The Gang Ranch
By Lyn Harrington
The Gang Ranch has always been a name to conjure up visions of the largest ranch in Canada. It’s still large and second in size only to the famous Douglas Lake Ranch farther south in B.C. In 1948 the Gang Ranch changed hands for the third time in almost a century of existence. Its present owners are W.P. Studdert of Seattle, and Floyd Skelton of Butte, Montana.
In the early days when the Gang Ranch was established it was the cry of “Gold in the Cariboo” that drew men like a magnet from all parts of the continent. Thaddeus and Jerome Harper, of Harper’s Ferry in West Virginia, heeded the call. They found a little gold — and something far better.
A wide-awake pair, they realized that the grassland of the Cariboo could support a cattle population that would bring greater wealth than any lucky gold strike. They trekked a few head of cattle north from Ashcroft, the nearest railway point. A trail of sorts led over the hills and benchlands to the meadows by the Fraser. Here the Harpers preempted land, which became the Gang Ranch.
Thaddeus and Jerome Harper made a good ranching team. The former understood cattle, while the latter was an excellent business head. Together they built the ranch into something close to fabulous. The Gang Ranch, with its two other ranches near Kamloops and Cache Creek, spread so far that the climate was different at either end, said John McIntyre, a Scot from Renfrew, Ontario, who has been with Gang Ranch off and on for the last 40 years.
Altogether, they ranched some 8,000 to 10,000 cattle. Those from the Gang Ranch would swim the Fraser, hoof it to Cache Creek, there to fatten on the lusher pastures near the railway. It was a good system.
But the Harpers made one error, which was the beginning of the end for them. Prices for cattle were not very satisfactory close to home, so they decided to first send a carload to Chicago. By the time the critters hit the big town, prices had dropped. So the brothers decided to trek the cattle overland to San Francisco. They nearly lost their shirts.
Shortly afterwards Jerome was kicked on the head by a horse and never recovered. Rancher Thaddeus didn’t show the best business judgement and finally the Gang Ranch was taken over by its mortgagor, an English syndicate, as the Western Canadian Ranching Company.
Controlling interest in the company was held by the Galpin family, especially by “Grandma” Galpin who had “backed a note.” Her daughters married a Mr. Holland and a Mr. Prentice. They operated the ranch together usually with a resident foreman. Prentice was keenly interested in the ranch, despite a busy life as Minister of Finance.
The Western Canadian Ranching Company met formally at board meetings in Victoria to pass resolutions and make decisions. But they didn’t interfere much with the operation of the ranch, and things went fairly well under a succession of supervisors. The directors came north in fall to hunt prairie chicken, and give the ranch a once-over. There were about 60 race horses, Kentucky blood lines, in the large stable built specially for them.
The company finally felt that returns were coming in too slowly after World War II, and decided to sell the Gang Ranch to Mr. Studdert and Mr. Skelton. It was a good buy for the two enterprising Americans. Mr. Studdert, it is said, made his initial fortune in the Alaska fisheries; Mr. Skelton is a silent partner in the Gang Ranch. Both had experience with cattle in the stockyards at Butte, and on a Montana ranch which carries purebred cattle.
Canadian-born William Patrick Studdert is a Dr. Jekyll-Mr. Hyde personality. Tall, well built, in his sixties, with ruddy cheeks and white hair, he is a handsome man. Affable and urbane usually, hard-working in the extreme, with no “side” to him, he yet manages to bewilder associates by his inconsistency. “He drives himself all the time,” said a close acquaintance, “and he drives everbody else too.” He simply cannot rest.
But he knows marketing. The purchase of the ranch was accomplished with a down payment of $80,000. That year beef prices zoomed and in the fall Studdert drove cattle to market worth $400,000 — the overall price of the ranch. Other timely sales have been made at the peak of the market season.
Most of the beef went to the United States, as it will again now that the embargo has been lifted. Mr. Studdert is not a member of the Cariboo Cattlemen’s Association. He buys bulls and sells cattle independently. This attitude irks other ranchers… as well as his stated conviction that “anything’s good enough for a cowpoke.”
It is a fact that the buildings of the Gang Ranch were not model buildings to begin with, except for the racehorse stable. But repairs have been put off to a more convenient season, which never came. The lighting plant went out a couple of years ago for repairs and never returned. Drinking water is scarce, and a long distance from the bunkhouse.
Add to that the low wages and the rapid turnover of staff is explained. At the peak of haying season this largest of the Cariboo ranches had only 20 men. Of them, several were Danish sailors and many were Canoe Creek Indians.
The Gang Ranch now has some 44,000 acres of deeded land and controls about a million acres altogether. This includes a winter range north of the Chilcotin River, a ranch near Jesmond, and the former Joe Pigeon Ranch at Meadow Lake, near 59 Mile House on the Cariboo Highway. A recent addition was the purchase of a feedlot at New Westminster for finishing off the cattle.
Cattle from Gang Ranch are usually driven from the lower ranches to the Pacific Great Eastern railway at 59 Mile House on the Cariboo or are taken farther south to the railway at Ashcroft for distribution east or south to Vancouver. Cattle from the northern ranges go out by way of Williams Lake.
Little Grade A beef comes out of the Cariboo. There is not enough hard feed to finish them off. Usually they are sold as feeders to cattlemen in the province or elsewhere for finishing on grains or concentrates from breweries. So that Mr. Studdert’s recent acquisition of holding grounds near New Westminster is very sound practice.
‘Our History’ is curated by former Canadian Cattlemen editor, Gren Winslow.