Waving its 10-gallon hat, Calgary keeps alive the romance of a Wild West that never did exist. It’s a mix of cattle, oil and characters

JAMES H. GRAY May 15 1949


Waving its 10-gallon hat, Calgary keeps alive the romance of a Wild West that never did exist. It’s a mix of cattle, oil and characters

JAMES H. GRAY May 15 1949


Waving its 10-gallon hat, Calgary keeps alive the romance of a Wild West that never did exist. It’s a mix of cattle, oil and characters


ANYTHING can happen in Ca1gary, just so long as it's unpredictable. If it's not outlandish or impossible, peddle it in Halifax,

Toronto or Winnipeg because it Would be a drug on the Calgary market.

One day last November the Stam poder Special, with 250 whooping Calgarians complete with horses, fancy saddles, chuck wagons, and plenty of snakebite medicine, whistled into Toronto’s cloistered Union Station on a $75,000 cross-country trek. They lassoed football’s Grey Cup, set sober Toronto spinning with their wild Western ways, hoisted Mayor Hiram McCallum on a horse, then roared back to the foothills of the Rockies.

Calgarians get ideas like this cold sober, in broad daylight, and within 24 hours someone will promote the idea info reality. Then, when it’s all over, they start counting the cost and have conniption fits.

That’s the difference between Calgary and the rest of Canada. That’s what makes Calgary unique among Canadian cities, as unique as Geleit Burgess’ purple cow. To hammer a descriptive phrase together the easy way, it’s a purple cow town.

That isn’t the way the natives would describe it. Their favorite phrase is “The Sunshine City of the Foothills,” with a quick allusion to the Rocky Mountain backdrop in the West. Those mountains, which on a clear day seem to nestle along fhe western limits of the town, do something for Calgary and to Calgarians.

Distances are deceptive in Alberta. The town you see so clearly from the crest of a hill may be five or 10 miles away. The mountains themselves are about 75 miles away. During the war, so the

story goes, the RCA F

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established a special camp, equipped with a couple of St. Bernard dogs, to rescue tender-footed airmen from the East who got a glimpse of the mountains and decided to stroll over and climb one of them.

Whether the people make the town or whether the town makes the people can be argued either way. It has, in fact, been argued since the early ’70’s when Colonel Macleod built his Northwest Mounted Police fort at the confluence of the Bow and Elbow Rivers and named it Calgary, after his old home on the Isle of Mull.

For 40 years Calgary was the hotbed which gave the West and Canada a bountiful crop of diverse and contradictory personalities. Blooming at the same time in Calgary were roistering Bob Edwards, founder of the Calgary Eye-Opener, and R. B. Bennett, who had the very bad luck to win an election from W. L. M. King in 1930. There was Henry Wise Wood, the man from Missouri who took root in Calgary and fathered the Alberta Wheat Pool; and “Deafy” Wilson, devil-may-care, beknickered English architect who became a Calgary legend; Paddy Nolan, one of the greatest of western criminal lawyers and a first-class drinking man; and Bill Aberhart, highschool teacher turned religious prophet who whipped up the Social Credit frenzy in 1935; Pat Burns, who ran an eye for beef and land values into a meat packing and ranching fortune; and Bill Sherman, an American impresario whose idea of public relations was to walk onto his Orpheum Theatre stage and upbraid the bon ton in the audience for publicly snickering at his advertising backdrop.

Fancy Saddles in the Old Corral

All have gone to their various rewards. If ghosts walk some of them might have difficulty recognizing the place today. The old Alberta Hotel bar, on the corner of Eighth Avenue and 1st Street West, has given place to a Picardy candy store. It was here that Paddy Nolan and Bob Edwards rubbed paunches and drank deep. And in the place where Deafy Wilson sat by the door in the rotunda, awaiting the arrival of businessmen for their midmorning pick-me-ups, there is now a United Cigar store.

