By Tim Kalinowski
Many a rancher’s dream died in the early years of frontier life because they misjudged one intangible thing about Southern Alberta winters, says Larraine Andrews, author of Ranching Under the Arch: Stories of Alberta’s Rangelands.
“The title of my book is Ranching Under the Arch,” Andrews explains. “It focuses on one of the elements of what started ranching here, which was the Chinook. And reliance on its ability to clear the snow away in the winter with no need to put up feed.
“Summers here in Southern Alberta can be brutally hot and dry, “she adds, “but the winters here have their own challenges, that’s for sure. And many of those early cattle folk came here with the idea of the winters being fairly easy— but a lot of times you can go for a long time between Chinooks. You had to be fairly resilient that way— and that still applies.”
Andrews points to the early snowstorms this past fall which caught many ranchers by surprise with their herds still out on the hills as a contemporary example.
“Nothing modern is going to get you out of that,” she states. “You’ve got your horse out there and you are fighting the elements.”
In the early frontier days, the “open range” concept was considered the pathway to greater profit in ranching, and big investment dollars poured in Western Canada from the east and from England creating massive ranches which were completely unsustainable in the long run, says Andrews.
“When the big ranches came in they had no concept of conservation,” she says.
“It wasn’t in the lexicon. It was all about what paid the biggest dividends they could, and the grass was just there for the taking.
“It was just a big business, and they had shareholders who mostly never saw the land and had no concept of that.”
Betting on ongoing mild winters is what ultimately doomed many of them.
“If you look at the overall history, there were two devastating winters that always come up in the history books,” Andrews explains. “One actually has got a name attached to it: It was called ‘The Big Die Up.’ That was the winter of 1886-1887.
“ The next one was 1906-1907. That one didn’t have an official name, but author Wallace Stegner called it: ‘The Carrion Spring.’ There has always been a debate about what one was the worst.”
Andrews says we actually have good statistics on the 1906-1907 winter kill of Southern Alberta cattle herds, while the ‘The Big Die Up’ happened at a time when such information wasn’t easily collected.
“L.V. Kelly, in his book The Range Men, talked about some of the losses in Southern Alberta (in 1906-1907). He talked about 25 per cent losses in the Calgary district, 50-60 per cent around High River to the Oldman River. Then he said 50 per cent in Medicine Hat. It is almost unbelievable the carcasses left all over the Prairies.”
The 1906-1907 winter finished off the last of the big ranches, says Andrews, but what grew in their place created the modern network of ranches which we still see on the Prairies. She mentions the case of Fred Ings, who started the OH Ranch with his brother Walter and then later started the Midway, as an example of how those who survived those early killing winters adapted their operations to create more resilience.
“The Midway is north west of Nanton,” explains Andrews. “Fred bought that in 1902, and he and his brother had gone through The Big Die Up. They lost a lot of stock that year, and learned a lot of lessons from it as far as the need to put up feed. And to dispense with the idea of open range ranching, and get more into the controlled breeding and stuff like that.
“By the time Fred had got to the Midway, he had learned those lessons. And he was actually able to come through the second die off in 1906-1907. He came through fairly unscathed because he had the learned the lessons of what he had to do to adapt to the frontier here.”
And it wasn’t just the risk to livestock Fred learned about, says Andrews. Fred learned about the personal danger which comes from taking Southern Alberta’s winters for granted.
“Fred wrote a wonderful book called Before the Fences,” Andrew states. “When he first came here, he came from Prince Edward Island— he wasn’t a cowboy and he knew nothing about cattle. He had taken a six month course at Guelph before he came out, and he worked on some of the big round-ups at the Bar U before he and Walter did anything themselves.
“While working at the Bar U (in 1891), Fred actually got caught in a blizzard with his counterpart, a man by the name of Harry Longabaugh. They got caught in this blizzard and they were trying to keep the herd together. Fred was a wonderful horseman, but his horse had fallen in the dark and snow. It was life-threatening, and his partner said, ‘I think we should just turn the herd lose and try to find the camp.’ That’s what they did or they would have frozen to death.
“Of course his partner Harry Longabaugh later became famous as the Sundance Kid. He worked at the Bar U then, and also had a saloon in Calgary. He was actually respected as a cowboy here until he went back down south and started robbing banks.”
Over and over again, says Andrews, winter has proven the test which has made or broken cowboy’s fortunes in Southern Alberta, and the loss and heartbreak experienced by one can often be same thing which opens an opportunity for another. Case in point: The establishment of the now famous and historic D Ranch can be traced to one significant winter event in life of its co-founder E.A. Cartwright.
“E.A. Cartwright was another transplant who came out her from the east and worked at a cowboy at the Bar U,” Andrew recalls. “Then he was working at one point for two guys who were ranching together named McConnell and Nichol west of the Bar U. They actually froze to death trying to get back home. They were travelling from High River west to their property out there, and the winter caught them and they died. So E.A. had to go find another job.”
Andrews says he quickly teamed up with “another crusty old Englishman” named John Thorp to start the D Ranch.
The ranching life is never easy, says Andrews, but more often than not it is coming through their first tough winter as a working hand which proves the cowboy’s spurs even to this day.
“It was man against nature, and it was all about adapting to what could be a very brutal frontier,” she says. “It started out about pure tenacity to hang on, and that really developed into that true love of the land with those which survived and carried on.
“I am continually amazed by the toughness of them; the men and the women.”