CBC Digital Archives

The origin of the 'chucks'

For 10 days in July, mild-mannered Calgarians don skin-tight wranglers, big shiny belts and even bigger Stetsons and go into "Stampede mode." Not much work gets done as cowboys, Indian princesses, ferris wheels and pancake breakfasts take hold of the city. From its humble beginnings in 1912 to the ongoing controversy over chuckwagon races, the Calgary Exhibition & Stampede continues to be Canada's annual salute to the good old days of the Wild West.

It was strictly an accident, recalls Dick Cosgrave, the 10-time chuckwagon racing champ. The retired cowboy tells CBC Radio how the races originated at the Calgary Stampede back in 1919.
According to Cosgrave, a big buffalo barbeque was cooked up in the back of two chuckwagons to celebrate a local politician's birthday.

After the feast, an impromptu race began to see which chuckwagon could pack up and leave the fastest.
The quick-paced action so impressed the folks in the grandstand that it led to the Calgary Stampede's most popular event, the Rangeland Derby.
• Chuckwagon races, simply known as the "chucks" to Calgarians, officially debuted at the Calgary Stampede in 1923.

• Bill Smoners was the first Rangeland Derby chuckwagon racing champ in 1923.

• Chuckwagons were originally used during the American Civil War as hospital units by army surgeons. The wagon had a medical supply chest attached to its back. When lowered, the hinged gates protecting the chest served as a dispensary or an operating table.

• The Canadian Professional Chuckwagon Association offers up a different version of the origin of the chuckwagon races. In the wild old days, cowboys would rendezvous in town for some much-needed rest and relaxation. The last one into town had to buy the first round of drinks. It provided a great incentive for cowboys to pack up their chuckwagons and hit the road as fast as possible.

• A typical race involves four chuckwagons, each pulled by four thoroughbreds, with two to four outriders assisting the driver. At the sound of the horn, each team of outriders breaks camp and packs up their tent poles and stoves onto the chuckwagons. Then it's up to the driver to complete two figure eights around two barrels in the infield and race like hell around the track to the finish line.

Medium: Radio
Program: Assignment
Broadcast Date: July 10, 1958
Guest(s): Dick Cosgrave
Interviewer: Bob Willson
Duration: 3:51

Last updated: February 24, 2012

Page consulted on December 6, 2013

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