If Lord Bennett made the longest leap of all Calgary’s sons — from Mrs. Moore’s boardinghouse on Sixth Avenue to the House of Lords—Deafy Wilson held the local record for short sprints. Deafy had developed a wonderful taste for free liquor. From his strategic seat he would nod to the incoming customers.

“Good morning, Deafy, fine day, isn’t it?” they’d bawl at him.

“Don’t mind if I do,” Deafy would bawl back at them and beat them to the bar from a sitting start.

Bob Edwards, with a fine disdain for libel laws, and even the broader canons of good taste, put out a paper that snapped, crackled and popped to the delight of readers as far away as London, England.

Almost any town can point back to colorful characters. The point about Calgary is that the link with the past is so much stronger than elsewhere. Interesting parallels are always arising.

Back in 1921, for example, the electors were looking around for a likely candidate for the legislature. Somebody mentioned Bob Edwards’ name, and almost without dissent he was elected. What made all this off pattern was Edwards’ notorious insobriety,

plus his complete inability to make a speech, for all the boisterousness of his writing he was a modest, bashful and soft-spoken little Scot. He made no speeches in the legislature and died soon after he was elected.

Three years ago a young radio sports broadcaster, Don Mackay, decided that what Calgary needed most was himself as an alderman. He ran and was elected. He promptly left town on a series of good will missions and established a record for nonattendance at council meetings. His fellow aidermen got pretty provoked and criticism got into the papers. At the next election Mackay promised to stay away from the council even more often. He was re-elected, at the head of the poll.

Or there was Bill Sherman who managed the Orpheum Theàtre when it first opened in the Lougheed Building. He collected unset diamonds, which he carried in chamois-lined vest pockets.

The modern counterparts of Bill Sherman make him look like a piker. They go in for fancy saddles and trappings for display on prize palominos and pintos in the show ring. These glittering gold and silver embossed outfits cost anywhere from $2,500 to $7,000.

A fatal crash on the Macleod Trail south of Calgary last fall gave rise to a story that is pure Calgary.

A passing driver, who recognized one of the defunct motorists, turned his car around quickly and headed back to town.

“You going for the ambulance?” he was asked.

“Heck, no!” he replied. “That dead guy, Doakes, owns four hockey seats right on the blue line. I’m going to get my name in quick to take over his contract.”

Nobody believes this story. Yet arena officials swear that time and again they have had enquiries about the hockey tickets of Calgary departed, often before the news of the death has reached the newspapers. Calgary won the Allan Cup in 1945-46, played in the 1946-47 final but was beaten by Edmonton, which won the cup the next year. The Calgary Arena on the Stampede grounds seats 5,000. All the seats possible to reserve have been sold out for years. The comparison for Toronto or Montreal would be a sellout crowd of better than 40,000 for every home game of the season.

To attribute the Grey Cup antics to football madness is to completely misread the character of the town. For 30 years Calgary demonstrated that it could take football or leave it alone. The football final was simply a great excuse to put Calgary all across the Canadian map.

Boosting Calgary is something akin to the itch. Calgarians cannot leave it alone. When an outlander moves in he must undergo a continual cross-examination on the question: “How do you like Calgary?”

Oh, that Calgary Summer!

If he combines superlatives with snide cracks about Winnipeg or Vancouver or Edmonton, Calgarians purr like kittens. But if he hesitates, or even tempers his enthusiasm in the slightest, Calgarians take his reaction as a personal affront.

The most extreme face-to-face criticism of Toronto or Winnipeg seldom fazes a native. Calgary, like a beautiful but jealous woman, has got to be loved, by everybody, constantly and passionately.

Calgarians will go into ecstasies about their winter climate at the drop of a 10-gallon hat: “Oh, sure, it get’s cold in Calgary, but only for a week or two. Then along comes a chinook and

presto! the snow goes and you throw off your winter coats.”

Up until the past bitter winter the story was mainly true. But there is one reason why Calgarians confine their conversation strictly to their winter climate: Calgarj^’s spring and summer are usually beyond mention except in unmixed company. Storing storm windows is not the chore in Calgary it is in Winnipeg or Windsor. Along about the middle of May Calgarians take off their storm windows, wash them, and put them right back on again.

