Twenty-five years after the dissolution of the Patterson Brothers ranch, Davies and Swaim set up a ranch of local wild caught mink at McIntosh near Sioux Lookout in north western Ontario. We have confirmation on this date both from the listing in "Fur Farming in Canada" published in 1914, but written in 1913 and from a breeding stock advertisement in the thirties in which A. E. Swaim states that he started mink ranching in 1913.
I have a vague memory of the late Norman W. Shields of Fort William telling me that Edward Troke was the earliest mink rancher in Ontario and probably in Canada. I didn't pay as much attention as I should have, probably thinking that this was an evidence of local pride, 1 now realize that Norman knowing this man and Swaim rather well, knew that Edward Troke was a mink rancher earlier than Swaim.
The six other Ontario ranchers mentioned by J. Walter Jones have left no record of when they started. But interestingly, of the eight Ontario ranchers listed in 1914, six of them were still ranching in 1939. They were Ernest Cross, Port Arthur; John Davie, Eagle River; David Logan, Scotland; Franz Reihe, Hearst; A. E. Swaim, Larson; and Edward Troke, Allanwater. The last we heard of Edgar Laliberte, Raith and John Downham of Strathroy was their breeding stock advertisements in 1914. In 1926 we find R. H. Beggs of Heron Bay listed as a fox and mink rancher. T. J. Beggs is in J. Walter Jones 1914 list. The question is whether this ranch had mink at the earlier date.
How long the partnership of Davies and Swaim lasted is not recorded. A. E. Swaim worked on the Canadian National Railroad as a section foreman and eventually was transferred to Larson about sixty miles northwest of Fort William. This transfer probably broke up the partnership. It is interesting to note that a John Davie is listed in the 1939 mink census, residing at Eagle River about thirty miles from McIntosh. It is pure speculation, but this could be the other half of the partnership.
Some years later, A. E. Swaim invited Norm Shields and myself to visit the ranch at Larson. As there were no highways in this area, we went by train arriving late in the afternoon. The return trip was to be made the next day. Mr. Swaim explained that we would spend the night at his hunting camp and suggested we leave the mink until tomorrow and proceed now while the light was still good. We soon learned that Swaim possessed an off beat sense of humour.
It was November and the temperature was 2 below zero when, dressed in city clothes, we climbed on the open, motor driven handcar for the two mile ride to where a woods road led into the camp. On the plea that we had to beat an expected train to the road, he drove the car as fast as it would go. Norm and I learned first hand how a mackerel feels in a blast freezer.
When we got to the road and lifted the handcar off the track, Swaim gave me a .22 rifle and Norm a 12 gauge shot gun to shoot partridges, which were plentiful along this woods road, for our supper. He was right, the partridges were plentiful but they were safe until the exercise of tramping along the road warmed us up. We had lots of time because it was a two mile walk along a road that. kept swinging to the left. I shot several partridges and Norm shot two because his shot gun tended to stand him up straight when he fired; I think it was loaded for moose! Anyway, he became somewhat discouraged even though his two birds were easily identified and required little plucking.
The hunting camp was a well ventilated log cabin, the mud and moss chinking between the logs having fallen out in places. While firing up, also lighting the stove and preparing the birds for the pan; a train went by very close. Norm, always more suspicious than I, asked Swaim why the train sounded so close? Swaim explained we were on the far side of a small lake so the sound carried very clearly in the cold air. Still not satisfied, Norm wanted to know why the road in was so long. Swaim explained that if he had made it any shorter, it wouldn't reach. After firing up again - this seemed to be a reasonable answer.
