Documents shed new light on early Pincher Creek ranches
Many locals are keenly aware of the varied and rich agricultural heritage that has blessed the Pincher Creek area for nearly a century and a half. Yet our historical research here at Kootenai Brown Pioneer Village has uncovered old promotional materials from the late 1880s that shed some new light on the nature of some of the early family ranches.
Let’s have a look at a few of those early ranching operations.
Excellent stock-raising area
The promotional literature made note of the excellent stock-raising attributes of the Pincher Creek area. Initial concerns that this district was too close to the mountains, thereby endangering ranching operations through a lack of open rangeland accompanied by heavy winter snowfalls, proved to be largely erroneous.
Early experiences established, with a few exceptions such as the harsh blizzards of 1886-87, that the local winters were not plagued with large snow accumulations. The large grazing areas indeed were a blessing for the early ranchers.
Promotional campaigns made note of the abundance of the local rivers and creeks, which provided adequate water for stock raising. The ranching potential along the South, Middle and North forks of the Oldman River, including those tributaries such as Todd and Ross creeks, was emphasized.
Pincher, Mill and Halifax creeks also were heralded as excellent year-round water sources for those looking for early endeavours raising cattle and horses. The southwest was a ranching paradise second to none.
Butte Ranch partnership
One of the earliest cattle operations established in the Pincher Creek vicinity was the Butte Ranch, originally connected with pioneer Frederick W. Godsal.
This ranching giant later went into partnership with a Mr. Allfrey (of whom we now know little; he seems to have disappeared into the pages of history) and Lionel Brooke, our area’s most infamous remittance man. Brooke later bought out most of the ranch from Allfrey and Godsal.
Situated adjacent to the South Fork, the ranch was enhanced by many improvements over the years. By February 1888, it was “well provided with good stables and sheds” as well as two fresh-water wells. Much of the ranch was fenced, and Brooke had built up the cattle herd to include 200 head of stock, bred by polled Angus bulls.
In spite of Brooke’s lack of hands-on ranching experience, the Butte Ranch did flourish during those early years.
South Fork Ranch envied by many
By the late 1880s, F.W. Godsal also was connected with his nearby South Fork Ranch. It was publicly touted as being “one of the best-improved in the country.”
Godsal, considered one of the premier ranchers attached to the southwestern corner of the Canadian Prairies, had painstakingly changed the system by which he had ranched. After a few years of practical experience, he had come to the conclusion that there was more financial profit in ranching with smaller numbers of cattle, well cared for, than having a large herd that had to be left to the uncertainties of the open range.
His cattle on the South Fork Ranch numbered an annual average of 400, which Godsal maintained provided easy access to those animals that were weak and needed veterinary attention. Feed, primarily alfalfa and timothy (which too were raised on the ranch) was readily available during the cold, snow-filled weeks of winter.
The ranch numbered over 5,000 acres in size, most of which was unfenced pastureland.
The modern South Fork Ranch buildings were the envy of many a non-local rancher. The well-constructed main ranch house utilized local logs, and was designed to withstand the massive weather fluctuations so common to the area. Inside, the structure consisted of a parlour, a kitchen, a pantry and two bedrooms.
Surrounding the house was a fenced yard, a portion of which was cultivated for a garden. Nearby was a second house, measuring 18 by 20 feet, which was for the ranch hands.
The outbuildings included a large barn, half of which was used for the horses and a harness room. The second half of this 30-by-40-foot log structure was for the calves.
An extensive system of corrals and sheds complemented the ranch operation. The arrangements well suited the ever-particular Godsal.
Clear Water Ranche and French Flats
The Clear Water Ranche was located at French Flats, near the present village of Cowley, close to a mile and a half from the South Fork. French Flats derived its name early in our settlement history as a result of the large number of French Canadian and Métis families who settled there in order to take up ranching.
The Clear Water was operated under a partnership of Jones and Sharpe, two pioneers in their own right. The ranch was well known locally for its extensive cattle and horse breeding operations. The horse stock was being improved with two Clydesdale stallions named Atlas and Prince.
On the ranch, nearly 320 acres was fenced, most of which was utilized as pasture. Also grown was an annual allotment of 1,100 bushels of grain and smaller amounts of timothy.
The ranch buildings were extensive and well utilized. Featured was a log stable measuring 30 by 40 feet and complete with a loft. Farther down the yard were several outbuildings highlighted by a solid granary, a cow stable measuring 160 feet in length, and several sheds.
A solidly constructed 50-by-18-foot house, expanded during the summer of 1888, complemented the ranch buildings.
The Jones and Sharpe partnership worked well: the Clear Water Ranche was a flourishing success.
Each of these agricultural entities was well known for its cattle and horses.