A Penny an Acre

From open range to Stampede midway: The roots of Alberta ranching and its lasting legacy—our cowboy culture

By Simon Evans

Our “cowboy culture” has deep historic roots and it is right that we should have a yearly party to celebrate, but it would be tragic if we allowed the tawdry make-believe of the Stampede midway to eclipse our real story. We need to explore our culture—and savour it—so that we can pass it on to newcomers as part of our Alberta heritage.

Historically, ranching has been more important to Canada than even we Albertans know. The number of live steers Canada shipped to Britain in 1877 was 20,000 head. By 1898 that number had risen to some 212,000. For two decades (1880–1900) live cattle vied with wood products and minerals as Canada’s major export, and outranked wheat and field products. The names of the ranchers, both investors and owners, behind this first prairie boom read like a who’s who of the Canadian and British establishments. Their combined political power was immense. They were able to influence decisions on a national level—and all of this even before Alberta became a province.

Outside of a few academics and ranchers themselves, most Albertans know very little about the early history of ranching in this province: how the industry got started, by whom, and how the huge open-range outfits gave way, within a generation, to a mosaic of ranches of different sizes and specializations. Some were smaller, family-owned and intensive, focused on producing purebred cattle or horses; some—still very large by any standards—nurtured their cow-calf herds with winter feed and provided careful attention during spring calving; still others continued to use the largely unoccupied semi-arid mixed grassland in the east of the province and the broken land of the foothills and the Milk River Ridge in ways which retained many of the characteristics of the “open range” era.

Revellers on the midway at the Calgary Stampede.

Revellers on the midway at the Calgary Stampede. (Photo Courtesy of the Calgary Stampede)

An extraordinary combination of circumstances encouraged the spectacular growth of the Canadian cattle industry during the last quarter of the 19th century. The United Kingdom was leading Europe along an untrod path toward industrialization and urbanization. Rural Britain, that “green and pleasant land,” was being transformed by railways, coal mines, steel mills and “dark satanic” textile mills. The rapidly growing populations of the new industrial cities worked long hours; they required a protein-rich diet to sustain their manual labour. Despite the lamentable conditions in which this workforce lived, its purchasing power was actually rising and its demand for meat, fat and offal grew.

In the later half of the century, a series of epidemics decimated the herds of farmers from East Anglia through the Welsh valleys to the Scottish borders. Pleuropneumonia, foot and mouth disease and rinderpest were introduced from Europe and Africa and became endemic. Science of the time had few answers to these scourges. Between 1869 and 1876, losses were estimated at in excess of 5.5 million head of cattle.

Increasing demand coupled with reduced domestic production created an opportunity for pastoralists around the world. Perhaps the most spectacular response was the “Beef Bonanza” which attracted a flood of investment from Britain to the grasslands of the western US. But Canada was able to exploit both her location and economic ties with the mother country to secure and hold an important share of the British market for live cattle.

Equally important was the political situation. Prime Minister John A. Macdonald eyed the progress of western settlement in the US with apprehension. The western Canadian borderlands were in the economic hinterland of Fort Benton, which commanded the Missouri River route to midwestern entrepôts. Settlers in the Fort Macleod area had to use US stamps. The North-West Mounted Police communicated with Ottawa from Fort Shaw in Montana Territory!

To parry US expansionism, Macdonald committed his government to pursue the persuasive dream of a “National Policy” that would weld Canada into an economic and political reality. However, in the 1870s soaring costs—treaty obligations to the Indians, the NWMP, surveying—strained the government to the limit. What could be more statesmanlike than to encourage men who had already proved themselves as stockmen, and who were well aware of the requirements of the British market, to establish large ranches in the West? At one blow this would provide a local source of meat to fulfill treaty obligations—with the buffalo decimated, Indians had become reliant on government beef—and curtail the power of the great Montana-based trading companies. In the longer term, surplus cattle produced on the vast grasslands of the northwest would provide valuable freight for the projected transcontinental railway and contribute to a growing export staple.

Feeding the workers of the industrial revolution, some 212,000 live cattle were shipped to Britain in 1898.

