Big Gap Stampede
By Mrs. Anne E. Spreight, Cairns, Alta.
There have been many famous stampedes, but one of the most unique was the Rancher’s Roundup and Barbecue. It started simply enough. A number of ranchers in the Neutral Hills of Central Alberta wanted to hold a get together with the usual western attractions. It had been the practice of ranchers in the Dakotas to depict historical events in an outdoor setting, so when in the spring of 1915, a meeting was held at Inman’s ranch, it was decided to try the same thing here. To hold the first wild west show of frontier life in its natural setting would be a novel experience, they thought.
The first picnic was held south of the Neutral Hills, but the next year in 1916, the stampede was moved to its permanent site. This was a marvellous natural amphitheatre in the hills on the School Section Lease not far from the Big Gap. The towering hills arose on each side and the view was unparalleled. The prairie wool grew almost knee high, and the nearby spring provided an excellent supply of pure water.
Since it was really a rancher’s get-together, no admission was charged the first two years. A silver collection was taken to cover the cost of blank six gun ammunition and makeup. The dancehall run by Ben Molihan, provided the revenue to cover the other expenses. The surrounding ranchers and their helpers worked for weeks before the stampedes, preparing the grounds and practicing for the different pageants — all free of charge.
At first there were no chutes, only a holding corral. The horses were roped, snubbed to a cow pony and brought into the amphitheatre. The horse was saddled, the cowboy mounted and the fun began. The rows of cars provided the arena and not once did a horse crash the cars. The local boys acted as pickups, but usually a rider fell off or rode the horse to a standstill. The prizes were very good for that time; a wrist watch, a saddle or a set of harness.
The judges Tom Laycraft and Jack Gilbertson had their hands full selecting the best riders. Many of the boys were “local talent,” others came from Battle River and points far distant.
As the Stampede became better known more people attended. More model T’s bumped over the prairie trails and their drivers even got lost in the hills on the way home. Greater publicity was given to it. Mr. Laughy, a brother of Mr. Joe Laughy the auctioneer, was an employee of the Edmonton Bulletin and he gave it banner headlines.
New and bigger corrals were built and chutes were added. The Monitor band was on hand and even a clown arrived to amuse the children. In 1918 a veteran airman piloted a biplane, and gave the awestruck gathering thrilling rides. The Honorable Charles Stewart attended and honored Mr. Cecil Kinross of Lougheed, holder of the Victoria Cross.
The three day Stampede of 1919 was a great occasion. Some have estimated that 10,000 to 15,000 people attended. There were visitors from as far away as Seattle. A regular tent city sprang up and hundreds of horses were picketed out on the luscious grass.
The great events began with a grand march; officials, cowboys and visiting Indians encircled the area in single file, double and then forming fours.
Orim Bryan, a superb horseman, gave an outstanding display of trick riding. Another attraction was Herman the Bucking Horse. This amusing human-bucking horse unseated every rider with its turbulent pitching.
Each year a Pageant of the old west was portrayed. Some of the plays were: the Indian Massacre, The Stage Coach Robbery, The Whiskey Trader, Billy the Kid and The Gold Rush. Mr. C.E. Inman directed the plays and by use of megaphones gave a historical sketch of the plays. Elaborate backdrops were used, a town with false store fronts was erected.
In one show, Rolf Krohn, a bad man, had wounded George Bolton. A posse chased him down and after Krohn had emptied his gun he was captured. The posse tied him in a buckboard and hauling it behind two saddle horses, galloped off toward the town. After a hasty trial the culprit was hanged amid the cheers of the crowd.
These plays were so realistic and exciting the audience was quite carried away. The Indians and cowboys were superb riders. There were no Hollywood stunt men to take their falls. In one show Joe and Jack Richardson were among the Indians. In the heat of the battle, Jack’s horse stepped into a badger hole and fell heavily, catapulting its rider amongst the charging horses. That definitely was not part of the performance but no doubt some of the audience thought he had a very well trained horse. None of the actors were injured.
The gala days of 1919 were the swan song of the Rancher’s Roundup and Barbeque. Messrs. C. Inman, George and Orim Bryan, Joe Laughy and his brother and many of the other pioneers have passed on. Rolf Krohn lives with his wife north of Veteran and raises cattle. Joe Richardson and Roy Poynter are still robust and enjoying life to the full. Ivan Inman has the Massy Harris Agency and garage at Islay. At Stampedes it is easy to find Jack Richardson, assisting in the arena or keeping an eye on his RX bucking horses.
The Big Gap Stampede is nothing but a memory. White faced cattle graze in the vast amphitheatre. But even yet as we travel southwest through the Neutral Hills we smile as we remember the famous Big Gap Stampede.