It’s Stampede week, a time to get the western spirit and celebrate the city’s history as a “cowtown.”
Along with the 88th Stampede Williams Lake is celebrating its 85th birthday this year. While the dates differ for a couple of reasons, the city and the Stampede grew up together.
We sometimes forget big parts of our history. Williams Lake was a First Nations community for eons before the European fur traders arrived, followed by the gold seekers. The fur traders left few footprints.
The short-lived Cariboo Gold Rush, which began mid-1800s, not only left big footprints, it opened the country for the cattlemen who stayed to make their living, if not their fortunes, on “green gold” of the Cariboo Chilcotin grasslands.
Some of the oldest cattle ranches in Canada are in this area. Those first ranchers were holding competitions involving horses (stampedes, races, polo games) years before the first Pacific Great Eastern train arrived Williams Lake in 1919, and what is now the city of Williams Lake sprouted in what had been pioneer William Pinchbeck’s wheatfield. The Stampede started at the same time. The coming of the railway was all about cows and the need for an efficient way to get them to market.
Williams Lake became the biggest cattle shipping centre in B.C. Those first ranches are still going strong and probably will be when other resource industries falter. These days there is much talk of the need for “sustainable” industries. Cattle have been raised on the same lands for more than 150 years. Surely that can be considered a sustainable industry. So can the rodeo industry.
Our ranching/rodeo history is what makes Williams Lake unique. Other communities have ranching histories, some have rodeos. We have both, and none can match them.
So this week, let’s celebrate our birthday, our history, and the famous Williams Lake Stampede.
Diana French is a freelance columnist for the Tribune. She is a former Tribune editor, retired teacher, historian, and book author.