With supper over Swaim told us about the early local mink that he raised and the gradual realization that they were not as good as the northern Quebec mink. In 1916, he brought in Quebec mink and phased out the local mink as fast as he could. He also talked about how cut off he and his fellow section hands were from the ordinary business and social life found in the more settled areas. This isolation made mink ranching an ideal sideline, as it gave them an engrossing pursuit to fill their off duty hours. We had found this to be true wherever people were isolated whether they were railroad men, store keepers, prospectors or timber cruisers. These ranchers had one thing in common - they were small because of the limitation of time and the problems of food supply. In the days of live mink sales the north country seemed to be full of these profitable little sideline business. The hungry thirties and the following pelt basis for mink production ended this interesting phase of our mink history.
During the evening I found the only bed in the cabin to be quite unusual. It was king size and boxed in with boards that rose about a foot above the covers. This I began to realize was to keep down the draughts of which we had plenty and keep in any heat which we might generate - not too certain a prospect. The evening came to an end and Swaim proposed the order of the bed chamber. I was to be against the wall, Norm in the middle and he on the outside so that he could replenish the fire at intervals during the night. It seemed a useless endeavour as none of the heat reached us.
With the order of precedence settled we took off our overcoats and climbed into bed. There was no need for an alarm clock. At first light Swaim awoke and saw through a chink in the log wall, a buck deer in the clearing. He arose quietly leaving us asleep, got his rifle, aimed through the chink, dropped the deer and elevated Norm and me. It is rather confusing to find yourself standing fully dressed in the middle of an icy cabin, breathing cordite fumes and wondering how you got there. Norm and I dressed the deer while Swaim got breakfast. We took the venison back to Fort William and at that time we felt it was the only plus of the trip. On our way out from the camp, I consulted my pocket compass frequently and I believe if we had gone 200 yards through the bush at the back of the mink ranch we would have found the hunting camp. But this would have lessened a treasured memory of Swaim's brand of frigid fun!
The Ontario scene now shifts to the southern part of the province where I. W. Robbins of Ingersoll, a plumber by trade, had a mixed ranch of fisher, raccoons, muskrats and mink. We guess that he was raising local brown Ontario mink as early as 1921. The Fur Trade Journal of Canada published its first issue in September 1923. I. W. Robbins had an advertisement of live mink for sale in that year's December issue. David R. Stevens of St. Marys reports "The first mink I ever saw in pens were at I. W. Robbins at Ingersoll and that was 1924. His mink were of Ontario origin, very coarse, but larger than Quebecs. I wanted to start in 1925, but Stanstead and McClintock were sold out; so I tried to buy from Robbins, but, he had an order to fill - I believe for Finland or Sweden. Anyway the purchasers worked with the mink at his ranch for several months before the shipment was made. I believe these two men went over on the boat with the shipment which I believe was 60-70 mink."
T. C. Mulvihill of Arnprior stated in his breeding stock advertisements in the thirties that he started in 1922. In, or about, 1936, he moved to north western Ontario and established a ranch at Tashota.
Bert McGolrick of Port Arthur began mink ranching in 1922. In the September 1929 issue of the Fur Trade Journal his advertisement says, "Mink - through seven years selective breeding we have the finest type of northern Quebec mink procurable". There was some substance to this claim. J. C. McLeod inspected and bought mink from him in 1928. In later years, Mr. McLeod said that these mink were very good and that the advertising was not exaggerated.
011ie Franklin of Dunnville bought his first mink in 1924. His wife Mrs. Nina Franklin who survived her husband, cannot remember much about the first two or three mink except that they came from Mitchell. This was likely the area not a person's name. These mink died and more were purchased from Stanstead. Later, probably in 1927, 011ie went to Arnprior and purchased most of the herd of Dr. F. A. Parent. He began advertising in June 1928 and was the source of breeding stock for several new Ontario ranches. In 1929, he moved his ranch to Selkirk. Keith Schweyer who provided much of this information recalls that he bought his first trio from 011ie in 1933. Keith also records that when 011ie bought the Parent mink he also bought some from an unidentified rancher in Prince Edward Island.
