Some of the spectacular acrobatics of the wild horses brought in for the first few rodeos; photos courtesy Bernice McCurrach

 

The Rodeo Grounds

Inevitably, as the May long weekend approaches, people around town start thinking about Blossom Festival, which inevitably leads to conversations about past festivals and the events that have come and gone over the years.

Events like the rodeo.

Elwood and Bernice McCurrach moved to the Creston Valley in 1959, leaving their home – and the weather – in Sundrie, Alberta behind, but bringing with them their cowboy lifestyle.

“Cattle, horses, that was our life,” Bernice told me. “My husband, Elwood, was a true cowboy from the day he was born. He was pretty near born on a horse.”

Shortly after arriving, the McCurrachs and a few other local horse people established the Creston Valley Riding Club, and not long after that the Club decided the community needed a rodeo.

Many people still remember the rodeo grounds just on the edge of the flats, tucked in behind the present waste management facility. It’s a piece of property with a long history as a venue for community events: we have a map from 1909 that has that area marked as “Public Commons and Recreation Grounds.”

The term Public Commons suggests a communal grazing area for livestock; it was likely used for that purpose for many years. Its career as “Recreation Grounds” was probably much more short-lived. At about the same time as the map was drawn, locals were already using what is now Centennial Park for baseball games, Labour Day picnics, and a host of other events.

In 1920, Bob Comfort moved to the Creston Valley and turned the former recreation grounds into a hay field – and so it remained until the McCurrachs moved to town.

“We rented it from Bob Comfort in 1959,” Bernice continued. “The rodeo was put on by the Riding Club. Dorothy McCurrach, me, a couple of other ladies, we did the entries and payouts. My husband was the arena director. We brought the stock in ahead of time; there was no water down there so we had to haul water for the cattle and horses and everything.  And we built the arena. We got the rails from Arrow Creek, hauled them in in Bob Comfort’s truck. We put it up for the event, and then we took it down again. It took a long time to build. It was a lot of work, but it was a lot of fun.”

Competitors brought their own horses, of course, but the rodeo animals were the responsibility of the organisers. For the first couple of years, the bucking horses came from Windermere; later, the riding Club contracted with a supplier of rodeo horses. Cows and calves for the roping events were leased from local farmers, George Sikora and Stanley Swanson among them. “I don’t know if they were really happy about us chasing and roping their cattle,” recalls Bernice. “They went down a lot, lost a lot of weight. But we paid the farmers well for the animals.”

It took a year or two to get things really off the ground; the first year, Bernice recalls, they just had the steers and a gymkhana rather than a full rodeo, but in the second year they were able to get the bucking horses and the rodeo really took off. People came from all around to try for the cash prizes the rodeo offered, and hundreds of people attended the event as spectators. For many, it was the highlight of Blossom Festival.

When asked what the biggest highlight was, Bernice laughed. “Those first couple of years with the bucking horses,” she said. “They were really wild.”

She means that quite literally. The horses were rounded up off the range, loaded into trucks and hauled down to the rodeo grounds. The cowboys had a hard time staying on. There were some pretty spectacular leaps from the horses – and some pretty spectacular falls for the cowboys. The crowd loved it!

And what did the cowboys think of it?

“They were as wild as the horses!” Bernice said.

Bernice fondly recalls the small band of people who put it all together: Ron and Dorothy McCurrach, Cecil Allan, Don Lindsay, Tommy Floer, and others. They got a lot of help from Gordon Earl, Canadian and North American champion in the early 1950s.

“He helped us with a lot of things,” said Bernice. “We were real good friends. He helped the boys on their bulls, told them what to do. Having him here didn’t really draw a lot of attention; Gordon was just an ordinary man who helped anybody and everybody. He never sought any attention.”

In addition to the Blossom Fest Rodeo, the Riding Club also organised gymkhana events, often during the Fall Fair, and travelled far and wide to attend events in other communities. Those other activities helped expand the Club, attracting English-style riders, younger riders, and others with interests different from – and often incompatible with – the traditional events of a rodeo. As the Club’s leadership changed, fewer people directly involved with it were really familiar with running rodeos – and as Bernice told me, “If you don’t know what you’re doing you’d better stay out of it.”

The McCurrachs began stepping back in 1966; the Club’s new leadership focused on other events. Dave Lindsay took over the rodeo for one year in 1973, but in 1974 Bob Comfort sold the property. There would be no more rodeos at Blossom Fest until Canyon began hosting them in 1982.

Despite the challenges and the hard work, Bernice has very happy memories of the rodeo. “It was fun,” she repeated. “And the people – you meet so many good people, and once you make friends, they’re friends for life. That’s cowboy people.”