The Zeitgeist of Western Settlement and the Calgary Stampede

By Jones, David C. | Alberta History, Summer 2012 | Go to article overview

The Zeitgeist of Western Settlement and the Calgary Stampede


Jones, David C., Alberta History


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Canada's golden era of immigration from 1901 to 1914 welcomed 2.9 million newcomers as the population bounded from 5.4 million to 7.9 million. The prairies were the main destination.

The primary purpose of the settlement was agrarian, and changes wrought were immense. Alberta's population alone leapt from 73,000 in 1901 to 374,000 in 1911, and to 496,000 in 1916, multiplying by almost seven fold. (1) The latest expansion was in the southeast, in the Dry Belt, extending into southwestern Saskatchewan. From 1901 to 1916, the population in the latter mushroomed from 17,700 to 178,200; the number of farms from 2,400 to 38,000, and the area in crop from 124,000 acres to 4,500,000. In southeastern Alberta the population sprang from 4,400 to 102,000; the number of farms from 2,000 to 31,000; the area in crop from 80,700 acres to 2,700,000 in 1915. (2) Infusing this massive transformation was a virtual Zeitgeist, a powerful spirit identified with the land. Largely, it was this Zeitgeist or spirit, combined with the energy of related changes, that set the scene for the first Calgary Stampede in 1912, and it was this same Zeitgeist that prevented a recurrence of the stampede with the exhibition until 1923. The dissipation of the Zeitgeist and supporting energies in the early 1920s then greatly facilitated the reunion of the two events in 1923. (3)

The Zeitgeist of Western Settlement

The Zeitgeist of western settlement was North American in scope. In the United States President Roosevelt established a Country Life Commission in 1908. "If there is one lesson taught by history," he said, "it is that the permanent greatness of any state must ultimately depend more upon the character of its country population than anything else. No growth of cities, no growth of wealth can make up for a loss in either the number or the character of the farming population .... We cannot afford to lose that preeminently typical American, the farmer who owns his own farm." (4)

In Canada a Royal Commission on Industrial Training and Technical Education was launched in 1910 under the acclaimed agricultural teacher, J.W. Robertson. Concentrating mostly on industry, it helped create the Agricultural Instruction Act of 1914. "The conservation of a vigorous, intelligent and prosperous population in the Country," the Commission declared, "stands out amongst the foremost duties of the whole nation." (5)

When Federal Agriculture Minister Martin Burrell introduced the Agricultural Instruction Bill in 1913, he urgently proclaimed the desirability of a "rural civilization." "That solitary figure in the distant furrow, that stooped form tending the hearth of the isolated home," he said, was the symbol of "our national necessities, our national virtues, and our national strength." (6)

In Quebec, Jean de la Croix, Director of OKA Institute of Agriculture, felt "a reawakening of the love of the soil--a love innate to our race, it is the loud voice of the ancestors, beseeching their sons not to abandon the wealth of the land they had cleared and by which the race was to be maintained and ennobled. Atavism, generally a cause of disappointment, here becomes the strength of the future." "The twentieth century," M. Cummings, Principal of Nova Scotia Agricultural College, said, was witnessing "a movement in which farmers will take their place among the leaders in the seats of the mighty." (7)

A rush of affirmation flowed from powerful sources. There was a flurry of books from Liberty Hyde Bailey, chairman of the U.S. Country Life Commission, and several texts in Canada, including J.W. Robertson's The Satisfaction of Country Life (1913). Agricultural departments, agricultural schools, and agricultural colleges added their propaganda. The prairie farm press, including The Nor'-West Farmer (est. 1882), The Farmer's Advocate and Home Journal (western edition est. 1890), The Farm and Ranch Review (est. …

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