For almost 100 years, Bar U Ranch and the Calgary Stampede have shared a special connection. The former Northwest Cattle Company once had 10,000 head of free-range cattle on 10,000 square miles while the Stampede began as a one-off promotion spearheaded by American cowboy showman Guy Weadick to celebrate and display what he thought was a fading lifestyle.
Times change and as the Calgary Stampede gears up to celebrate its 100th birthday, the mighty Bar U is now the only ranching jewel in the Parks Canada crown of National Historic Sites, shrunk to just over a half section in size while the Calgary Stampede has swelled to an international event that continues to promote cowboys and the importance of the cattle and horse industry in developing the west.
The Bar U connection to the Calgary Stampede goes right back to the beginning. Two of the ranch’s former owners, George Lane and Pat Burns were two of the four founders of the Calgary Stampede, collectively known as the “Big Four.” The a7 Ranche, owned by A.E. Cross was headquartered just southeast of Bar U and the canny businessman extended his holdings by creating the Calgary Brewing and Malting Company prior to the turn of the 20th century.
I had grown up steeped in the lore of Guy Weadick and other early performers including his wife Florence, who won the title of Fancy Lady Roper of the World at the 1912 Stampede, and Bronc Champion, Tom Three Persons, the Kainai Nation cowboy who drew the unrideable “Cyclone.”
It was at the Calgary Brewery, during a school fieldtrip, that I visited the “Horseman’s Hall of Fame” and saw the wax figures of Guy Weadick, George Lane, Pat Burns, A.E. Cross and A.J. McLean, discussing the details of that first show in a room at the old Alberta Hotel. For some reason that cemented the ranch connection for me, probably because Archie McLean and I shared the same last name but nope, no relation.
Today, Bar U and the Calgary Stampede have, in a sense, reversed roles – the former preserving a fading lifestyle and the latter a strong supporter of agriculture and the western way. As a National Historic Site, Bar U has 35 historical buildings – most now restored and are considered, by the federal government, as important to Canadian culture as our parliament buildings.
Montana cattleman and horseman, George Lane, built up a Percheron breeding program during his tenure as owner, to provide power for the plows that were beginning to turn over the prairie sod. At the height of the venture, 1,000 of these gentle giants called the Bar U home with 500 mares foaling annually. Bar U Percherons participated in the first Stampede Parade that moved through downtown Calgary to the grounds set up at Victoria Park and while they still plod up and down the ranch site today, you’ll find them participating this July at the Calgary Stampede to celebrate the centennial of the formation of Parks Canada and they’ll be on hand in 2012 to celebrate the Calgary Stampede’s 100th birthday.
Last year a team of greys from the Bar U captured the hearts of many at Draft Horse Town at the Stampede not only visiting with the public but giving children a ride. “Licorice” and “Smudge” even became minor celebrities, being featured on their own trading cards. Five teams of Percherons call the Bar U home with the site celebrating the breed with a horse show every summer and a chore horse competition in the fall. Plans are in the works to see the horses move back into their farming role and re-introducing Bar U bloodlines and breeding at the place it all started.
The reason why the Bar U was established on the eastern slopes of the Rocky Mountains is still a part of the National Historic Site. A herd of 30 Shorthorns and Longhorns are calved out every spring and cow ponies are kept on hand to help manage the herd. Ongoing education and entertainment programs show proper ways of cattle handling, horsemanship and cowboy skills. Special events include a ranch rodeo with the winning team advancing to the Heritage Ranch Rodeo held in conjunction with the CFR to represent Bar U.
Watch out for the Bar U Ranch National Historic Site outfit at the Calgary Stampede this year or take some time and travel an hour south of the city on Highway 22 for a visit. The “cowboy coffee” is always on. .