A description of Calgary to an outsider requires explaining where the cowboy narrative ends and the metropolitan reality begins. Sure, there’s the cowtown label, propped up by a rich Old West heritage. But at the same time, there is a young, cosmopolitan city building a reputation on the international stage.
“The dichotomy we have now goes back 100 years,” said local historian Harry Sanders.
On one hand, Calgarians seem to want to pull on cowboy boots and tramp through manure, Sanders said, but on the other hand we still want to be Toronto.
“We think, in 1912, Calgary was a cowtown,” Sanders said. “But they [1912 residents] thought it was a metropolis.”
The Stampede was founded in 1912 as an exercise in nostalgia for the golden era of ranching at the end of the 19th century, according to Sanders. It was founded by Guy Weadick, who Sanders said “had a nostalgia streak a mile wide.”
Lance Carlson, chairman of Calgary’s rebranding process, says that the city’s new brand will encourage people to move to Calgary, stay and invest.
Photo: Zoey Duncan/Calgary Journal
By 1890, most men didn’t wear chaps and Stetsons in the streets of Calgary, but it wasn’t unusual to see rough and burly cowboys in the city when they were between jobs. The “sweat-stained, dirt-caked crew” would come into town to take a bath before they “squandered their pay with gay abandon,” according to the 1967 book, Calgary, by W.B. Fraser.
The term cowtown can refer to any town or city in the cattle-raising area of western North America, according to the New Oxford American Dictionary. The more colloquial meaning is “a small, isolated or unsophisticated town,” according to the same dictionary.
Presently, Calgary is undergoing a process to create a new brand, including replacing the “Heart of the New West” motto, which has been in use since 2000. The current catchphrase, along with the stylized Stetson logo, doesn’t accurately represent Calgary, according to the project’s chairman, Lance Carlson.
That brand “spoke to one slice of Calgary,” said Carlson, who is also president of the Alberta College of Art and Design. The rebrand committee commissioned a survey of local individuals and groups in 2007 to find out how the “Heart of the New West” campaign was being used.
The results suggested that the motto and logo were not being used by anyone outside of Tourism Calgary and Calgary Economic Development, and that local businesses didn’t feel accurately represented by the brand.
Carlson, originally from Los Angeles, moved to Calgary about six years ago to take his current position with ACAD. He said that his online research before accepting the job got him well-informed about the western influence on Calgary, but left some blanks. He said that his view of the city is not necessarily a smarter eye, but a new eye.
“When you’re a newcomer to anything, you do notice things differently than people who are from there,” Carlson said.
The new brand is being developed by Gensler, a Los Angeles-based design firm, and will address other facets of Calgary. Carlson said some of the characteristics they want to include are youthfulness, entrepreneurship, boldness, dynamism and being forward-looking. He called those traits the “girders that underpin the visual identity” of the city.
The new brand, which is still being developed, will take a step away from the western-centric imagery that currently welcomes visitors at the city’s border, according to Carlson.
Historian Harry Sanders said that he hopes local history is important to Calgarians, but recognizes that many residents are new to the city and are still discovering its history.
“It’s always a struggle,” he said. “Calgary is a young city, it remakes itself with every generation. There’s often a new wave of people moving here.
“There is an affection for the past and of course it focuses on the Stampede. Calgary really was a cowtown, and it has that element, [but] there’s more to it.”
Sanders likened the western history of Calgary to ghost stories, except with more truth. We believe it’s true, act like it’s true and we tell the story for 100 years, he said.
The difference between ghosts and cowboys? “I believe in cowboys,” Sanders said.