This practice has led to the false idea that Calgary has no summer, an idea propagated with considerable enthusiasm by Edmontonians.

Actually July and August are quite warm, in the daytime. But once the sun sinks behind the Rockies, you reach for a topcoat and sleep under woolen blankets. There are nights, in the middle of summer, when a fur coat comes in handy.

Calgarians don’t, however, keep their storm windows on as protection against the chill—it is the fine dust that is propelled by cyclonic chinooks through chinks and crannies that wind alone cannot get through.

Yet there is not a Calgarian alive who doesn’t cheerfully suffer the slings and arrows of outrageous climatic

changes for the compensation of beautiful blue skies, the sight of the mountains out his back window, brightness of the sunshine, winter and summer, that wrinkles the skin around the corner of his eyes. Above all there is the striking beauty of the town, a beauty that manages to survive the combination of indolence and civic neglect.

Neither the Bow nor the Elbow which come together at Calgary are any great shakes as rivers. But aeons ago the Bow was a stream 200 feet deep and a mile and a half wide, flowing eastward from the Rockies. Its south bank then is today’s top Calgary residential district, Mount Royal. The North Hill, where Calgarians are going in for bungalow building on a grand scale, is the old north bank of the Bow.

Calgary’s downtown area, within a quarter-mile radius of the Palliser Hotel and CPR station, is prairie flat. The business, shopping and early residential district grew up naturally here around old Fort Calgary at the confluence of the two rivers. Eighth Avenue, which runs east and west, has always been Calgary’s Main Street. Here are located the biggest stores, the movies and the banks.

For a city of its size—105,000— Calgary is an outstanding city of homes. I talked to one real-estate man

j who’s sold seven $20,000 bungalows j i in the past six months. The uphillj I downdale topography of Mount Royal i i lends itself to unusual design and land I use. Calgarians, borrowing heavily j i from California bungalow designers,

I have made the most of their homesites. !

Calgary, 3,439 feet above sea level, i I is a “view” city. There are scores of j j vantage points from which the whole i of the downtown area can be viewed j from afar. This is one explanation for I the love of Calgarians of their town:

; they see it continually, as residents of j Toronto never see Toronto except Í from chance glances from skyscraper ! windows.

They’ve Got Natural Gas

The buildings are shiny clean and give a deceptive youthfulness to all Calgary homes and office blocks. This j stems from the complete absence of : fog or smog. For 30 years all the i heating in Calgary has been done with j natural gas. A whole winter’s heating can cost less than most Canadians pay j for fuel for December and January i alone.

Calgary lives with its past and its j citizens are violently sentimental about ¡ their city’s history. They set up an angry howl when a storage firm purchased a vacant lot which was once the site of the old Mounted Police Barracks and prepared to move the cairn marking this historic spot. The firm comÍ promised by moving the cairn only

I slightly.

A Calgary Herald reporter, wander! i ing through a marble works, found a ¡ j stone on which Bob Edwards had once made a down payment. It was to have contained a bottle of whisky and the last issue of the Eye-Opener. A colj lection was easily raised to pay off the ¡ stone and move it to a cemetery. The j ! story is that the movers drank the I whisky and could find no copy of the j Eye-Opener to place in the stone.

The Calgary Stampede —without | j which the city would be just another j modest town—Ls an outward manii festation of this sort of spirit, a spirit j j half real, half phony, a spirit that stems J j from a highly romanticized version of j l Calgary history and a real story that is ' equally fantastic.

The annual Stampede is an effort to recapture for a week the glamour and j excitement of the Old West when the I rancher was King, the hootin’ rootin’ tootin’ shootin’ West where men were ; MEN, carried six guns, and died with j their embroidered boots on. The sad truth is that there was no such West in Alberta: the Mounties were in

Calgary before the ranchers arrived and not only had everything in hand hut kept it in hand.

