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Last Modified: August 14, 2023
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A Day at the Calgary Stampede with Alberta Writers

Stampede begins with a parade. Yvonne Trainer takes us back to 1912 and the inaugural spectacle in her 2002 poetry collection, Tom Three Persons (Frontenac House), in which she imagines that legendary real-life Kainai cowboy as he rides down Eighth Avenue alongside hundreds of people from Treaty 7 reserves in southern Alberta. The tradition continues to this day.

Nancy Huston also shows us the first parade—“a fantabulous re-enactment of the history of the province”—through the eyes of an overwhelmed twelve-year-old in her 1993 novel Plainsong. The narrator of Rae Spoon’s 2012 novel First Spring Grass Fire recalls her first parade as a child dressed in a straw cowboy hat, complete with whistle and  sheriff’s star, learning from her office worker father how to yell “Yee haw!” (Lesson #1 in a Stampede education.)

The parade offers mystery writers opportunity for mayhem. John Ballem’s 1976 suspense novel The Judas Conspiracy immerses us mid-parade in the exuberant, edgy Seventies and a child abduction. Garry Ryan’s Detective Lane begins what will be a perilous week on Parade Day in the 2014 novel Glycerine (NeWest Press). Sleuth Paula Savard gets caught up in an unsettling prank while watching the parade in Susan Calder’s 2017 mystery Ten Days in Summer (Books We Love).

Between floats and marching bands, tip your Smithbilt hat to the larger-than-life impresario who envisioned the Stampede back in 1912. Meet Guy Weadick in Fred Stenson’s 1996 story, “A Year Before Emery Legrandeur Rode Red Wings to a Standstill and Avenged the Death of Joe La Mar.” Big dreams, short story, long title. For more, check out “Weadick” in Aritha van Herk’s Stampede and the Westness of West (Frontenac House)—poems and prose inspired during van Herk’s stint as artist-in-residence during the Calgary Stampede in 2012.

After the parade, join Tessie and Flora at the Palliser Hotel for drinks and hijinks. Edna Alford’s 1981 story, “Half Past Eight,” features two gals on the run from their seniors’ lodge on Parade Day.

If the kids are hungry, get them (and yourself) to a pancake breakfast: Flip Flop Flapjack (Red Barn Books), a new children’s book by Brenda Joyce Leahy and Melissa Bruglemans-LaBelle, recounts the history of this century-old Stampede tradition. For romance readers, sparks of passion fly over flapjacks in Alyssa Lynn Palmer’s 2018 Betting on Second Chances, one of seven titles in the series Women of Stampede penned by Alberta writers.

At the Stampede grounds, notice the stockade fencing along MacLeod Trail. One-time Calgarian John Byrne brought the X-Men superheroes to the gate that once stood here in his 1979 comic book “Shoot-out at the Stampede!” The Tsuut’ina doctor Shaman sprinkled magic dust on the entrance to seal it against further trouble.

A black and white photograph with a ferris wheel in the foreground. People are standing around the ride.
“Calgary Exhibition fairgrounds view, Calgary, Alberta.”, 1912-08, (CU1154315) by Unknown. Courtesy of Glenbow Library and Archives Collection, Libraries and Cultural Resources Digital Collections, University of Calgary.
Indian Village, 1954

Stroll down the midway. Many Alberta writers have tapped into childhood memories made here. Jackie Flanagan takes us back to the 1950s in her linked stories Grass Castles (Bayeux Arts). A young girl watches her unemployed father gamble away precious family funds on the midway. The narrator of Bruce Hunter’s 1992 story “Country Music Country” recalls an adolescent highlight from the 1960s: the Alligator Girl from Florida.

In Miji Campbell’s 2014 memoir Separation Anxiety, she recalls a traumatic experience on the midway that continues to haunt her: losing her mother in the crowd. The thirteen-year-old narrator of a Barb Howard story can’t wait to ditch her family on the grounds and head for a gyrating disco dancer’s show. Howard’s 2016 story “Saturday Afternoon at the Calgary Exhibition and Stampede, 1977” offers a Saturday Night Fever twist.

In Katherine Govier’s 1987 novel Between Men, a young history professor returns to her hometown and the Stampede. At odds with the city’s macho culture of money, she takes a ride on the Ferris wheel. Lifted above the city, the expansive view reminds her of the promise of a place she yearns to call home.

For many, a visit to the Stampede centres on mini doughnuts. Will Ferguson makes a stop for this midway favourite in his Giller Prize-winning novel 419. (Spoiler alert: After much deliberation, his young narrator goes for the Big Bag.)