In 1881, Macdonald’s cabinet passed an Order-In-Council under the Dominion Lands Act which made leases of western grasslands of up to 100,000 acres available to prospective ranchers for 21 years at a rental of $10 per 1,000 acres—or one cent per acre per year. The government must have been gratified by the immediate and enthusiastic response to the passage of the new regulations. In 1882 alone, 154 applications were received and leases were issued covering more than four million acres. It’s clear that the enticing lure of (almost) free land, with some degree of security of tenure, acted as a catalyst for western development. The precisely framed regulations suggested that the far-away grasslands had been surveyed, that bureaucratic machinery existed to collect rents, that the Mounties could be relied upon to provide security and that the lessee was assured control of his range for 21 years. Canadian investors’ perceptions of the prairie West were altered and risk reduced to an acceptable level. This ensured that it was Canadian and British—and not US—cattle companies that took up the prime ranges along the foothills of the Rocky Mountains in the chinook belt.

Economic and political leadership of the nascent Canadian cattle industry was in the hands of a few very large and powerfully backed ranching companies.

For a time at least, and to further the purposes of the Dominion, the government set aside the image of the homestead settler and the family farm, and promoted a “big man’s frontier.” By 1885, the four leading companies had engrossed a number of speculative leases, and together controlled 883,500 acres, or nearly half the total leased acreage. In 1881, there were some 15,000 head of cattle in the whole of the Canadian northwest. Three years later this had risen to 44,000 head; of these, 21,000 had been driven in from Montana and Idaho to stock the biggest ranches. By 1890, cattle in western Canada numbered 110,000 head, and the four founding ranches still accounted for 40 per cent of this total. Two of these companies were established with Canadian capital, and two with British backing.

Senator Matthew Cochrane was a very successful businessman from the Eastern Townships of Quebec. He had a passion for stock rearing, and his farm at Hillhurst, Quebec, had become an international centre for pedigree Shorthorn cattle. With his wide ranging business contacts in England and the US, Cochrane watched with interest the rapid growth of the North Atlantic cattle trade. He was quick to see the enormous potential of the underused grasslands of the Canadian West. It was he who convinced Colonel James S. Dennis of the Department of the Interior, and later Sir John A. Macdonald himself, of the advantages of promoting a large-scale cattle industry.

Cochrane came west himself in 1881 and picked out a 100,000 acre lease along the Bow Valley. The enterprise suffered some appalling early disasters, losing some 3,000 head of newly arrived cattle during the winter and early spring of 1883 due to crass mismanagement. But Cochrane and his board of directors remained resolute. The Cochrane Ranch relocated its cattle division to range along the Belly River. It was managed, for a decade and with considerable success, by the senator’s son, William F. Cochrane.

The North West Cattle Company, the owners of the Bar U Ranch, also had its origins in the business community of Montreal and the farms of the Eastern Townships. William Winder had served for eight years in the NWMP. On his return to Quebec, he excited his brother-in-law, Fred Stimson, with glowing descriptions of ranching in the foothills of the Rocky Mountains. Stimson and his brother Charles then persuaded Sir Hugh and Andrew Allan to put up capital for a ranch. The Allans had made a fortune from their steamship company. Ranching was a natural extension of their interests, as live cattle were a growing constituent of their cargoes to Britain. Under the capable direction of Fred Stimson, the company’s leases were stocked with excellent cattle from Idaho, and the operation flourished from the start. Stimson had a talent for attracting loyal and competent hands, and the outfit avoided many of the management problems that plagued the other big ranches.

The political power of the investors in both the great companies and smaller ranches was immense.

One of the most famous of the ranches financed with British capital was the Oxley Ranch. It resulted from the entrepreneurial initiative of John Craig, an experienced cattle breeder from Peel County, Ontario. Having made a careful evaluation of the prospects for large-scale cattle ranching in the West, Craig proceeded to England to find backers. He was able to interest Sir Alexander Staveley-Hill, a lawyer and member of the House of Commons, and Earl Latham, a prominent landowner and cattle breeder. A limited company was established and grazing leases along Willow Creek and in the valleys of the Porcupine Hills acquired.

The operations of the ranch were continually disrupted by financial crises and by the inability of the resident manager—Craig—and the principal stockholder—Staveley-Hill—to work together. However, in spite of lawsuits and the seizure of assets in Montana because the ranch’s bills had not been paid, the Oxley survived somehow and was reorganized as a public company in 1886. In 1890 the ranch reported a herd of 6,500 head on more than 250,000 acres of leased land.

