History: Ottawa Letter

Reprinted from the June 1950 issue of Canadian Cattlemen

Ottawa Letter
By Senator F.W. Gershaw 

The venture of grazing cattle on the prairies of southern Alberta started in 1880 by a few enterprising cattlemen bringing in herds from Montana. These cattle were turned loose to rustle a living the year round without any provision for their food or shelter, beyond what nature afforded. This area has been the grazing ground of countless herds of buffalo in bygone days and the chinook winds made it possible for such animals to winter well usually.

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The Oxley Ranch was founded in 1882. As the C.P.R. had not been constructed through the West, the manager, Mr. Craig, travelled over the U.S. roads to Silver Bow, Montana, and then by mail coach and four-hourse wagon to Willow Creek, the ranch headquarters. After many thrilling experiences with wild lawless men and with the elements, by January 1, 1883, he had purchased and gathered 3,500 head of cattle on the ranch. At this time there was prohibition on the Canadian side and there was less of the objectionable “wild and woolly” life than in the northern states where firewater was freely sold and where there were no N.W.M.P.

The cattle purchased in the U.S were moved north to Alberta at the rate of 10 to 12 miles per day. Bedding grounds had to be located and calves born on the way were either carried on wagons or given to Indians along the trail.

At times, the great herds had to swim across the swiftly flowing streams. It was very difficult to get the leading animals to go into the water, but once the leaders were in, the others would follow. The current would carry them long distances downstream. The calves would struggle nobly to keep up, with only their heads in sight. When they climbed up the farther bank there was great excitement among the mothers and calves. A thousand mothers bawling for their young ones and thousands of young ones bawling for their mothers had, to say the least, a disquieting effect.

The life of the cowboys of the time seemed to conform to about one standard. They would work desperately and dangerously, enduring all sorts of hardships for months. Then, being lonesome, they would get into a town, have a few drinks, sit in on a poker game and be stony broke in a few days. Many kept up this way of life year after year. Others spent their hard-earned wages of $40 per month for equipment, e.g. spurs $15, lariat $15, saddle $85 and a sombrero with heavy silver cord, silk band, etc. $85 and $50 for a belt.

In 1984, it was thought that 4,000 more cattle should be bought for the Oxley Ranch as the profits would be much greater in proportion with 8,000 head than with the number then on the range. Although the directors included the Earl of Lanthom, a countess and Mr. Staveley Hill of London, yet the additional cattle were purchased on credit. The payments were not made on time and one creditor, Frank Farmers, left his home in Montana to come to Oxley Ranch for his money, when he was overtaken by a snowstorm and perished. This caused great indignation against the company.

As Mr. Craig records the history, there was constant quarrelling and bad feeling between the manager in Canada and the titled people in England who were the directors of the company. Debts were not paid promptly, wages were not forthcoming and much money was spent on court cases and interest rates, which were one per cent per month compounded monthly. The British investors found ranching a poor investment — in this case at least.

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