It was a gutsy gamble 50 summers ago when the townsfolk of Morris nervously waited to see if their new rodeo would revive a small-town fair about to bite the dust.
Long before the Manitoba Stampede and Exhibition began, the Valley Agricultural Society struggled to break even hosting its tiny country fair.
“It wasn’t going anywhere,” recalls Morris resident Chas Covernton. “A group of citizens was trying to decide if they’d shut it down completely.”
Then someone mentioned the Northwest Roundup, Swan River’s popular rodeo.
“We said there was no reason why we couldn’t do the same thing here,” says Covernton, a stampede founder and its secretary treasurer for 29 years.
They looked for advice— and money. With $200 to its name, the agricultural society asked local residents for small loans of $100 each. When 108 gave cash — with no guarantee of repayment — the bank was impressed enough to kick in another $25,000. Local contractors agreed to build the track on a promise they’d be paid if the rodeo went well.
That first spring was a scramble as the big fir timbers ordered from Oregon to build the grandstand arrived late, says Covernton.
“It was towards the end of April when they started the work on the track,” he recalls. “The day we opened I think they were still pounding nails.”
Others were biting their nails, anxiously wondering if the grand dream would fly.
The crowds exceeded their wildest expectations — a crowd of about 40,000, according to the stampede’s new history book.
“We took in $15,500 at the outside gate at 50 cents a head, to give you an idea of what the crowd was like,” says Covernton.
The rest, as they say, is history. The event was so popular, organizers expanded the rodeo to five days in 1967 and built new barns and the Pioneer Partners building. In 1968 the Canadian Rodeo Cowboys Association declared the Manitoba Stampede and Exhibition the second-largest professional rodeo in Canada. The stampede adopted its ‘Red Hat’ symbol in 1969.
Today ‘The Big M’ remains Manitoba’s one and only professional rodeo, and continues to rank among the top 10 in the country as a top-notch event for family entertainment.
And it’s still drawing the crowds — anywhere from 25,000 to 30,000 annually, with the economic spinoffs benefiting the entire area.
The town once considered “rebranding” their community as something besides host of a stampede, but, as the cowboy saying goes, if a horse is running good, you don’t change its feed.
“The stampede is as important to us as it’s ever been, and maybe even more important,” says Curtis Evenson, chair of the 50th anniversary committee.
And it’s important to the province of Manitoba too, adds Malissa Dreger Lewis, general manager of the event.
“A lot of people call it the Morris Stampede, but it’s the Manitoba Stampede,” she said. “It’s a Manitoba event.”
Credit goes to the people who were willing to try something different, says Evenson.
“There aren’t a lot of cowboys right in Morris, and there aren’t a lot of horses around here,” he notes.
It takes dedication in the community, too. To mark its 50th year, a reception with awards and recognition of contributions by the community will be held. A history book of the stampede has also been prepared.
“For a town of our size, to be able to bring in up to 30,000-plus over four days to come to see this show year after year is a pretty good accomplishment,” says Tim Lewis, stampede president.
“It’s definitely something we’re proud of. And we want to work towards future shows down the road.”
Now a seven-event professional rodeo, the Manitoba Stampede and Exhibition runs from July 18 to 21. Team penning has been added to its roster of events, which also includes the championship pony chuckwagon races and the one-of-a-kind thoroughbred chariot and Ben Hur races, an event which originated at the Manitoba Stampede.