After the buffalo roamed freely when cowboys were king, the Big Gap Ranchers Roundup and Rodeo was a piece of history that has permanently stamped the Neutral Hills.
It has been 100 years since the roundup graced the Neutral Hills, approximately 19 kilometres north of Consort, Alta. and approximately 39 kilometres south of Czar, Alta.
The wild west was prominent as ranchers would gather to meet for a special weekend of riding and performances.
The hills were a meeting ground for aboriginal bands before settlers came and were often referred to as a neutral space, hence the current name.
When settlers finally arrived they began to gather there for a special time rodeo, midway, races, wild west plays portraying Alberta’s early history, stories of the Wild West as well as conducting cattle brandings which eventually evolved into the Big Gap Ranchers Roundup.
Big Gap refers to the physique of the hillside.
The dates of the Stampede varied.
They were originally to start on July 1 but over the years, for various reasons, were moved.
It started in 1916 with the final gathering happening in 1919, 100 years ago this year.
In its final year, the Edmonton Bulletin reported that there was at least 12,000 attendees, 1,700 automobiles, 500 teams pulling various contraptions from stone boats and bunkhouses to fancy buggies with surreys, 200 saddle horse and 100 cowboys.
Many believe that over the threeday event, easily 20,000 people entered the grounds.
It was known as one of the largest aggregations of bonafide cowboy riders at any one time and place in Western Canada.
In 2016, the 100th anniversary of the first Big Gap Roundup started at the site of the cairn commemorating this rich history.
A 15-mile trail ride ended at Gooseberry Lake with a barbeque and dance keeping the hills alive for a day.
The legendary Big Gap Ranchers Roundup is “unequalled”.
For its final year, only four large ranches truly remained including the Poynter Ranch at Sounding Lake, the Bartlett and Gattey Ranch at the east end of Gooseberry lake, the Boulton Ranch and the Lane Ranch.
In addition to the recognized rodeo, wild west shows, airplane rides, a baseball tournament, parades, band performances, races, dances and more kept the crowd of visitors entertained throughout the three days.
The single largest advertising campaign was the theatrical performances and fake bank robberies put on by a large group of actors, riders, trick ropers, “Indians”, announcers and directors.
At one point they had visited Edmonton to direct attention towards the event.
Since the 180-mile trek to the capital of Alberta was far too long, they took automobiles, stopping at several locations along the way to promote it.
Since there were hardly any Aboriginals left in the area at the time of the Big Gap Round Ups, the local cowboys would dress up and paint themselves as natives to play the scenes of cowboys and Indians fighting battles at neck breaking speeds on horseback.
An excerpt from the Big Gap Ranchers Roundup and other legends of the Neutral Hills describes: “As the cavalcade reached the various towns on route to Edmonton, a pattern emerged. The Scottish Piper and drummer led the parade blaring out ‘the Campbells are coming’ to which the cowboys sang ‘the Cowboys are coming.’ The Indians in costume with their hideous war paint danced and chanted.
“The trick riders danced alongside spinning ropes, skipping back and forth through the spinning loops; while cowboys dressed in full regalia exploded blank ammunition as fast as they could reload. Only taking time out to lasso any stray dog that happened to venture within range.”
As all the commotion stirring from the performers continued, advertising committee members would place posters around for people to look at afterwards. Each performance was quick, lasting about 15 minutes in total.
End of an era
The fall of the Roundup came down to size and demand and the changing of the times.
Water was a limited resource that was hauled from several miles away to supply the growing number of visitors.
Drought had forced many away to urban areas.
The other concern was the preservation of the cowboy way of life.
At the opening ceremonies, Major Inman warned that “Where the prairie roses bloom on the hillsides we shall soon see the tombstones of the cowboy and his way of life. Such celebrations as these cannot continue for many years.”
Each individual was asked to sign a petition to lobby the government to keep these crown lands preserved as a spot where western scenes could be perpetuated from year to year. This was a time when the horse and buggy were being replaced by the latest automobiles.
Illegal activity was also rampant throughout the weekend as illegal whiskey was being sold and ‘Ladies of the Night’ and gambling were found to be problematic.
Men were not returning from the first world war.
With the homesteaders fully entrenched there was no free range left to be used and they couldn’t afford to buy more land in hard times.
It was the great emptying of the prairies from a time when there used to be such densely populated areas only made worse by drought and hard times.
Roughly 20 pioneers have died and were buried amongst the hills.
“Some of the more well established were able to hang in and still form the roots of that area. It was the end of a very magical and colourful era of our province and Western Canada,” said Diane Maull.
The largest reason the Roundup didn’t continue was that the 08 Ranch was sold as well as the increasingly large size of the crowd that came.
There was talk that the event would be moved to Gooseberry Lake but the undertaking would have been massive.
On top of all of this, 1919 was the third drought year in a row.
All of these issues combined equalled the end of an era for the Big Gap Ranchers Roundup.
Information courtesy of Diane Maull and Patrick Gilmer. The Big Gap Ranchers Roundup and other legends of the Neutral Hills book is available for $40. It can be found at Coronation Value Drug Mart, Buffalo Trail Liquor in Consort and Dirks Studio in Provost.