But if the authentic Canadian West was law-abiding it was nonetheless rugged. It was the kind of country where a strong hack, hard work and intelligence paid rich dividends in both kudos and cash. From 1880 until 1920 it was a land where a young man could make a stake.

Pat Burns, the young Ontario Irishman, tramped across the prairies, trading horses and cattle, taking on commissary contracts for the railways. | George Lane, the Montana cowpoke, j wandered into Alberta for an early j roundup, stayed to make and lose his fortune several times. “Nigger John” Ware, one of the greatest bronco busters of them all, a former slave who called himself the first “Smoked Irish” cattle raiser in Alberta, died in 1905, one of Alberta’s most successful and respected ranchers. Ernie Cross, who came equipped with a sheepskin from j the Ontario Agricultural College, j ! founded the famous “a7” ranch. Frank j ! Collicuit, a pioneer Calgary newsboy, I

built up the world’s largest herd of registered Herefords.

They, and scores like them, came together at Calgary. They gave the town its flavor, a flavor that came out of the soil, out of the vast stretches of 50,000and 100,000-acre ranches, out of terrific gambles with cattle.

Before he died Ernie Cross had used his ranching fortune to establish Calgary’s biggest brewery. Pat Burns, who with consummate skill dodged the shoals that sunk so many other packers after World War I, went on to build the largest independent abattoir in the West. They left their marks upon the commercial community. But more important was the collective brand which all the cattlemen fashioned for Calgary. And Calgary is still too closely hog-tied to its pioneers for the brand to have faded.

When the CPR opened the country up with the turn of the century it lured thousands of settlers from the United States with cheap land as bait. Thousands of successful farmers from Kansas, Nebraska and the Dakotas cut into the open range and drove the ranchers back. And at the same time the dwindling range in the western States attracted cattlemen to Alberta, too. Like the immigrants from England they put their roots down in the country.

Something about southern Alberta, and Calgary in particular, acts as a magnet to the British people. The Duke of Windsor, as Prince of Wales, was only acting like a typical Englishman when he took one look at the country and had to buy a ranch at High River, south of Calgary.

Three Rin£ Madhouse

The mixture of English and American influences is a Calgary hallmark. The Stampede is a good example of it. The first Stampede, in 1901, was staged to celebrate the visit of King George, then Duke of York. It lapsed until a decade later when a couple of American rodeo hands hit the town and tried to promote a rodeo. When they had no luck, one of them went back to Oklahoma, and later to Hollywood. His name was Tom Mix. His pal, Guy Weadick, stayed on, determined to try again next year. That winter Weadick talked Pat Burns, George Lane, Ernie Cross and A. J. McLean into putting up $25,000 each to promote his Stampede. First under Weadick, and later under Charlie Yule, the Calgary Stampede became the town’s greatest and most enduring claim to fame.

Calgary, remember, has a population of 105,000—a fact that never embarrasses Calgarians except when coupled with a second fact; Edmonton has 130,000. Yet in the six days of the 1948 Stampede 376,983 tickets were collected at the gates. The top daily attendance was on a Friday when 78,426 jammed into the park.

Grandstand seats for the Stampede go on sale in Calgary in the first week in February. By the end of the month most of the ducats are gone. Hotel reservations begin to trickle in from

far-off places in February and by June reservation clerks begin to go mad.

The show itself is more akin to a three-ring madhouse than to a circus or ordinary rodeo. To take in everything that goes on in front of the grandstand in the afternoon you have to be three people. While thoroughbreds race around the track wild horses and steers are being ridden in the centre field. More people watch the bucking contests than watch the races. Around the grounds a dozen buildings lodge stock and agricultural exhibits. Behind the grandstand the carnival does the biggest business in the West.

Chuck Wagons in a Hurry

The big thrill of the Stampede, however, comes at. night. The chuckwagon races, Calgary style, are easily the most exciting spectacle devised since the chariot race. Six heats are run off each night, and at the end of the week the outfit with the fastest time pockets a large chunk of the $7,500 purse.

