Rod Warren remembers vividly the first time he competed professionally at the Calgary Stampede. It was 1989 and Warren, a 21-year-old greenhorn from the northern Alberta community of Valleyview, found himself in the company of riders he had idolized while growing up. "It was pretty amazing," recalls Warren. "There were all these world and Canadian champions, and so much history and tradition about the place." Warren, now 34, is the reigning Canadian All Around Champion (his events are saddle bronc riding and steer wrestling) and spends up to 10 months of the year travelling the North American rodeo circuit, from southern Florida to northern Alberta. He competes in about 100 rodeos, but the Stampede remains his favourite. "Calgary brings together the top horses and the top riders," says Warren. "It's the best rodeo you're going to see."
It was ever thus. The Calgary Stampede, which marks its 90th anniversary on July 5, has always been in a league of its own. When it began in 1912, 25,000 spectators (the population of Calgary was only 45,000 at the time) crowded around an oval arena at the confluence of the Bow and Elbow rivers to watch more than 150 competitors from Western Canada and the United States vie for a piece of the largest rodeo purse ever offered - $20,000 in gold. The crowd witnessed a pageant of bronc busting, calf roping and steer wrestling, the likes of which had never before been assembled. From the outset, the event bore a boastful brand: "The Greatest Outdoor Show On Earth."
The man who gave it that moniker was a tireless promoter by the name of Guy Weadick. Born in Rochester, N.Y., in 1885, Weadick fell in love with the romance of the range and, at 16, left home and cowboyed his way west to Montana. Along the way, he experienced some of the earliest rodeos, which turned essential rangeland skills such as breaking wild horses to the saddle, roping cattle and rounding up steers into a sporting spectacle. Some of the events also found their way into the flashy Wild West shows put on by the likes of William "Buffalo Bill" Cody for the amusement of city slickers across North America and Europe.
Weadick joined the Wild West show circuit, where he met his future wife, Grace Bensell, a trick rope rider who performed under the name of Flores LaDue. Together, they toured the vaudeville halls and circuses of England, continental Europe, Russia - and, finally, Western Canada. After arriving in Calgary in the spring of 1912, Weadick proposed staging a tribute to the rapidly disappearing cowboy life. His goal: to recreate a frontier atmosphere without the glitz and sham of the Wild West shows. The gregarious Weadick convinced Calgary cattle barons George Lane, Alfred Cross, Archie McLean and Patrick Burns (soon to be known as "The Big Four") to each plunk down $25,000 to turn his dream into reality.
Using contacts garnered through years of travel, Weadick put out the word that Calgary was staging a world-class extravaganza. At the time, the city was a study in contrasts. The then eight-storey Palliser Hotel, one of the tallest buildings west of Toronto, was taking shape while just a few blocks away Indians camped in teepees and cowboys rode their horses down Eighth Avenue. Since there were no highways into the city, many Stampede visitors arrived on horseback and by foot. Thousands of people from as far away as Winnipeg took advantage of discounted "Stampede trains" put on by the Canadian Pacific Railway to take in the six days of festivities. After local hotels reached their capacity, tent cities sprang up on river banks and in vacant lots.
The success of the first Stampede helped turn it into an annual event. In 1923, the rodeo merged with the Calgary Industrial Exhibition, an annual agricultural fair dating back to 1886, and Weadick introduced several new wrinkles that have since become part of the Stampede fabric. He encouraged local businesses to erect hitching posts and other frontier facades, convinced ordinary Calgarians to dress up in cowboy garb, and launched the now ubiquitous pancake breakfast. But perhaps the most inspired idea of all was the chuckwagon race, a contest Weadick boasted would be "the greatest race since that guy Ben Hur run his cart races."
Chuckwagons - converted army supply wagons outfitted with a cook's stove and water barrel - were an integral part of the fabled cattle drives of the late 19th century. Crews heading back from roundups often raced their clattering chucks for the last half mile into town. The door of the nearest saloon marked the finish line and the losers treated the winners to a round of drinks. Weadick's version has evolved into a nightly spectacle of nine heats of horse-drawn wagons and outriders careening around a track - often referred to as "the half-mile of hell" - in pursuit of championship titles and a prize purse totaling $600,000. The Ben Hur analogy is apt: negotiating the track's hairpin curves in such a crowded field is a decidedly risky business which, since the 1950s, has seen horrific crashes claim the lives of three competitors and several horses. It remains the Stampede's most popular - and controversial - single event.
Weadick ran the Stampede until 1932 when he had a bitter falling out over cuts to the prize money. At the closing ceremony that year, Weadick, who had been drinking, bellowed at the crowd: "I put on your first Stampede and I just put on your last." Subsequently fired, Weadick sued for wrongful dismissal - and won. The judge, ruling that drinking was a part of his job as a promoter, awarded Weadick six months salary and legal costs. But Weadick remained estranged from the Stampede until 1952 when he rode in the annual parade as an honoured guest. He died a year later and was buried in High River, Alta., where his modest grave marker reads: "Guy George Weadick, founder of the Calgary Stampede and loyal son of his adopted west."
There is nothing modest, though, about Weadick's legacy. Dubbed "Christmas in July" by grateful city merchants, the Stampede has grown into a 10-day blowout which attracts more than 1.2 million people and last year pumped more than $140 million into the local economy. In a city known for its driven corporate culture, Stampede is a time when employees are encouraged to sneak away from work and indulge in an all-day bacchanalia at a seemingly endless round of breakfasts, luncheons and late-night parties where booze flows freely and two-step country music is inescapable. None of this, of course, has much to do with what Weadick set out to create nine decades ago. Even so, the thousands who gather for the afternoon rodeo and evening chuckwagon races are given a glimpse of the Wild West that Weadick so cherished. At times like this, the Greatest Outdoor Show On Earth still lives up to its billing.
Maclean's July 1, 2002