came in 1912 when Guy Weadick organized the first Calgary Stampede. It was an enormous success, in a large part because Weadick combined traditional rodeo events with several entertainment events that he had learned through his association with Buffalo Bill Cody’s Wild West shows.

On July 23, 1918, the first annual Benalto Fair and Stampede was held, although the rodeo events were limited to bucking horse competitions as well as horse racing. Nevertheless, the event was such a success that it became an annual attraction and has continued for more than a century.

On July 7, 1920, the Hillsdown local of the United Farmers of Alberta held its first annual stampede on a site east of the Hillsdown post office (some 30 km east of Red Deer). The event was such a success that another was held the following year. An added attraction to the 1921 stampede was airplane passenger rides by Captain McCall of Calgary.

Meanwhile, the Red Deer Community Club was formed to boost sports and recreation events in the city, as a means of rebuilding public activities and interests after the devastating First World War and harsh post-war depression.

A proposal was made to have the first major public Labour Day weekend celebration in the community. Initially, the idea was to have a traditional sports day, including a baseball tournament. The event would wrap up with a large public dance in the Armouries, the largest available hall in the Red Deer.

However, with the success of stampedes and rodeos in Central Alberta, despite the ongoing economic hard times and drought, the Community Club decided to add a full-scale stampede to the planned sports day. In particular, a big boost to the idea came with the great success of the Benalto Rodeo and Stampede on July 25 and 26, 1922.

The Red Deer Fairgrounds were rented for the stampede. The ball tournament was set up on a new sports field on the east side of the Central School grounds.

Fred Lund, the local Ford dealer, took on the job of organizing the rodeo events. They included bulldogging, roping contests, steer riding, horse bucking competitions, and various forms of horse racing, including bareback and pony races.

There were no chuckwagon races, which have since become quite a feature at such stampedes as Calgary and Ponoka. Instead, there were Roman and chariot races to add extra attractions.

One specialty event was a potato spearing race which attracted a lot of interest from the cowboys who had registered from the usual rodeo events. Also, the stampede, rodeo and sports events were to be staged on Saturday and Labour Day (Monday) because of the legal restrictions on ticketed events on Sundays.

While the summer of 1922 had been hot and dry, cooler and wet weather came in the later part of August. Fortunately, weather for the entire Labour Day weekend was warm and sunny which helped bring out large crowds.

Interestingly, despite the strong success, the Community Club decided not to organize another similar event in 1923. Instead, in September 1923, the Red Deer Great War Veterans Association (forerunner of the Legion) decided to organize another stampede in Red Deer. The show proved to be so popular that while it was originally planned to last for two days, the event was expanded to three.

An attempt at a September stampede in 1924 was a bust. Many years would pass before another stampede and rodeo was organized in Red Deer again.

Red Deer historian Michael Dawe’s column appears Wednesdays.

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