UNITY — The first Unity Western Days took place in June of 1982. Western Days should have been able to celebrate its 40th anniversary in 2021, but with pandemic-caused cancellations in 2020 and 2021, it is 2023 that will mark 40 years for rodeo and related activities in Unity.
Some of Unity’s Western Day traditions began in 1982 and continue to the present day: the rodeo events themselves, both Saturday and Sunday, with all their attendant spills and thrills; the rodeo queen contest, the parade organized by the Unity Chamber of Commerce, a Friday night dance (organized by the Unity Minor Hockey Association in 1982) and a Saturday night rodeo dance.
The four young ladies running to become rodeo queen that first year were Darcy Keller, Kari Leeson, Corine Mettlewsky and Lynda Mae Smith, with Corine (now Thalheimer) taking the crown, awarded at the rodeo dance on the Saturday night where Harry Startup’s “First Avenue” from North Battleford provided the music.
Shead’s Variety Store sponsored a bicycle decorating contest for parade entries, and winning in the under-12 age group were Todd Bosch (also the youngest contestant), Rolanda Miller and Jeffrey Schumack. Sharon Boser won in the over-12 group.
Unity Kinsmen hosted first annual rodeo
That first annual rodeo was organized by the Unity Kinsmen, and Kin John Gilbert was the convener in charge. After the event, The Northwest Herald reported: “Wet, windy and generally miserable weather plagued Unity’s First Western Days parade last Saturday. But the weather was hardly enough to stop the momentum which the Unity Kinsmen had initiated with the organization of the first annual Unity Kinsmen Rodeo …. Despite the rain spectators lined the parade route watching either from their cars or from under any shelter that was available.”
The rain let up before the rodeo itself was scheduled to begin and, after an hour-and-a-half delay to let the grounds dry out, the rodeo was underway with many spectators in attendance.
According to The Northwest Herald report, “Gilbert … said this first attempt at such a large undertaking represented a great deal of work on the part of the local service club members. He was greatly appreciative of the co-operation of the Kinsmen in attending the many work parties, to the local business places for financial support, and lastly, to the general public for taking such a great interest in the rodeo in spite of adverse weather conditions.”
Jack Fewster was president of the Unity Kinsmen at the time. He and Gilbert remember the work that went into that first rodeo. The idea had come from the North Battleford Kinsmen Club and Skip Kelliher, owner of Royal Rodeo, who became the first stock contractor.
The N.B. club suggested holding the rodeo in the arena but the Unity club decided to have it outdoors.
Fewster and Gilbert said “Kelliher … was a tremendous help for the committee. He was a true ambassador for the sport of rodeo.”
Rodeo committee approached town for land that is still rodeo grounds today
The rodeo committee approached the Town of Unity for a lease on the land that is still the rodeo grounds today. They travelled to a number of other communities to look at facilities in order to develop the best plan for Unity’s rodeo grounds. As chuckwagon races were to be part of the event, Unity’s arena area was made larger to accommodate that.
Posts were put in for corrals and wire and planks installed. Fewster and Gilbert said “There were enough club members working that the wire was being put up and stretched as fast as it could be unrolled. The wire is still up after 40 years.”
Chutes were rented from North Battleford and had to be hauled on trailers behind half-tons to Unity and back. Fewster and Gilbert noted, “This was quite hard on transmissions!”
The pair continued their description of the work put into the rodeo in 1982: “Portable panels were brought in and had to be cleaned before being returned to co-op and damaged ones were purchased by members.
“The bleachers were hauled from behind the arena. Twenty to 25 guys lifted them onto a flat deck trailer and they had to be hauled back after the rodeo.
“The co-op donated water troughs for animals and to keep the beer cold at the arena.
“A small lean-to was hauled from Jullian Lubininsy’s farm to be used as a booth. Many burgers were cooked.
“Water trucks, tractors, cultivators, harrows and graders were all donated by farmers and businesses.
“Outhouses were hauled in and out.
“The rodeo office was a holiday trailer.
“There were many work parties. Great fellowship and everyone turned out to help.
“The rodeo date was set after seeding and before holidays. Some asked John what if it rains? John said a good rain doesn’t stop a rodeo.” And indeed, it did not.
Admission to the rodeo each day was $4 for adults, $3 for students and for seniors, and $1 for children under 12. Admission to the Saturday night rodeo dance was $5.
In 1982, the dance was held in the skating arena. Tables were set up for the bar, and the “bank” in a dressing room.
Inaugural event set the stage for annual tradition
Fewster and Gilbert said, “It was very hard keeping up pouring drinks … As cash built up, it was put in pouches and escorted to the bank. John said it was a good thing the rodeo wasn’t in the skating arena or there wouldn’t have been a place for the dance. The curling rink floor was sand at that time. The Kinsmen and Kinnettes also looked after the dance [and] cleaned up the arena after the dance. [The] sun was usually getting up when [everyone] got home and they were up for slack at 8 a.m. that morning.”
The rodeo and surrounding events, despite the rain that first year, were successful enough to indeed become annual events. Fewster said, “John did a great job of laying out the foundation for the many years to follow.” The pair agreed “The success of any large project like this is having the whole club behind the project and working to build the arena and work at the rodeo. The Kinettes also had a big part in getting this project off the ground and working at the rodeo events in the food both and at the dance.”
Unity-Wilkie Press-Herald and SASKTODAY.ca will carry more memories and history of Unity Western Days in the coming weeks.