Stampede promoter Weadick’s vision passes the century mark
By Lauren Babiuk
Stories of the wild west captivated Guy Weadick as a child. The Rochester, New York native was so moved by old western dime novels and a romantic attachment to the myth of the cowboy, stories of Indians, rogue steeds and lively corrals, that he drifted west longing to live the life of a cowboy himself.
What Weadick would end up accomplishing however, was much more. He was the driving force behind turning all of those old, wild west myths into the legend of the Calgary Stampede.
“It’s a Hollywood-type myth, the real American West wasn’t that real either, but mythology and exaggeration is accepted in any festival,” explains Max Foran, a University of Calgary professor and editor of the book Icon, Brand, Myth: The Calgary Stampede. “They’ve taken a single word, ‘Stampede’, and they’ve been able to market it very successfully.”
Weadick, who first came to Calgary to perform in 1908 at the Dominion Exhibition, had worked as a promoter on old Wild West shows out of the United States. The American performer and promoter helped establish Calgary’s very first Stampede in 1912 in conjunction with the Calgary Exhibition, a successful “one-shot affair” launched to commemorate the rancher’s dying way of life, and a way to stimulate the financially exhausted Calgary Exhibition.
Weadick used his experience in marketing American Wild West shows, says Foran, coupling Calgary’s valid historical roots in the ranching industry with extraordinary marketing schemes to produce “The Greatest Outdoor Show on Earth”.
With funding from George Lane, Patrick Burns, A.E. Cross, and Archie Maclean, now christened the “Big Four”, Weadick’s 1912 Stampede was a great success. In 1919, as the dust settled in a post-Great War world, Weadick was again called upon to produce the “Victory Stampede”, as a celebration of the end of the war.
The Calgary Exhibition was founded in 1886, long before the arrival of Weadick and his Stampede. By the early 1920s, the exhibition began to exhaust its appeal and the event was struggling to find its financial legs.
Weadick’s skill as a promoter had been bolstered by his successes in 1912 and 1919, leading Exhibition manager Ernie Richardson to call upon the marketing prowess of Weadick as the savior of the Exhibition.
“Weadick laid the template for the Stampede and he said you must get the city involved, you must get Indians, you must have good ties internationally, you must get celebrities, you must get a good volunteer program, you must get the best spot possible,” says Foran. “That’s the template for the Stampede, and they’ve followed ever since.”
While the Wild West shows that Weadick produced in the United States and Europe relied heavily on the use of overstatements and exaggeration, Weadick was able to use legitimate Calgarian ranching roots teamed with Western mythology to market the Stampede into more than just a rodeo.
“The whole time those original ranchers were marching in the parade as late as the 1950s, so it had a legitimacy in a historic tradition,” explains Foran. The emergence of television “Westerns” in the 1950s further built up the hype.
“The celebrities became Western actors rather than proper painters or politicians.”
In 1932, a clash between Weadick and the board of directors resulted in the promoter’s dismissal from the Calgary Stampede. When the board advocated for a reduction of rodeo prize money, Weadick insisted that the public interest would pale.
“Weadick wasn’t an easy guy to handle, I think he was probably outspoken,” says Foran.
The clash left both parties bitter, which could in part explain why the Big Four are commonly hailed as the founders of the Calgary Stampede, leaving Weadick with little recognition for his considerable role in its inception.
Ultimately, the emergence of the Calgary Stampede, while not dependent on Guy Weadick, certainly benefited from his irrefutable vision and his ability to drum up ornate images of the Canadian frontier. And on the eve of its 100th birthday, the Calgary Stampede likely would not have reached its international renown without the inventive mind of Weadick.
“No single event can accurately represent any urban place of origin, they’ve all got to be exaggerated, they’ve got to make overstatements, but that’s why it succeeded,” Foran says. “It’s just one dimension to a city, and I think the whole Western myth isn’t about the cowboy at all, it’s about the rancher.”
Foran’s book, Icon, Brand, Myth: The Calgary Stampede is available in bookstores now.