William Klages of Desboro started mink ranching in 1924 with wild caught Georgian Bay mink. He was a butcher by trade and this helped his feed procurement. The Marmion ranch was most successful and he bought in Quebec, strain animals to improve his herd. Roy Klages, his son, conducts the ranch presently.
The Northern Rice Lake Fur Co. Ltd. was located in the northern Ontario hinterland about ninety miles northwest of Sudbury. The nearest town on the railroad was Gogama. The secretary was David S. L. MacDougall, who had a Toronto address. The principal owners of the several thousand acre tract were J. A. (Jack) Follansbee and R. G. (Bob) Hodgson, the: editor of the Fur Trade Journal. While they had a ranch where fur bearers were held in captivity, the principal effort was in operating a hundred mile trapline, which produced live animals as well as pelts. No date as to when this project started can be found but we know they were in business before 1924. The last D.B.S. listing was in 1929. The last mink advertisement we could find was in the September 1930 issue of the Fur Trade Journal.
They had a colorful neighbor who was listed as a mink rancher in the 1926 D.B.S. report. He was J. T. (Joe) LaFlamme "The wolfman of Gogama" who trained and drove a sled team of timber wolves to notoriety and fame. In Bob Hodgson's book Let's Go Fur Farming, he tells of a visit to his friend Joe that gave his adrenal glands a workout.
"Some years ago Frank Johnston and I went north in January, purposely, to drive and study Joe's wolves at close range. He had some very large ferocious beasts, as we could judge them in their pens, probably weighing close to one hundred pounds each. One day we were sitting in Joe's home talking to Mrs. LaFlamme, we heard considerable commotion outside the door and in came Joe with two huge wolves, one of which I remember was a huge brute called Pete.
"The room was not a large one and the wolves commenced walking around as Joe removed their chains. Frank and I automatically rose from our chairs and stood behind them looking for something more substantial to grasp, and I do recall that while it came to my mind then that wolves had never been known to attack humans, it was extremely difficult to convince my feet of this fact. However nothing happened and when Joe was satisfied that we had all thoroughly enjoyed ourselves, he put their chains on and took them out."
T. C. (Cam) Richardson of Fergus started in 1925. Cam was an enterprising and energetic promoter of mink breeding stock sales. In addition to his Fergus Fur Farms, he established a ranch at Bradore Bay in 1930 to provide Labrador mink which were much sought after at that time. In August of that year he published a mink booklet that was practical and full of useful information. In 1939 he purchased the Beatty Experimental Farm and moved his ranch to this more spacious and suitable location. Later Cam was to organize and manage the Associated Fur Breeders Co-op to purchase feed and equipment and the Associated Mink Feeds to deliver ready to use mixes on the members' ranches.
Cam was happiest when promoting something new; so that the advent of mutation mink gave him wide scope for his energy and talent. Since Cam's passing, his sons Harrison and Bill carry on the business at the home farm.
At this moment we lack firm dates as to the other ranches that started in 1925. It is reasonable to assume that those which advertised breeding stock for sale in 1927 and some of the 1928 list, were around in 1925. Fred S. Boyd suggests that John A. McKinnon of St.Eugene began mink ranching in 1925. His advertising under the name of Labrador Fur Farm did not appear until September 1932. We know he was an experienced mink man in 1929 when Dave Stevens and Cal Martin accompanied him to Quebec City to buy breeding stock. We also know that his main business was an apiary at St. Eugene during the summer and the mink were kept at his winter home in Vankleek Hill. Dave Stevens refers to him as a "bilingual Scot".
The Canadian Government statistics for 1926 enable us to get a realistic view on the size of the infant mink industry. There were 95 ranches in all of Canada producing 1,178 mink kits that year.
1926 is the year that J. Calvin Martin and his neighbour David R. Stevens of St. Marys got started in the mink business both purchasing breeding stock from Louis Marcotte, Deschambault, Quebec. The ranches were separate but for the purchase of food and materials and later for selling pelts it was convenient to act in concert.
