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Legacy of Wild West spurs ‘Cowtown’ spirit

Liam Kirkness gets ready for the start of the annual Stampede parade during the 100th anniversary of the Calgary Stampede in Calgary, Alberta, July 6, 2012. REUTERS/Todd Korol (CANADA - Tags: SOCIETY SPORT)


American cowboy and showman Guy Weadick rode into this boomtown 100 years ago with an inkling that Calgary would be the ideal host for a Wild West festival with the richest rodeo prizes on the continent.

With his trick-riding wife, Florence LaDue, by his side, he convinced the city's most prominent residents – Patrick Burns, A.E. Cross, George Lane and A.J. McLean – known as the Big Four, to back the Calgary Stampede. With the event's staging, the city of about 70,000 suddenly ballooned to 100,294 with spectators.

With the Stampede now in its centennial year, organizers were so overwhelmed with applicants they had to turn away entries for Friday's parade, which featured more than 4,000 people and 700 horses to kick off the 10-day event. The so-called Greatest Outdoor Show on Earth is expected to attract a record number of visitors – more than 1.2 million – which outstrips the city's population, and will inject about $345-million into the economy.

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For all the passing of years, some things don't change: At its core, Calgary is still an enthusiastic, unapologetic boomtown. It just looks a little different.

As Calgary Mayor Naheed Nenshi, the country's first Muslim big-city mayor, sat atop a horse named Garfield ready to ride at the front of the parade, he reflected on the historic nature of the event.

"I don't know what Guy Weadick and Florence LaDue thought they were building with the Big Four in 1912, but I'm sure that they understood that they were building something special and lasting that would end up in the bloodstream and the DNA of every Calgarian," he said. "I'm excited to be part of that this year and it's just amazing to be part of the centennial."

In fact, the inaugural event was supposed to be a one-time party, a kind of final farewell to the ranching way of life. (It didn't become an annual affair until 1923.) The coming of the railway had ushered in industry and, in the surrounding areas, cash crops were flourishing.

Not surprisingly, Calgary was a magnet for job seekers. Real estate exacted a premium. Speculators racked up personal fortunes. The city was growing at such a pace, planners and businesses were frantically building infrastructure to keep up with the boom.

"Calgary was creaking and groaning," said local historian and author David Finch.

Now, of course, it's oil and gas driving the Calgary economy and luring newcomers from other provinces, and even other countries.

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As the Snowbirds aerobatics team flew overhead and the parade marshal, cowboy crooner Ian Tyson, stood behind him, Prime Minister Stephen Harper told Stampede-goers that this event has become a "real Canadian icon" known around the world.

"It's something that has preserved our values, our ranching values of hard work, enterprise, self-reliance – the things on which this city has been built," said Mr. Harper, who represents a Calgary riding.

"If I had one reflection on the centennial," he continued, "I think that if the founders could be here today and see this great city, see what has built up around this event, they would be amazed. They would be amazed to see that their Stampede has been part of giving birth to the greatest city in the greatest country in the world."

Alberta Premier Alison Redford, riding a horse named Rowdy, echoed those sentiments. "We're a pretty diligent, hard-working group of people, and the 100th anniversary really does celebrate what our successes have been," she said.

Of course, the Stampede has always had its detractors, both inside and outside the city. There are the animal welfare activists who decry the treatment of the horses, calves and bulls. There are also those who turn up their noses and call it 10 days of drunken cowboy Halloween.

Aritha van Herk, author and professor at the University of Calgary, said she isn't surprised Mr. Weadick pulled off this show – and that 100 years later the city is still revelling in it. Love it or hate it, she said, it's a brand that has come to define the city, and one that any other city would pay millions to embrace.

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"We're Cowtown," she added, "but it doesn't mean we're not sophisticated."

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About the Author
Dawn Walton

Dawn Walton has been based in Calgary for The Globe and Mail since 2000. Before leaving Toronto to head West, she won a National Newspaper Award and was twice nominated for the Michener Award for her work with the Report on Business. More


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