Over the last century, there have been dozens of special events that have come and gone, but very few have endured. Support comes and goes, and of course, people’s tastes change. There is one event in the area that has endured for almost as long as families have made a home in East Central Alberta, and it was in the pioneer spirit of helping others that the first Handhills Lake Stampede was held.
And the tradition continues, as this year the 95th consecutive rodeo happens this weekend. The annual event often billed as the up close and personal rodeo, started out as a fundraiser for the Red Cross during World War I.
The story of the Stampede starts with the Lonebutte Red Cross. This group was organized by Catherine Heaton in 1916. Every year there was a picnic and sports day hosted by the UFA, and there was a suggestion they pass around the hat to support the New Red Cross Group. Organizers disagreed, and there was another suggestion that perhaps the Red Cross have its own event to support its cause.
Jack Miller, a local rancher had bigger aspirations than a Sports Day and on the spot, volunteered to put on a show at his ranch and donate all of the funds to the Red Cross. That moment history was made.
Miller took on the job of advertising, preparing the grounds, rounding up stock and managing the show. He only had to look as far as his neighbours for contestants, as this was rancher county.
The date was set, and on July 20, contestants and spectators came by wagon, horseback, and a few cars. Admission was $1 for men, with women and children entering free.
By the end, they raised $3,200 for the Red Cross. The Handhills Lake Stampede was born.
They made the decision to make the Stampede an annual event. The next year they invited participation from the Delia, Hanna and Craigmyle Red Cross Local to help with refreshments, and the event carried on.
In 1919, the Handhills Lake Club was formed. That same year Col. Eaton, Liberal representative in the Dominion Government donated 80 acres of land to the club. This became the new venue for the rodeo and the operation and production of the event was turned over to its club. Miller continued on with the club and continued as Rodeo Arena Director until his death. Site work was completed which included corrals and a dance hall.
The top-notch rodeo action continued and on the website www.handhills.ab.ca, it lists the champions from every year. Local legendary names including Flett and Cosgrave appear time and time again, as well as modern champs like Davey Shields.
While the corrals, barn and hall have changed over the years, at its heart is the rodeo. While some events such as the Roman Race are no longer run, it is a now a three day CPRA and PRCA sanctioned rodeo using Calgary Stampede Ranch Stock. There are also All Pro Canadian Chuck Wagon and Chariot Races.
Slack starts at noon on Friday June 3 with the chuck wagons and chariots hitting the track at 7 p.m. This is followed by the kickoff party.
The rodeo starts at noon on Saturday with Fred and Edna Preston opening the festivities, and the day ends with the chuck and chariots followed by a Cowboy Cabaret.
Sunday starts with breakfast and a Christian Cowboy Church service. Rodeo starts at noon and the wagons are back on track at 7 p.m.
Beer gardens will be open from noon each day.
The first Handhills Lake Stampede was indeed a success, and 95 years later it is still going strong.