Calvin bought breeders from J. J. Thiessen, Giroux, Manitoba, the next year and in 1929 Cal says "D. R. Stevens and I went to Quebec City with John A. McKinnon and we purchased mink from the Breton Brothers. They were butchers and had a few mink in the stable back of the shop where they kept their two horses. They claimed the mink were brought in from Labrador. We also called on Louis Marcotte on our way home."
Dave Stevens lists his breeding stock purchases as a female from Dr. A. K. Cameron, Saskatchewan in 1927. In 1928, ten females from 011ie Franklin. In 1929 one male and three females from Mrs. Jessie Kennedy, Shakespeare. "Mrs. Kennedy's mink ranch was started somewhere in Alberta. When her husband passed away, being a Stratford area lady, she moved back here and brought the mink to her brother's farm at Shakespeare."
On the subject of breeding stock prices, Dave had this to say "In 1926, $150-$200. per pair. In 1928 and 1929, $225-$300. Surplus males were paired by buying females only from 011ie Franklin. He was charging $75. each and I was getting $200. per pair."
In 1930, things started to tighten and breeding stock sales to dry up. Dave and Cal were happy to sell to C. R. Bollert, Simcoe, 43 pairs at $90. a pair. To quote Dave, "This no doubt kept me in the business as this was one year after the start of the depression. I know my half of this sale paid for my two years at the Ontario Agricultural College."
In September 1931, Cal and Dave entered the Ontario Agricultural College and became weekend ranchers. They hired help to look after the mink during the week. Dave took the two year associate course and Cal entered the four year degree. Cal's thesis for his Bachelor of Scientific Agriculture degree was "digestibility of carbohydrates in mink". It was pioneering research into mink nutritional needs and was one of the basic concepts in building Master Mink Feeds.
That fall, for the first time, Dave and Cal had to pelt their mink crop as no breeding stock sales could be made. The fur trade didn't consider ranch mink pelts to be anything but trash. We will let Dave tell it as it was "We had 70 pelts and I peddled them all over Toronto. All the fur buyers on King Street would ask - what have you got in the sugar sack - when told ranch mink pelts, very few looked at them, just said -- no good - never will be - go home and kill the rest of them. I took them back to St. Marys and sold them to a local hide and fur buyer for .85¢ a skin. This winter (1979) our average per skin is more than we got for the whole 1931 crop."
It was the persistence of Dave and Cal that led to the acceptance of ranch mink pelts by the fur trade. It happened in this fashion: the 1932 pelt crop of 121 skins was taken to Frank Hayes at the Hudson's Bay raw fur post on lower Yonge Street, Toronto. He thought the pelts had merit and paid them $3.60 a piece for them. They were shipped to the Hudson's Bay sale in London, England. A New York furrier's son attending the sale thought they looked nice and paid $12. each for them. What father said to the son when he found that he had bought the despised ranch mink pelts, probably couldn't be printed. They were stuck; so they had the skins tanned and made up into a coat. The results surprised and delighted them. The colour, weight and matching of the skins were so much better than in Canadian wild mink that they could hardly credit it. The coat was shown throughout the trade and the rush to buy ranch raised pelts was on.
There are at least four intrepid spirits here, - Cal and Dave, Frank Hayes and the furrier's castigated and at this time, unknown son. They had one trait in common - their willingness to believe their eyes rather than their ears. The breakthrough from an unusual backyard breeding stock hobby to our present fur industry was bound to come sometime, but, these people made it happen when it really counted. Since then Cal and Dave have separately made great contributions to the success of the mink industry. But, up to date, none greater than this opening of the door.
At this time we have four ranches that advertised once in the Fur Trade Journal and are not otherwise recorded that we could find. In the September 1926 issue, the Johnston Fur Farming Co. of Port Coldwell offers wild Lake Superior mink for sale. There is a Coldwell near Marathon on the northern shore of Lake Superior and this is probably the location of this ranch. In the October 1926 issue, M. D. Stephens of Glencairn offers mink for sale. In November W. D. Wright of Brockville advertises mink breeding stock. The Ottawa Game and Fur Farm of Port Clinton, advertised mink breeders in the April 1927 issue.
