Article by Liz Twan
Celebrating the Western Heritage of BC
Although the opening lyrics to the (now) famous Williams Lake Stampede-song were penned and put to music by BC-singer/songwriter Alan Moberg (Salt Spring Island) more than forty years ago (May/1970) the content still aptly conveys the sense of anticipation, excitement and out-of-the-ordinary atmosphere that prevails throughout the Cariboo in the months, weeks and days leading up the annual world renowned – Williams Lake Stampede.
“Come along friends and see part
of the last frontier with me
We’ll pack our gear and head
for the rodeo
We’ll camp outside of town next
to the big fairground
We’re going to see the sights at
the Williams Lake Stampede”
This year we are proud to host the 90th Williams Lake Stampede, an event that celebrates the old-time cowboy-culture and Western lifestyle that abounds in the surrounding area. As we look back to the distant past, we begin to understand what led us to this point in our rodeo-history
The Cariboo landscape is rich with rolling native grasslands, carpeted with stands of wild bunchgrass and though it was the gold rush and the lure of easy wealth that drew many (second sons of aristocracy, adventurers, outcasts, restless souls seeking change) to the Cariboo, it was the waving bunchgrass that brought a gleam to many a prospective miners eye. The lush landscape seduced those who heeded it’s rustling whispers, inducing them to lay aside picks and gold-pans listening as instinct cried out to them to discard the fanciful dreams of striking the Mother Lode and recognize the golden opportunity in the certainty of land ownership and agricultural production.
Come join us for our 90th year! The 2016 Williams Lake Stampede
kicks of on June 30th – July 3rd 2016
It prompted an astute few to seize a stable future, steady income (once established) and a settled lifestyle; one that could possibly attract a wife, accommodate family and become a place to call home. Common sense encouraged them to homestead, to pre-empt, then settle on these grasslands along the gold-trail. For those who could feed the hordes of hopeful trekking north to the gold fields (supply beef, pork, mutton, vegetables, dairy products) were sure to profit. Some of those settlers became farmers, others would be known as ranchers; but it was a special type of man who would be known as a cowboy. Anyone can don a Stetson, pull on jeans and clad themselves in all the rest of the cowboy-accoutrements, but it is to no avail for most as the clothes alone do not make a cowboy. It is an intangible that defines the genuine article, something from the innermost heart that makes a real cowboy, it cannot be bought, some are simply born to it, a select few others (with hard work, determined effort) can learn over time. Real cowboys are effortless horsemen, they ride as if they have never, not-ridden, are tough and able to work outdoors (all seasons, all manner of weather) and don’t mind being alone, chatter is not a necessary component in their day. Common sense and problem solving skills go hand-in-hand, as do a sense of humour (to laugh at the predicaments one gets in), a fair bit of bravado and fearlessness are also required as dealings with critters and mother nature don’t always have a predictable outcome or a finite schedule.
By definition, cowboys are generally always themselves, what you see is what you get, no artifice involved. The desire to be the best at what they do is innate; they strive to be the savviest horsehandler, best rider, canniest cow-man, most able roper – the top hand. It’s always there bubbling under an outwardly stoic surface, an urge to compete and to prove oneself.
In 1919, a group of cowboys (bored with the off-season dearth of work, the absence of adventure and somewhat shy on beer money) hatched a plan to put on a wild-west type-show at the train station (across the road from the beer parlour) for the PGE-passengers while the train was in at the station. It was also a chance to blow off some steam, show-off a little; they whooped and hollered, tossed their hats, reared their horses and rode pell-mell back and forth at full speed alongside the tracks entertaining not only those already seated on the train, but also disembarking passengers and the many townspeople who met the train. The cowboys put on quite a show and earned some extra pocket-money as spectators showed their appreciation, tossing coin into upturned hats.
The merchants viewing this impromptu show had a Eureka-moment as they saw the possibly in hosting a rodeo as a method of drawing customers to the town. They wasted no time and had soon organized the first official Williams Lake Stampede (for June 1920); a tradition was born.
The rodeo and ensuing gathering was a rousing success, so much so that local folks were soon planning their entire year around it. In the surrounding locales, all things ground to a screeching halt the week prior – the cowboys dusted off their work clothes, slapped the trail dust off their hats, saddled their best horses and rode off to Williams Lake often arriving a day or two early, so as to get a shave and a haircut, perhaps to buy a new hat, shirt and jeans and to set up camp before heading to a beer parlour so the fun could begin.
For many rural families, it was the highlight of the year, for seldom did the entire family leave the farm (ranch) simultaneously and trips to town were not frequent occurrences for anyone. Most made it their single annual trip to town, stocking up (on departure) for the entire year. First Nations cowboys and their families came from all areas of the Cariboo; to compete or to simply to watch and visit. They also arrived early, travelling on foot, via horseback or by wagon – setting up camp on the side hill where the grandstand now sits. The large camps were a special sight in the day, but even more so in dark of the evening, campfires and gas lanterns all aglow, flickering and twinkling all about on the hill.
Stampede was a highly anticipated, much looked forward to event for the majority of Cariboo-citizenry. Generating (in even the most staid of personalities) an most child-like glee, a high level of excitement for a social gathering of a magnitude the like of which was not available to be experienced anywhere else, at any other time. That type of atmosphere prevails today.
Stampede is a family event with a huge parade eagerly looked forward to by all, young and old; numerous pancake breakfasts, steak-dinners, dancing and music but the main attraction is the rodeo – they come to see the cowboys and cowgirls ride, race and perform tricks, to see who is the best in the West. The social nature of the event and gathering provided the opportunity to make new acquaintances who may have become life-long friends; folks who were already friends (but lived far distances apart) met up annually and set up camp together; shared chores, played card games and enjoyed the convivial atmosphere. The same friendliness is exhibited today. There is just something about a cowboy.
Come join us for our 90th year! The 2016 Williams Lake Stampede kicks of on June 30th – July 3rd 2016. Five rodeo performances over four days (2 performances on Saturday) will keep you on the edge of your seat in the covered grandstand. There is a Ranch Challenge Rodeo competition, evening entertainment in the Let R Buck Saloon (back of grandstand), a parade on Saturday and so much more. We may be looking back in time, but we are looking forward to more fun and great memories and experiences as we celebrate our historic Stampede. The mystic and romance of the old West lives on.
This article was featured in the Spring 2016 issue of Northern Routes.