A chuck-wagon outfit consists of a wagon drawn by four horses (many of them thoroughbreds) and four outriders. The race starts with four outfits lined up in the centre field, their tailboards to the race track. When a klaxon sounds the dismounted outriders fling a stove and an awning into their wagon, mount and chase after it. The wagon driver starts fast, lashes his team around a figure eight, and the rigs hit the track, often three abreast, at a full gallop. Then the half-mile bull ring is jammed with four four-horse teams and 16 mounted riders, all apparently hell-bent for destruction around the turns. An outfit that can’t make the original figure eight and circle (lie half-mile track in 1.15 will win few prizes. But failure one year never discourages a man from hoping to win next. year. Early every spring these ranchers will spend their off hours training new horses for the event..

What bewilders the spectators is that the drivers survive not only from night to night, but also from year to year. They do. Dick Cosgrave, the greatest driver of them all, won the trophy 10 years in a row. He has since retired to the ground and the bossing of the arena events.

The small fry who come to Calgary expecting to meet the gun-toting Indian killers of the movies are always disappointed. A cowboy afoot bears too close a resemblance to a farm boy with bunions to be very glamourous. But in the lobby of the Palliser you can rub shoulders with the best cowboy riders on the continent, men who ride wild horses in Cheyenne, Pendleton and Madison Square Garden and make $10,000 a year the very hardest way. In the off season they are ranchers or ranch hands in Alberta, Wyoming or Arizona.

The real color of the Stampede is provided by the natives. By the Indians who work at being colorful and get paid for it; and by Calgarians who just like to dress up in fancy pants and shirts. Calgary has its quota of stuffed shirts and they curl a supercilious lip at the sight of their becostumed townsmen. But the outsider who suspects the whole show is phony, and says so, will find himself in trouble.

It. isn’t phony, for Calgary is a horse town if there ever was one. Calgary kids take to horses like young Winnipeggers take to skates. They can be seen by the score at any hour of a summer day, out near the Currie Barracks where Mrs. Maude Ovans keeps her big string of Shetland ponies. The kids learn to ride as they should learn-—bareback. In Calgary many a stenographer skimps on her lunch

to buy herself a horse, or a new saddle, or a new pair of $50 riding boots.

Calgary goes wild about horses. Every breed and type of horse has its supporters—Arabians, thoroughbreds, pintos, palominos, Tennessee walkers and six-gaited American saddle horses. A Calgarian, bitten by the horse hug, is liable to start a whole collection.

There is the case of Robert Spence, the city’s pioneer shoe merchant. Ordered by his doctors to get out of his store, tie bought the old Rocky Mountain Polo Pony Ranch west of the city limits. He stocked it with palomino mares and went into horse breeding on a grand scale. Not for profit, not for show, but just for the sheer joy of being surrounded by beautiful dams and foals who will come running to him when he goes into the pasture and calls them by name.

From the Palliser Hotel Calgary has the appearance of a city without industry. The illusion is dispelled quickly on a dank evening when the fumes from the burning garbage dump —Calgary has never got around to an incinerator—the big oil refineries and the stockyards are wafted in on an east wind. Rut however acrid the odor from the oil refineries, native Calgarians relish the smell. It bolsters their belief that Calgary is the nation’s oil capital, despite all the rather unpleasant publicity Edmonton has been spreading abroad.

Calgary’s first boom came when settlers rushed west to the foothills. From 5,000 in 1900, its population zoomed to 50,000 by 1912. The CPR put up the Palliser in 1913 and the real-estate boom gave the town the beginning of a skyline. Real-estate promoters had subdivided the prairie far out. They carried their money to the banks in wastebaskets and the hanks opened late at night to take it in. 'The collapse of their boom left the town strewn with wreckage, but not for long. The Dingman well struck oil in Turner Valley in 1914, and once World War l was comfortably out of the way another boom set in. This time it was the oil promoters who carried money to the banks in baskets. 'Though the 1929 crash doused that hoorn, another got going in 1936 when crude oil was discovered in South 'Turner Valley.