C. A. (Cliff) Bisbee of Alliston started the mink business in eastern Ontario at the village of Moulinette on the St. Lawrence river in 1926 or 1927. It was not an auspicious beginning "another chap and I bought a pair of mink from a ranch in Minnesota. We asked the owner to breed them and ship when old enough. He shipped in the summer, the three young in one crate and the adults in another. The three young died from heat prostration. The old pair never produced. The male escaped twice. The first time I caught him under a neighbour's barn. No damage. But the second time he went up the road about a mile, got in a farmer's hen house and killed five or six hens. They were pretty angry. The other chap wouldn't go up, so I took a couple of traps, set one in the opening the hens came through into the yard. The next day the mink came out of a stone pile behind the barn, the dog saw it and took after it. The male thought the hen house was the safest place and ended up in the trap. The farmer took him in the house, finished milking. Had his supper. Hitched up the horse to the buggy and put the trap under the seat. He drove into the yard all smiles and said I've got your mink. Pulled out the trap, empty! On the way down, the mink got the trap open and crawled out past his feet. We heard later he headed in another direction, got into another hen house and was shot!"
The other chap and Cliff split up and Cliff decided to go it alone. Shortly after the 1929 market crash he bought mink from Nelson Waldron of Tyne Valley, P.E.I. for $60. a pair. The price had been $225.-$400. a pair and Waldron was roundly criticized for breaking the price structure. He was to have a lot of imitators in short order. Just before Cliff moved to Alliston in 1935, he bought some breeders from D. A. McRae of West Middle River, Nova Scotia and found they crossed well with his Waldron stock. Cliff added other good stock from time to time and was most successful in the prize ring at the shows. In his letter, Cliff relates the following:
"An incident on the ranch at Alliston is worth telling. When I weaned a litter, if the mother didn't eat by the second day, I would put her in a pen on the ground, leave it open and give her the run of the ranch. At this time I had two females that were not eating well. One was quite smart, but the other did not leave her pen. The smarter one while lying in the shade at the north end of the ranch, caught a chipmunk and took it down to the other female. A day or so after she caught a bird and did the same thing. I am sure she would have eaten them but she knew the other female needed them more and wasn't able to shift for herself."
Dawn Fur Farm appears at this time. They changed its name to Rutherfords Fur Farm in 1929.
Gordon Hutt of Sault Ste Marie ranched there for a number of years, then moved to Georgetown in the late middle thirties. His brother was Dr. F. B. Hutt a world famous geneticist who was a professor at Cornell University. Dr. Hutt was very interested in mink and helped his brother work out his line breeding plans.
The Wannop Brothers of Dundas, Arthur and Bill appear early. Later they operated separate ranches and did well at the pelt sales as well as livestock shows. They were generous and able teachers of the many arts in mink farming to the beginners in their area. Arthur in his young days had been a boxer; Bill a salt water sailor. Anyone that knew them would know that they were good at those professions as well.
1928 was a vintage year for ranchers that loomed more important as time went on. There were four that started that year for certain and two others that could have started then, or earlier. We will deal with the four certain ones first.
Clarence R. Bollert of Simcoe known to his friends as "C. R." was the first big time operator in the mink business. In 1928 he had a few trios of mink and some silver foxes on the Dave Roth farm at New Hamburg near Kitchener. His son, Howard, recalls driving out to feed and care for the animals each day from the Bollert home in Kitchener. Howard was able to verify the year because he had just turned 16 and was able to get a driver's license.
