The roots of chuckwagon racing in Alberta

This year, the Calgary Stampede is going all out to celebrate the centennial of the first stampede in 1912.

Among the signature events of the annual ‘Greatest Outdoor Show on Earth’ are the chuckwagon races, often referred to as the Rangeland Derby.

The origins of the Rangeland Derby are a bit vague, even though chuckwagon racing is the only outdoor sporting event that was created solely in Alberta. There is no doubt that the sport has some roots in the informal races that took place during the early cattle drives across North America.

However, one common story is that Guy Weadick, the developer of the organized races, was inspired by the cooks who had been serving the barbeque at the 1919 Victory Stampede in Calgary and then raced each other for the grandstand’s exit.

Whatever the actual source of the idea, Weadick decided to make chuchwagon races one of the main features at the 1923 Stampede.

The format was quite simple. Contestants imitated the breaking up of a camp, including the tossing of tent poles and a stove into the back of the wagon.

The wagons, flanked by outriders, then raced in a figure eight fashion around barrels and then off to the finish line, where the team had to re-strike camp.

The winners were initially determined by which contestants were able to show the first visible smoke from their stoves.

Chuckwagon races proved an enormous hit and have been part of the show at the Calgary Stampede ever since. Similar events were also quickly organized across Central and Southern Alberta.

The first running of the chuckwagons at the Red Deer Fair took place on July 23, 1924 during the first summer after the inaugural event in Calgary.

The winners were Tom Lauder of the Innisfail/Elnora area and his partner Ray Bagley, a rancher from east of Red Deer.

They had also been the winners of the races at the Calgary Stampede two weeks before.

The event was such a success that Ray Bagley decided to include chuckwagon races at the stampede which was held at this ranch at the end of August. Large crowds turned out for the show. Once again, Bagley and his partner Tom Lauder won the chuckwagon races.

An attempt by Jake Smith of Calgary to hold another stampede in Red Deer, at the beginning of September, was a bust. Many people felt that the location on the Banting farm south and west of the City (the current site of the Red Deer College) was too far out of town for potential attendees.

Others held that publicity for the show had been weak.

The only two events that drew any kind of crowd were a boxing match between Baden Whiteside and Manley Sills as well as airplane demonstrations and passenger rides by the famous Wop May of Edmonton.

Financial problems prevented the Red Deer Agricultural Society from continuing chuckwagon racing at the annual Red Deer Fair. However, in 1925, a new chuckwagon champion emerged at the Calgary Stampede from the Red Deer area.

He was Jim Ross, a rancher from Pine Lake.

Together with his friend Bayse Collins, he won the 1925 Rangeland Derby. Ross won again in 1929 and 1932, while Tom Lauder was the champion in 1927 and 1928. Lauder also won the inaugural chuckwagon races at the Edmonton Exhibition in 1925.

Jim Ross became a popular promoter of the Calgary Stampede and other rodeos by serving pancake breakfasts from the back of his chuckwagon.

He got a young ranch hand Wilf Carter to play some music during the meals. Carter later immortalized Jim Ross by mentioning him in his famous 1935 song The Calgary Round-Up.

Meanwhile, several generations of the Lauder family have continued the tradition of excellence in chuckwagon racing. Son-in-law Ron Glass became a championship driver. Three of those victories came while he was driving the John Phelan rig from Red Deer. Tom Lauder’s grandson Tom Glass and two of his great-grandsons, Jason Glass and Colt Cosgrave, are also championship drivers while great-grandson Chad Cosgrave is a member of championship outrider teams.