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Cariboo Calling: Bridge Lake Stampede a social event

Shirley Canning (nee Granberg) remembers as a teenager going to the Bridge Lake Stampede with her family.

Shirley Canning (nee Granberg) remembers as a teenager going to the Bridge Lake Stampede with her family.

They would pack a picnic lunch and make a day of it.

“When we would go out to Bridge Lake we would pack this big huge picnic. The guys would have beer and when the rodeo was over about 3:30 or 4 p.m., we’d have this large picnic,” she said. “Anybody we knew was welcome to come. My mom would make all this food up. It was a lot of work.”

You never missed a rodeo, she said. You just went. It was about meeting all the neighbours and all the old-timers. Anybody who was anybody in the Cariboo would come out.

“It was a social event.”

The Bridge Lake Stampede is often referred to today as the biggest little amateur rodeo in the Interior. But it didn’t start out that way.

In 1946, the Bridge Lake Community Club began looking for a spot to hold their annual baseball games and sport days. Looking for centrally located property they managed to purchase eight acres from Frank Hansen and an additional five acres adjacent to the property from the government.

To celebrate, a big sports day for the whole community was held on the first of July. Horse racing was introduced in the second year and this turned out to be a tremendous success.

It was after this that Mac Thomason, the club’s president at the time, suggested to club members Ernie King, Walt Daniels, the Reed brothers and Charlie Faessler that they should hold an annual stampede every year. The men were skeptical at first as none of them had been to a rodeo.

One of the local cowboys, Leonard Larson, had been to the odd rodeo and had an idea how they operated. He was persuaded to help and Thomason eventually convinced the other club members to give it a try.

Plans got underway and work crews were formed to clear and level the land and burn the brush. Fences and corrals were erected, and a cook shack was built to feed the hoped-for crowd which would come from the surrounding ranches.

In the early years, the stock was supplied by local ranchers. Twenty cattle in all, including the milk cow, Babe, were supplied by Don Petrie and Jack Black for the first rodeo in 1948. They were driven to the grounds from the Twin Lakes Ranch with the help of the Tobe Medda boys, Heggie, Croll and Isley. After the rodeo, the same boys drove them home a distance of 16 miles return. They did the ranch chores and then rode horseback to the dance at the North Bridge Lake Hall, another 10 miles.

Horses that were hard to break for farm work were equipped with bucking straps. Names like Toby, Prince, Duke and Sam were replaced with Porch Climber, Swiss Lullaby, Black Powder and Tail Twister to set the mood.

If it weren’t for the hard work of the stampede chairman and his many volunteers working on their days off, and in the evenings, a stampede of today’s magnitude would never have gotten off the ground.

Managers over the years included Thomason, Daniels, Bill Greenall, Jack Larson, Gary Cleveland and Faessler.

“I did the first probably 12 years with Bridge Lake when I started doing it,” said Cleveland, who manages the Interlakes Rodeo now.

Perhaps the hardest worker but the least recognized was Molly Dean Freeman, the club secretary. She carried the load, drawing up programs, writing letters, taking entries, keeping track of winners and then spending weeks afterward getting the whole business down in the records.

The buying and preparation of food to feed the large appetites of the crowds was also a significant challenge. Buy too much and they had the hassle of disposing of the leftover food. Buy too little and you had an angry crowd. Other people worked behind the scenes people making pies and chili while trying to entertain the many friends and relatives who have just dropped by to take in the big event.

Rodeo today is a major undertaking. Arrangements must be made with the stock contractors who truck the stock to the rodeo grounds in the wee hours of the morning before the rodeo.

Area managers, chute bosses, men handling and sorting the animals, judges, announcers and entry personnel must all be arranged. The list of the jobs which must be taken care of before the final hour could go on and on. Unfortunately, said Cleveland, the biggest thing is it’s just hard for both rodeos (Bridge Lake and Interlakes) because it’s hard to get people to help these days.

But the stampede is still going strong, and after a three-year hiatus due to COVID-19, the Bridge Lake Stampede made its return on Canada Day in 2023.

“It started out as a picnic 71 years ago and it’s kind of evolved over time,” said Bridge Lake Community Club president Jamie Law.

This year’s rodeo was held in memory of Ryan Plant, a longtime member of the club who passed away a year and a half ago. Law said Plant was always keen to help out with the rodeo so it seemed fitting to dedicate this one to him.

The rodeo tends to have around 100 rodeo performers compete across all the events and attract thousands of spectators. Many come to camp at the rodeo grounds Friday and Saturday night.

“Some of our volunteers have been getting older but we were lucky this year because we seemed to have some new people willing to volunteer their time and show interest in it. I’m glad to see that,” Law said. “For me, it’s always been a community event to get everyone together locally and I like to think it still does that.”

Fiona Grisswell

About the Author: Fiona Grisswell

I graduated from the Writing and New Media Program at the College of New Caledonia in Prince George in 2004.
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