07/05/2012 04:00 EDT | Updated 09/03/2012 05:12 EDT

Calgary Stampede 2012: Rodeo Show, Now 100, Traces Roots To American Guy Weadick

CALGARY - It began as the brainchild of a performer from New York state with a vision of a cowboy championship like no other — an Easterner who loved the Old West and its culture.

Guy Weadick was a well-known Wild West entertainer across North America and Europe.

The Rochester, N.Y., native performed rope tricks during a 15-minute western act. His wife was a famous trick rope rider and together they toured the vaudeville halls and circuses of Europe before coming to Western Canada.

In 1912 Weadick hooked up with a livestock agent for the Canadian Pacific Railway, H.C. McMullen, in Calgary. Cowtown had a booming population of 47,000 at the time — it had only officially been a city for 18 years.

Together the two executed Weadick's dream and compiled a program for a frontier show and rodeo. They gained financing from four prominent Calgarians to build a prize pool that dwarfed others. Competitors came from far and wide, dollar signs in their eye.

With that the Calgary Stampede was born.

Now billed as The Greatest Outdoor Show on Earth, the Stampede turns 100 when it kicks off Friday.

"If you think of 100 years ago — what really happened is no different than what's going to happen this year and that is a gathering of people to celebrate, to share a good time, to honour the western values and our heritage of the West," says Bob Johnson, the event's vice-chairman.

"Although we're now in a city of over a million people, we're celebrating the same thing we celebrated 100 years ago."

That's not to say things haven't changed.

The first Calgary Stampede was held in September so as not to interfere with harvest. And it didn't go annual right away. The First World War delayed the second Stampede until 1919. It's only been held every year since 1923.

There was much fanfare at the first Stampede. An estimated 80,000 people attended the first parade — nearly double the population of the city. Still, the event lost money, largely because of the $20,000 prize pool.

Today, the prize pool is more than $2 million and the Stampede is a 10-day, knock-down, drag-'em-out summer party.

There's a massive midway and a frantic nightlife. Pancake breakfasts are a daily occurrence in neighbourhoods around the city. Everyone casts aside ties and suits in favour of cowboy hats, boots and jeans.

And it's not just a local thing.

The visit last year of Prince William and his wife Kate only added to the international hype.

The event is No. 5 on CNN's top places to visit in 2012 and on the American network's list of "15 places to party sort of like a rock star." It describes the Stampede as a place to drink, dance, get dirty and to "yell yee-haw and soak up the Wild West lifestyle."

The Stampede has also become an important symbol representing the city, says University of Calgary professor Aritha van Herk, author of "Mavericks: An Incorrigible History of Alberta."

"In truth, the Stampede brand, the western hospitality, the cowboy icon is a brand that most cities would pay $3 billion for. It's recognizable. It's unique and we don't have to agree with it," van Herk says.

"It's a great leveller. All of a sudden everybody's the same. You can't tell the bank manager from the bus driver."

The event isn't without its critics.

Animal rights groups have been focusing on the Stampede rodeo for years — decrying the death and injury of animals, primarily in the popular chuckwagon event, where teams of horses pull a covered cart around a track.

The Vancouver Humane Society has used letter-writing campaigns to try to get sponsors to back away from rodeo events. Telecommunications company Bell didn't sponsor the rodeo this year, but still sponsors other Stampede events.

People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals intends to protest outside events beginning this weekend along with Calgary animal rights activists. Lindsay Rajt calls it a "cruel spectacle" and an "embarrassment to Canada."

"There's a reason that we religiously target the Stampede year after year and that's because it's one of the worst events out there. People have been protesting this for years and years and years and sometimes we sound like a broken record," said Rajt.

"The bottom line is when people are using animals for entertainment and for profit you're going to see animal welfare suffering."

The continued popularity of the Stampede comes from nostalgia for a time that is long past, says van Herk.

"It's over. It was over when Guy Weadick launched the first one," she says.

"The 1912 Stampede was because the Old West was over. But that doesn't mean you have to stop celebrating."

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