The last of the “Four Big” ranches was the Walrond, founded in 1883 by Dr. Duncan McEachran. He was the Dominion Veterinarian, responsible for the health of Canadian livestock. His duties included the supervision of quarantine regulations for imported purebred stock, and measures to ensure that cattle exported from Canadian ports left in the best possible condition. McEachran was able to obtain backing from Sir John Walrond and other British interests to start his own outfit. He leased a huge block of land on the upper Oldman River, between the Porcupine Hills and the Livingstone Range. Lucrative contracts with the Department of Indian Affairs to provide beef to Indian reserves ensured cash flow in the early years. Later, the ranch pioneered the sale of high-grade steers to the British market. This was no doubt facilitated by McEachran’s role as chief regulator of the cattle trade from ports along the St. Lawrence.

Popular history has not been kind to these four ranches. Much has been made of the fact that it was instructions from head office “back east” that caused the catastrophic losses to the incoming Cochrane herds. In the Bow Valley, and along the Oldman River, arrogant and high-handed behaviour on the part of company managers alienated local settlers and led to tensions reminiscent of a Hollywood western. The laissez faire methods of the open range have been described as wasteful and irresponsible, as evidenced by the tragic winterkills experienced in 1886/87 and 1906/07.

The “Big Four” men were typical western entrepreneurs—regarding rapid change as an opportunity.

On the other hand, given the context of the times, the achievements of these early ranches were truly remarkable. In the space of a few years, capital was collected and deployed in a region almost entirely lacking in basic infrastructure. In spite of setbacks, investors remained constant and backed their initial stake with more money. As their herds grew, they were able to fulfill government contracts with cattle raised on Canadian grass, and at the same time earned rich dividends for their shareholders.

Moreover, these ranches imported purebred bulls to upgrade their carefully selected range herds. The quality of stock on the open range was at its highest while the big ranches dominated production. When a surplus of cattle developed during the late 1880s, it was the big outfits, with their metropolitan connections and economic heft, which pioneered the shipment of Western range cattle to Liverpool and Glasgow.

Although these four were the largest and most powerful enterprises in the ranching country, there were hundreds of smaller outfits. The combined political power of the investors in both the great companies and the smaller ranches, along with men of substance who moved west to pursue this attractive way of life, was immense. On a national level, they were able to influence decisions made about tariffs, duties and quarantine arrangements, for incoming cattle from the US. When their closed leases were curtailed, they were able to negotiate advantageous terms on which to acquire deeded land, while at the same time continuing their hold over much of the range through watering reserves.

Rodeo cowboy, Calgary Stampede, 2008.

Rodeo cowboy, Calgary Stampede, 2008. (Photo Courtesy of the Calgary Stampede)

The big companies also dominated local “range politics.” They helped found the early stock associations, which dealt with roundups, rustling, branding and wolf control. Because of the scale of their operations and their extensive contacts, the large ranches attracted top stockmen from all over the northern plains to act as foremen: G.W. (Doc) Frields and Jim Patterson at the Walrond, W.D. Kerfoot and Jim Dunlap at the Cochrane, and George Lane and George Emerson at the Bar U. The growing prestige of these ranches attracted young men to their bunkhouses and gave them an effective apprenticeship in the ways of the range, which they were able to use on their own account later in life.

The 21-year leases of huge tracts of western land at a penny an acre were revoked in 1893. The open range was closing. By 1912, the days of that kind of ranching were over.

In March 1912, the regional manager of the Canadian Pacific Railway, Harry McMullen, brought together four prominent rangemen to listen to young Guy Weadick pitch his idea for a week-long celebration which would memorialize the great days of the open range era in the “greatest outdoor show on earth”—the Calgary Stampede.

George Lane, Pat Burns, A.E. Cross and Archie McLean were impressed. Each agreed to put up $100,000 to guarantee the event. All four had been involved in the cattle industry since the 1880s: Lane as foreman at the Bar U, Cross as bookkeeper and veterinarian at the Cochrane Ranch, McLean with the Cypress Cattle Company, and Burns as the itinerant drover and butcher who fed the work crews that built the railway. Their collective perception—that an epoch had ended and deserved to be remembered—did indeed reflect the changed realities of the new century.

The dual foundations on which large-scale ranching in western Canada had been built were shaken and eroded. Economic opportunities and political priorities alike had changed. Advances in refrigeration technology meant that chilled beef from Argentina and lamb from Australia and New Zealand could compete in terms of taste, quality and cost with freshly killed Canadian beef on the tables of Great Britain. By 1912, the great “lairages” (or corrals) built on the docks in Liverpool and Glasgow were almost empty of cattle from North America.

