‘Tent City’ by Liz Twan
The Williams Lake Stampede which originated in 1919, began as a gathering of friends, neighbors and ranchers for the sole purpose of providing some entertainment. It gave the cowboys a place to ride some Broncs and Steers, to rope and race on horseback. Horse owners brought their best horseflesh and held flat races. It was an opportunity to show off the best riding and cowboy skills and the best horses in the Cariboo.
The people came from all over the Cariboo to take part in Stampede in some form or another. They came to camp and compete, to visit, dance, gamble and party, not necessarily in that order. It was a major social occasion for the entire Cariboo and things in the surrounding countryside generally came to a standstill while Stampede was taking place. Once the success of the Stampede gathering was apparent, the village’s businessmen and merchants were whole – heartedly behind the event because of the numbers of people it brought to the village. In early times the Stampede was held at the beginning of June, over the years the dates were changed to the end of June or first days of July.
Over the years many other aspects of the Stampede gathering have changed, some of the changes made by directors decisions while other changes took place just because progress has a way of marching onward regardless of the peoples wishes. One of the greatest aspects of the early Stampede’s was the social aspect and the great tent camps that used to cover the hillside behind the present day grandstands. Modern civilization brought the death of that tradition.
I was a local girl, and in my mind I can still see the canvas tents covering that hillside. Driving by the grounds in the darkness of evening, looking down into the Stampede bowl from Highway 97 you could see the flickering campfires and imagine the camps’ occupants visiting over campfire coffee in the cool of the evening. There were native campers, ranchers and cowboys as well as spectators, who all pitched their tents and made camps on various areas of the grounds.
The contestants usually camped in the area that the trailriders barns and arena now sit today. They came in the day before or the morning of Stampede and stayed for the few days of rodeo. Many a happy day was passed in the Stampede camp ground. Neighbors had time to visit, relatives gathered and new friends were made. Life had a gentler rhythm in those days and people just seemed to take things as they came. Strangers were welcomed to the campfire and became acquaintances or good friends. The whole family came along and a great holiday atmosphere prevailed.
The most interesting travelers to see were the First Nations peoples’ who traveled in from their various homes around the Cariboo, usually arriving a day or two before Stampede. In the early years the only mode of travel was by horse drawn wagons and saddle horses as very few country people owned automobiles. The wagons were of all shapes and descriptions with the most common type being the rubber tired wagon with a bench seat across the front, some were covered but the majority were open.
The trek from whichever area outside of Williams Lake that the travelers were coming from, Alkali Lake, Dog Creek, Canoe Creek, Anahim, Redstone, Toosey, Soda Creek, Sugar Cane or wherever, began whenever distance away dictated. The trip from Dog Creek or Canoe Creek took two days minimum, often three or more if a leisurely trip was taken. For some folks, such as the Kalelest family of Gang Ranch/Dog Creek area it was one of only two annual trips to town. The family usually spent about two weeks away from home to make the trip.
Alec and Betsy Kalelest owned the Home Ranch, which was later bought by the Gang Ranch. The Kalelest’s and their daughter Selina made the trip to town to watch the Stampede on an annual basis. Their only other trip to town during the year was made in late fall to bring their cattle to market.
In later years their daughter Selina would follow tradition and load up her wagon along with her own family, two daughters and a son, and each year would make the journey to Stampede. The family always left two to three days before Stampede and traveled along at a fairly slow pace for this was the family holiday, adventure and supply trip all rolled into one. Life was lived at a slower pace in those days and attitudes were far more relaxed than the frantic pace of life most people keep up today. Lunch break at mid-day meant a rest for everyone, the wagon horses were unhitched and turned loose to drink and graze. The family usually built a fire to cook lunch and coffee, sometimes a small rest was taken after eating before gathering the horses and hitching the wagons back up. Traveling was often done in fairly large groups so there would be several wagons in a group making the same journey.
Riding in the wagons were usually the parents, elders and very small children while the older children and other adults would ride alongside on saddle horses. At dusk or earlier, depending on the weather and how far the group felt like traveling that particular day, a good camping spot would be chosen and the group would stop for the night. A good spot meant one with ample water and grazing for the horses, and some kind of firewood and shelter for the people. The horses were looked after first, unhitched and unsaddled and released to graze and drink, then camp was set up. Often bedrolls were laid out under trees or under the wagon, or just under the stars themselves if the weather looked accommodating. The evening meal was prepared and afterward some visiting was done before everyone turned in for the night. The trip continued in this fashion until the journey to Williams Lake was complete.
For the Kalelest family, approaching Williams Lake from Dog Creek, a final stop on the last day would be made at the top of the hill going into Williams Lake (approx. where the Mountview School is today). Here the family would rearrange the load in the wagon to make room for firewood they would cut and gather here at the top of the hill, cutting as well, long poles to hold up the canvas camp tents. This would all be loaded into the wagons and the group would then continue down the long hill to the Stampede grounds.
Upon arrival at the Stampede grounds the families would go to much the same camping spot each year. For years the Kalelest family always camped right where the Curling Rink stands today. Selina’s parents had camped there always and she continued to choose the same spot. Her daughter Stella told me that it was just accepted that certain spots belonged to certain families and very seldom would another group camp in your usual place. Camp was set up and well organized, the tents erected and wagons unloaded, for the stay here usually lasted a week or so. Water for drinking and washing was hauled from the stock water place or the creek or the lake. The horses were turned loose to roam the Stampede grounds and hardly bothered with until it was time to leave again. Selina’s daughter, Stella Rosette says she cannot remember a time when they ever had anything “permanently borrowed or stolen” from their camp and on only one occasion remembers someone having a horse go missing. The horse that disappeared was not a wagon or a saddle horse, but a race horse and therefore would have had more value to a stranger.
Mealtime at camp was often a communal affair with families cooking together and sharing food and anyone who wandered by and stopped to visit was never left to go hungry. “Grab a plate and help yourself” was a familiar refrain and the visit continued. This annual Stampede was one of the only times many of these people had to visit and socialize with friends and family who lived in different areas of the Cariboo. For those of us who live in a generation that can get anywhere, anytime, it may be hard to imagine only seeing a friend or relative who might live only fifty or seventy miles away, just once a year.
The elders were there to look after the small children and babies while the younger generation danced the night away at places like Squaw Hall, which was an open air dance hall located right on the Stampede grounds. It was known as “the place to go” and for many years at Stampede was the most popular place in town. Over the years the place got a wilder and wilder reputation and as peoples’ attitudes changed the place was thought to be a bit dangerous and the name derogatory, so eventually the decision was made to tear the place down. The place was famous in its own right however, and stories abound about adventures people had at Squaw Hall.
The camper’s days were spent taking in the rodeo events either as spectators or sometimes as competitors. Other people just wandered from camp to camp visiting, playing music, cards or other games. The general atmosphere was convivial and relaxed and no one was in any particular hurry to be anywhere. Nobody seemed to have any cares or worries and as a social event Stampede was always a roaring success.
As the Rodeo wound down, and the contests and events concluded the camps would slowly be dismantled, the horses rounded up and re-hitched to their wagons and the people reluctantly made their way back to their homes. In the case of the Kalelest family and I’m sure many others, several more days were spent camped at the grounds so that shopping and business in the village could be done before leaving for home. Supplies were purchased to last until autumn when the trip back to market their livestock would take place. On that final trip of the year, supplies to last until the next trip to Stampede were purchased. Nothing was easy in those early days but it sure seemed like life was so much simpler then.