Catherine Moss evokes the aroma of the grounds: the “clamour of fried onions” on the midway and the heavy-horse show with its “sweet hay-sweat / of Percherons dappled and black” in her 2001 poem “Ruby Wedding Anniversary.”

Black and white photograph of Blackfoot tipis
“Blackfoot tipis at Indian village, at the Calgary Exhibition and Stampede, Calgary, Alberta.”, 1954, (CU1132368) by Rosettis Studio. Courtesy of Glenbow Library and Archives Collection, Libraries and Cultural Resources Digital Collections, University of Calgary.

Now find your way to Elbow River Camp, a site that celebrates Treaty 7 First Nations. In her 2014 memoir My Name is Shield Woman, Siksika Elder Ruth Scalp Lock recalls fond childhood memories from the late 1940s and early 1950s when her family camped at what was then called the Indian Village.

A comic panel from "Shoot-out at the Stampede!”
This image is made available under a Creative Commons license (CC BY-SA 3.0), and is available on the Marvel Avengers Assemble! website.

Writers also take us to the rodeo grounds. Meet a real-life champion trick roper Flores Ladue—Guy Weadick’s wife a.k.a. the First Lady of the Calgary Stampede—in Ayesha Clough’s 2021 children’s book Howdy, I’m Flores Ladue (Red Barn Books). Hiromi Goto offers a magic-realist take on the bull-riding event. In her 1994 novel Chorus of Mushrooms (Newest Press), a naked Japanese grandmother dubbed the Purple Mask rides a bull named Revelation.

Sarah Johnson takes us back to the midway with her 2016 story “A Ballad for Wheezy Barnes” where we meet a custodian with a crush on a country music impersonator playing at Nashville North. Dymphny Dronyk finds inspiration at this renowned establishment in her 2014 poem “What Beer Can Do.”

Head to the Grandstand for another century-old Stampede tradition locals call “the chucks.” Sara Carsley places us in the driver’s seat in her rollicking 1950 poem “The Chuck-Wagon Race”:

I looked at the track an’ the bellowin’ crowd;

I look at my team, an’ my heart thudded loud.

A day at the Stampede always finishes with fireworks, so let’s join Cecelia Frey on Nose Hill with her 2009 poem “Ode to Fireworks during Stampede:”

we watch needles

thread black velvet

watch open threads rip open

into explosions of silver

red and blue

little beads of gold

Happy Stampede! Yee haw!

—♦—

About the Author

Shaun Hunter is the author of Calgary through the Eyes of Writers (Rocky Mountain Books, 2018). As the 2020 Calgary Public Library/Heritage Calgary historian in residence, she created a digital literary map of Calgary marking more than 500 sites in the city’s storied landscape. Her map of Calgary’s 1920s literary scene is part of the Calgary Atlas Project. You can find Shaun at shaunhunter.ca.

Feature image photo: “Cowboys and horses in Calgary Exhibition and Stampede parade, Calgary, Alberta.”, 1912-09, (CU1115759) by Pollard, Harry. Courtesy of Glenbow Library and Archives Collection, Libraries and Cultural Resources Digital Collections, University of Calgary.

Discover books featured in this article!

Howdy, I’m Flores LaDue

Ayesha Clough (CA)

Published: Mar 08, 2022 by Red Barn Books
ISBN: 9781989915042
The Calgary Project: A City Map in Verse and Visual

Published: Mar 30, 2014 by Frontenac House Ltd.
ISBN: 9781927823194
Under Nose Hill

Cecelia Frey (CA)

Published: Sep 15, 2009 by Bayeux Arts, Inc.
ISBN: 9781897411100
Chorus of Mushrooms: 20th Anniversary Edition

Hiromi Goto (CA)

Published: Apr 15, 2014 by NeWest Press
ISBN: 9781927063484
Flip Flop Flapjack: Wildhorse Jack and the First Stampede Breakfast

Brenda Joyce Leahy (CA)

Published: May 15, 2023 by Red Barn Books Inc.
ISBN: 9781989915110
Glycerine

Garry Ryan (CA)

Published: Oct 01, 2014 by NeWest Press
ISBN: 9781927063682
Tom Three Persons

Yvonne Trainer (CA)

Published: Apr 01, 2002 by Frontenac House
ISBN: 9780968490389
Stampede and the Westness of West

Aritha van Herk (CA)

Published: Apr 30, 2016 by Frontenac House Ltd.
ISBN: 9781927823491