Spring in Cloverdale is synonymous with a unique slice of western Canadian history – rodeos and country fairs. This year the Cloverdale Rodeo celebrates its 70th Rodeo and 128th Country Fair.
When my family came to Cloverdale in 1977, Cloverdale was famous for being the pro-rodeo circuit kick-off boasting big prize money and big names. Rodeo Week signaled sidewalk sales along 176th Street, a sold-out Saturday pre-rodeo dance and chicken barbecue at Shannon Hall, and Thursday night Bed Races, of course. Kids valued wrist bands giving them easy access to the fairgrounds all weekend, and everyone released their western week inner cowboy, or cowgirl.
Last week, Penny Smythe, Canada’s first woman rodeo chairperson, reminded me about the old Rodeo Jail. Traditionally, the ‘Sheriff’ and his sidekicks roamed the historic town centre ‘arresting’ well-known locals, or any other shady varmints, guilty of minor infractions drummed up by colourful imaginations. Being ‘sprung’ from the hoosegow (the very visible makeshift town centre jail) involved assorted fines aimed at enriching local charities. Charging your boss with wearing brown boots instead of black, got him, or her, ‘locked up’ for a while until the ransom was raised. No one got out of jail free.
There was always a parade, of course, but there was also a popular street dance until – much to everyone’s regret – a few bad actors put paid to it.
Legion pancake breakfasts have always been family affairs. Some of the churches joined in, too.
Prior to 1996, the rodeo and country fair were two separate events. Rodeo in the spring. Fall fair in the autumn. Prized farm animals arrived en masse from throughout the Fraser Valley. Preserves, fruit, flowers, embroidery, dress-making and knitting went on display and were duly judged as in all self-respecting exhibitions across the country. Prize money was modest, but the ribbons awarded were high prized.
The late Alice McKay (the longtime volunteer after whom the fairgrounds’ Alice McKay Building is named) once reminded me during an interview that the rodeo and exhibition bleachers were where Elements Casino is now located. Hay was trucked in to accommodate the visiting animals who were all housed under the bleachers. Laughing at the memory, she said, “It’s a wonder the whole place didn’t go up in smoke! Remember how everyone sat up there and dropped all their cigarette buts down through the slats?” I’d forgotten. She was right. A Cloverdale country miracle!
Many people still associated with rodeo and the fair are longtime Cloverdillians.
Shannon Claypool, President of the Cloverdale Rodeo and Exhibition, has a particularly poignant connection. His cousin, Brian Claypool, was the 1975 and 1976 Canadian Bull Riding Champion. When the 1979 Cloverdale Rodeo closed, Brian and three other cowboys completed their events and took off in Brian’s plane from Langley Airport. That evening all were lost in a fatal aircraft accident.
In 1974 Will Senger, a former bareback rider and steer wrestler, was elected rodeo chairman. Times were tough, but during the following 10 years Will wrangled an incredible turnaround. As the long-time Arena Manager, Will’s heart went into ensuring the infield worked like clockwork. In 1992 he was awarded the Governor General’s Medal for Dedication to Rodeo in Canada, and was inducted into the 2004 Canadian Professional Rodeo Hall of Fame. He continues to take an active interest in the Cloverdale Rodeo.
A ‘standout’ memory for me was spending some time with barrel racer Karina Tees, Miss Rodeo Canada 1999, while she was in Cloverdale.
Karina, who is deaf, began speaking when she was about four, learned sign language at 13, and lip reads.
Because my mother was hearing handicapped, I felt a particularly affinity for this talented, courageous, young woman. During her visit to Cloverdale, the Ponoka Stampede Queen from Clive, Alberta, told me about winning the honour at the Edmonton Canadian Rodeo Finals.
After completing the competition, the 10 contestants were lined up in the arena. Karina could see the audience cheering and waving. Being unable to hear the announcer, she turned to the rider next to her and asked “Who won?” She lipread the answer: “You did!”
The Cloverdale Rodeo has survived many changes and welcomed a multitude of big names.
One of the biggest – the Oklahoma-based Express Clydesdales – returns this year for a second visit. An imposing 18 hands high, and weighing approximately one ton each, the majestic team effortlessly pulls the 3,000-pound custom wagon which ferried the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge along the Calgary Stampede Parade route during the 2011 Royal Visit to Canada.
The popular West Coast Lumberjack Show is back, as well as Freestyle Skateboarding, the West Coast Fine Art Show, and the B.C. Country Music Association.
Just as when we arrived all those years ago, there’ll be memories on tap for the whole family.
Just remember one thing – never squat with your spurs on.
Cloverdale Rodeo: May 20-23. Cloverdale Bed Races: May 19. Cloverdale Rodeo Parade: May 21
– Ursula Maxwell-Lewis is a former Cloverdale Rodeo and Exhibition Director and freelance travel journalist