As the pace of immigration quickened after the turn of the century, the government’s tacit support for the ranchers disappeared. No obstacles were allowed to dam or divert the flood of homestead settlers who were at last pouring into the Canadian West. A rise in the price of wheat, the extension of railway mileage, a cycle of wetter growing seasons, advances in dry farming technology and agricultural mechanization—all spurred a surge of farm settlement. “King Wheat” had commenced his reign.

The “Big Four” were typical of those western entrepreneurs who regarded rapid change not as a threat but as an opportunity.

A.E. Cross fenced his deeded land at the A7 Ranch in the Porcupine Hills, put up hay in the bottomlands, and used his background as a vet to experiment with crossbreeding Shorthorns with Galloways and Herefords. Archie McLean put his ranching career on hold and was elected to the Alberta Legislature, where he served as provincial secretary and used his ranching experience to smooth the path for new immigrants. Pat Burns welcomed incoming farm families as potential customers for his retail outlets, and put them to work putting up hay for his herds. George Lane began winter-feeding his breeding herds at the Bar U and the Flying E, and experimenting with irrigated alfalfa. In 1911, he had plowed 1,500 acres to grow oats and winter wheat. Burns likewise built up an exemplary herd of purebred Herefords at his Bow Valley Ranch.

The objective, in each case, was to intensify production and achieve more output from less land. Lane, Cross and Burns also exploited the Chicago market for their prime grass-fed steers. They became favourites with US shipping agents like Clay, Robinson & Company and Rosenbaum Brothers, and vied with each other to earn top prices. In 1916, a shipment of A7 cattle earned $129 a head in Chicago, a record for that period.

These men were also quick to grasp opportunities outside the cattle business. Cross studied the brewing industry while convalescing after a life-threatening accident, and returned home to start the Calgary Brewing & Malting Company. Lane anticipated the growing need for horsepower to underwrite every aspect of western development, and built the largest Percheron stud in the world to provide first-rate animals for farmers and contractors. Burns diversified his cattle raising and meat-packing interests by expanding into dairying and produce distribution.

Albertans continue to enjoy the legacy of the “Big Four.”

Burns’s Bow Valley Ranch was sold to the government in 1975 and became the nucleus of Fish Creek Provincial Park, while the original ranch house, built by William Roper Hull in 1896, is now the home of the prestigious Ranche Restaurant. On the bluff to the south of the park, the Father Lacombe Care Centre still flourishes on the 200 acres Burns donated to his friend in 1910, so that Lacombe could build a home for the aged and orphans.

South of Longview, Lane’s Bar U Ranch is now a National Historic Site. Every year, thousands of visitors tour the barns, workshops and bunkhouses, many of which date to Lane’s ownership. Older Calgarians will remember visiting the fine gardens, aquarium and Horseman’s Hall of Fame at the Calgary Brewing & Malting company. Others will recall Calgary Export Lager, with its noble buffalo and horseshoe trademark.

These are all now gone, but the Cross House, behind which the Elbow River flows into the Bow, still flourishes as a restaurant. Mrs. A.E. Cross, the daughter of Colonel J.F. Macleod of the NWMP, was carried across the threshold of this Victorian house as a bride in 1899, raised her five children there and occupied it until her death in 1959. Moreover, the Ann and Sandy Cross Conservation Area, on the southern margin of the city, is a magnificent testimony to the family’s ongoing generosity. The 5,000 acre reserve acts as an outdoor classroom for thousands of school children each year, while Belvedere House provides shelter and a base for ongoing ecological research.

These material gifts were matched by the Big Four’s contributions to the lore and legend of the Canadian range. One thinks of “Honest Archie” McLean being drafted by his peers to run for political office, and then earning his nickname as provincial secretary and Minister of Municipal Affairs and Public Works. Of George Lane’s friendship with Charlie Russell, the pre-eminent action painter of the American West, which resulted in Russell gaining widespread recognition in Great Britain (Russell’s famous painting “George Lane Attacked by Wolves” was created in gratitude to George and Elsie Lane). One remembers, too, Lane’s meeting with the Prince of Wales on his triumphant tour of Canada in 1919, which resulted in the prince’s purchase of the E.P. Ranch.

Humble and down to earth, Pat Burns also had his brush with royalty, chairing a committee that managed the E.P. Ranch during the 1930s. Pat lived to see the prince become, for a brief time, King Edward VIII, and he communicated directly with Buckingham Palace during that period.

Through their vision, determination and energy, the ranchers who ultimately made Alberta home transformed our province and left us a rich legacy, not only of material assets but also of story and legend.

Simon Evans, an adjunct professor of geography at the U of C, has written extensively on the cattle industry over the past 30 years.


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