Southern legacy left in Alberta

KATIE SCHNEIDER, QMI Agency

, Last Updated: 5:35 PM ET

Thirty-five years ago, Marg and Ron Southern wanted to leave their mark on Calgary and Alberta.

Little did they know how much their dream of turning a cattle feedlot into a family friendly show jumping facility would leave a mark on the world.

Looking out onto the International Ring that used to be that bare piece of land in the early 1970s, the 79-year-old matriarch of the Spruce Meadows family says it all started with wanting to give back to the community and leave a lasting legacy for Albertans.

“We grew up in Calgary and always said...we would put something back into the community,” she said.

“Some people become philanthropic, we felt as Albertans we wanted to build something that would be lasting and go on through the generations.

“That’s what we have tried to do with Spruce Meadows.”

The couple used to travel to Europe to watch show jumping and knew they wanted to create a facility for the sport at home.

“I always loved horses, it was always in my blood,” she said.

“Our dream has come true but it didn’t happen alone.”

Spruce Meadows, the name of which was created with their kids around the Southern’s kitchen table, hosted its first tournaments in June 1976 and then a Nation’s Cup in 1977.

Back then, the venue rented stands from the city of Calgary and only brought in about 400 visitors to see riders jump during shows.

Show jumping was only featured in the society page of newspapers and never covered in the sports section.

“We worked really hard at making it a sporting event,” she said.

But through word of mouth and educational programs and school tours, Spruce Meadows and the sport started to bloom.

“We had 5,000 children coming to Spruce Meadows every year and being introduced to the sport,” she said.

“We often stop and see young families and ask ‘when did you first come here?’ and they say ‘I came when I was in Grade 4.’

“It’s really how the fan base started to grow.”

By 1979, the venue saw 50,000 visitors a year per.

Then by 2009, 500,000 visitors flocked to Spruce Meadows during the season.

But through the years, one thing that has never changed is Spruce Meadow’s foundation of family values and with that the low price of $5 to enter the facility.

“We wanted a place for families,” she said.

“I wanted it to be a park where people could bring a picnic and enjoy a day in the country.”

And now her daughter, Linda Southern-Heathcott, who has taken the reins of Spruce Meadows as president, said the future of the venue looks bright.

“We can expand on our shoulder season, fall, winter, spring,” she said, adding that could include a winter wonderland type event at the facility.

“I think we can do something, I haven’t come up with it yet."

She would also like to see Spruce Meadows host an international championship like the World Equestrian Games.

And this September during the Master’s, Spruce Meadows will begin opening its newly revamped upper and lower plazas as part of a facelift to the grounds.

“I see this is a bit of a permanent park like setting with more permanent buildings,” she said.

She said the family is proud of where Spruce Meadows has come in 35 years and what its future holds.

“I know everyone is proud of the journey and proud of the accomplishments,” she said.

“We always strive for more and to improve.”

But she’s not done yet,” she said.

“It certainly isn’t finished yet.”

katie.schneider@sunmedia.ca


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