Edmonton Got the People

'Through oil booms and crashes Calgary always has had the cattle industry in its hack yard. It is the supply base for the big ranches and it is the main market for their produce. Calgary’s stockyards are second only to Winnipeg in the West, and a thriving meat-processing industry has grown up around them.

The vast sums spent developing the oil industry have been put up not only by outsiders but by Calgary itself. Oil refineries were built there with a total capacity of 15,000 barrels a day. That is sufficient to supply almost a third of all Western Canada with petroleum products.

At the moment when Calgary thinks of oil it has to think of Leduc, Woodbend and Redwater. 'That reminds it of Edmonton, which is hard on Calgary’s blood pressure. Alone with such thoughts Calgary may conclude with some justification that fate has been using it for a football. It wouldn’t have cared where those fields had been discovered if it hadn’t been at Edmonton.

Calgary has a grudge against Edmonton. For political reasons that seemed valid at the time (1905) Eldmonton was chosen as Alberta’s capital. Calgary’s feelings were assuaged some-

what by the promise that when the Alberta University was established it would he in Calgary. But Calgary was euchred out of that, too. It has been agitating for years for a university branch at Calgary, but, despite the fact that the Premier of Alberta is usually a Calgarian, nothing ever happens.

Then, during the World War II, Iidmonton leaped ahead in the population race. F'inally, oil was discovered at Edmonton. Leduc was hard enough to take. But when it was followed quickly by Woodbend and Redwater, all potentially bigger producers than Turner Valley, Calgary’s cup of woe ran over.

For a while there was a steady exodus of population northward as oil companies moved to Edmonton. But that has stopped and Calgary’s fear of losing the oil industry is subsiding. Big new American companies are moving into Alberta, but they are locating in Calgary. Calgary’s milder climate, proximity to the States, and long connection with the oil industry are tipping the scales definitely in its favor. In February, New York businessmen announced that a 15-story “skyscraper” would be erected this year. It will he rented mainly to oil companies.

Now that Iídmonton has definitely moved into the number one population slot Calgary seems to have lost interest in size. That is a healthy sign.

To many Calgarians, who love the town as it is, Calgary should he thinking in terms of better rather than bigger.

These people ask: why go to endless trouble attracting tourists (the latest dodge is a 15-car Calgary caravan to tour the States this summer) if you ruin the springs of their cars with miles of potholed and rutted streets? The streets in Calgary’s newer residential districts are mainly graveled and they fill the homes with dust; when the

streets are oiled rugs and floors are damaged.

Many of the city’s main bridges were built for oxcarts. The traffic tangle is compounded by a woeful lack of signals. The street lighting in the residential districts is atrocious. The lack of an incinerator would be a public scandal anywhere else.

Yet Calgary’s pioneer citizens left the town a real inheritance. They established, on St. George’s Island, one of the finest parks and zoos to be seen anywhere. The city is dotted with beautiful parks. It has a good amusement park at Bowness, two splendid hospitals and fine schools. E’ifty years ago the Alberta Hotel was the only hotel between Winnipeg and Vancouver that could boast of bathtubs in rooms. Calgarians then demanded the best.

They have been succeeded by a generation which seems to have a high tolerance for the mediocre. Too much of Calgary’s energy is devoted to spectacular stunts in front of the show, too little to having something solid behind the curtain. Why this should he is difficult to assess. Perhaps one reason is the supplanting of the Calgary enterpriser by the branch manager. Certainly the growth of the branchplant economy is very apparent in modern Calgary. Branch managers of banks, retail stores and commercial enterprises are notoriously uninterested in local civic affairs, save only when improvements impinge on their taxes.

The same is true of Edmonton, perhaps even to a larger degree. Yet Edmonton is rushing ahead with civic improvements. The difference may be that Edmonton has the leadership Calgary lacks. Or, and this in Calgary is the ultimate in infamy, it may very well be that the old spirit that built the town has slipped away unnoticed and has been captured and held by Edmonton. +