Every July, Calgary sees a massive influx of people clad in cowboy hats and boots, oversized belt buckles, and, yes, bolo ties.
They’re here for the Calgary Stampede, an annual 10-day shindig that typically draws more than one million people to the Stampede grounds in Victoria Park. In fact, the event temporarily transforms the entire city, as hay bales, horses, and flapjacks become a common sight.
But why? The Calgary Stampede’s origins date back to the 19th century and involve two separate events. First, in 1886, the Calgary District and Agricultural Society held a fall fair, called the Calgary Exhibition, built mainly around agriculture.
The Exhibition became a popular event in fast-growing Calgary. It was held annually (except for a brief period in the 1890s), and called Victoria Park home.
In 1908, the federal government provided funds for a Dominion Exhibition in Calgary. International entertainers made their way to Calgary for the Exhibition, including Guy Weadick, a New-York born Wild West performer and promoter.
Weadick thought Calgary would be the perfect place to stage a future frontier celebration, with cowboys competing at a rodeo. “Weadick saw more potential in the vibrant young city than he did in his own future as a trick roper,” writes Calgary historian Max Foran in Icon, Brand, Myth: The Calgary Stampede.
So Weadick returned to Calgary a few years later, seeking financing for his “Stampede” event. The manager of the Exhibition Ernie Richardson introduced Weadick to four prominent businessmen: George Lane, Pat Burns, A.J. McLean, and A.E. Cross.
The so-called “Big Four” (the namesakes for the Big Four building) gave Weadick money for a one-time party, and Weadick organized a two-day Stampede in September 1912. That inaugural Stampede included a parade and several rodeo events.
Meanwhile, the Calgary Exhibition continued to run. Another Stampede wasn’t held in Calgary until 1919, when Weadick was brought back to organize a one-off Victory Stampede to mark the end of the First World War.
In 1923, amid an economic downturn in Calgary, the manager of the then flailing Exhibition decided to hire Weadick and try melding the Stampede with the Exhibition.
The 1923 event, billed as the Calgary Exhibition, Stampede and Buffalo Barbecue, contained two successful ingredients that remain an integral part of the Calgary Stampede. First, chuckwagon races were introduced. Second, Weadick ensured the entire city was engaged, through decorated storefronts, people dressed in western wear, and a downtown parade.
The first Calgary Exhibition and Stampede was a hit, and Weadick returned to Calgary every year, for nearly the next decade, to help organize the Calgary Exhibition and Stampede.
The annual event is now known simply as the Calgary Stampede, as the word “Exhibition” was dropped during a brand redesign in 2007. This year’s Calgary Stampede runs from July 7 to 16.
Want to learn more? Read Icon, Brand, Myth: The Calgary Stampede edited by Max Foran, The Calgary Stampede: A Collection of Vintage Postcards by Ken Tingley, The Cowboy Spirit by Donna Livingstone, Calgary Stampede Story by Fred Kennedy, and A Brand of Its Own by James Gray.
With Canada Day, and Canada 150 right around the corner, this concludes our Throwback Thursday 150 (#tbt150) posts exploring Calgary's history. We hope you've enjoyed the ride! If you'd like to dive further into Calgary's rich past, explore our Local History collection at Central Library. There are countless stories waiting to be discovered. Happy Canada Day!