It’s no longer a secret that I like Westerns. I also love history. So you can imagine my joy when I spent a day at the Bar U Ranch in southwestern Alberta with my family this summer.
Naturally, when I got home, I immediately had to learn all I could about the Bar U and ranches in the area. I picked up some books from the Library to get me started (Cattle Kingdom: Early Ranching in Alberta by Edward Brado and The Bar U by Simon Evans) and found some great pictures to look at from the Glenbow Museum Photograph Archives online. One of my goals is to start reading more non-fiction, so this was the perfect opportunity to satisfy my curiosity, learn about local history, and get in some non-fiction reading.
Some interesting facts about ranches in southwestern Alberta that I have gleaned from my readings:
-Most ranches were owned/operated/financed by wealthy men from Ontario, Quebec, or England (Quebec in the case of the Bar U).
-The majority of foremen and cowboys that worked on the ranches were from the USA and the Bar U was known to many as the “school for cowboys” because of the excellence in training by Herb Millar.
-The Bar U was home to some famous cowboys: “Black John” (John Ware), a black man who was known for his extraordinary strength and skill with animals; Harry Longabaugh, later known as The Sundance Kid; Everett (Ebb) Johnson, the cowboy who inspired Owen Wister’s protagonist in the novel The Virginian .
-Mrs. Bedingfeld, a wealthy widow from England, and her son Frank worked on the Bar U for a while before starting their own ranch on the Pekisko west of High River in 1886. Mrs. Bedingfeld was the first female ranch owner. The Prince of Wales loved the Bar U and area so much that he bought the Bedingfeld Ranch and renamed it the E.P. Ranch (1919-1962).
-Fred Stimson, original owner of the Bar U, had a huge collection of Blackfoot beadwork which he displayed proudly in his ranch house. He even learned the Blackfoot language and often acted on their behalf with the government.
-George Lane started and built up a world class Percherons breeding program and won all of the prizes at the 1909 Seattle’s World Fair.
-The Bar U had a polo club which started in 1914 and was successful and well-respected until the team disbanded during WWI in 1914.
-Remittance men loved the Canadian west: they were younger sons of wealthy British families and lived on cheques, remittances, from their families back home. They loved adventure, the cowboy life, and always had financial security. Also, their families didn’t have to worry about their sons causing any more scandals or embarrassments in society because they were far away in Canada.
-Guy Weadick got money from the “Big Four” (George Lane, once foreman then owner of the Bar U; Pat Burns, future owner of the Bar U; and Archie McLean and A.E. Cross, local ranchers) to hold the first Calgary Stampede in 1912.
While at the Bar U I couldn’t help but remember learning about the ranch ruins in the field behind my house on a farm in the Wainwright area. Although I don’t remember a lot of the details or information, I do know that the Kemah ranch was a big operation that was either pushed out by farmers/homesteaders in the area or a prairie fire or a combination of both (I could be wrong on this). The ruins of the cement buildings, the horseradish from the original garden, and prairie wool are all that is left of a once large ranch. As kids, my Grandpa would take us on Sunday afternoon walks to look at the site. Even now, my Uncle gives tours of the site through a group in Wainwright.
It is interesting to learn about the history of ranching in Alberta and to know that, even though it is a very small connection, I have a connection to that heritage through family memories.
The sluggard does not plow in the autumn; he will seek at harvest and have nothing. (Proverbs 20:4)