In 1929, the Bollerts moved to Simcoe and a new ranch was built. In addition to 300 mink they had at that time, "C. R." brought in from Minnesota 1,200 breeders, the largest shipment of mink to come into Canada at any time. They arrived in style in a private express car. Immediately they were the largest mink operation in the country. When you recall that three years earlier, Statistics Canada could only record 1,178 mink kits born in Canada, a measure of the size of this transaction is evident.
In the June 1930 issue of the Canadian Silver Fox News we find the following: "Quebec and Alaskan mink. We offer you a selection out of 2000 mink of high grade quality for fall delivery. With orders coming in fast and Europe taking practically all available offerings, it is important that you write early for full particulars to Bollert Fox and Fur Ranch, Simcoe, Ontario."
In 1931, distemper swept through the ranch killing 40% of the foxes and over 50% of the mink. It was decided to retrench and concentrate on foxes whose pelt prices were holding better during the depression and to reduce the mink breeding herd to under one hundred animals. This proved to be a wise decision. Towards the end of the thirties, the Bollert Fur Farm was affluent again and the mink section steadily increasing. Today, Howard, his sons and grandchildren, operate a most successful business.
Dr. N. V. Freeman of Battersea was medical officer of health for the area and had a deep interest in wildlife. In 1922, he started raising foxes and was the local authority on fur bearing animals. His son Hugh who operates Stonehenge Farm today described their entry into the mink business "In the winter of 1928, our neighbour Bruce Miller, then living at home with his parents, caught live, a wild female mink. He brought the mink home and because he knew dad was interested in wildlife, consultation was a natural consequence. Of course, foxes were already established here and it proved interesting to speculate with a new fur bearer. Dad immediately sent to Minnesota, U.S.A. for a male (this contact came through the Fur Farm publication of the day).
"On the 4th of April, the shipment arrived in Kingston. It was picked up forthwith and introduced to the female's pen where it stayed until the kits were heard about the 20th of May. There were four in the litter, of which Dad received a male and a female and Bruce retained a male and a female. This established two ranches, one with the classic trio. (At least from an arithmetical point of view, I doubt if Minnesota X Loughboro Lake wild would be viewed in such flattering terms otherwise.),
"The feed at first was chunk horsemeat which ran out with the advent of warmer weather. The staple then was bread and skimmed milk with the occasional woodchuck or stale egg. Bruce emphasized the bread and milk diet on a continuous basis.
"Within a year Bruce married and moved to the village which left the mink in the hands of his mother and brother. They added a few wild females to their unit, then esconced them in a Major McClintock arrangement which, if I remember correctly, had three or four floors with trap doors and climbing runs for vertical integration. Possibly the 3rd or 4th year, prices having declined, his brother lost interest and set them all free, declaring, "I will never again in my life engage myself at a job that requires daily chores." Recently he retired from the apiary business having kept this faith.
"Dad was always a man of vision and he saw this period of low prices as a way of less painful expansion. Bruce returned to the fold by the mid thirties and is still producing over 1,000 pelts yearly.
"Dad set up a piano box (in one of the original re-cycling operations) and developed a four tier arrangement for the herd. The first to arrive on the farm was Mr. Minnesota having been tactfully removed from the nursery on the end of a muskrat trap. Bruce tells me that shortly after his arrival in his handsome edifice at Stonehenge, Mr. M. put tooth to wood and was never seen again.
"One could dwell a considerable time on the chance happenings of a lifetime. It might be possible that only my parents affected my future more than this dedicated tourist.
"I cannot say, for we have no records indicating where additional stock came from, but my early memory reflects names such as Clairval, Yukon and Kenai. I remember the Yukons in the piano box, so it puts the purchase in the mid thirties at the latest. A Moss male was introduced sometime thereafter."
J. C. MacLeod of Owen Sound was an astute businessman supplying rubber boots and clothing to the mines of northern Ontario. No doubt this brought him in contact with some of the early mink raisers. In 1928, he bought two pairs of mink from Bert McGolrick of Port Arthur. Later he bought breeders from A. E. Swaim and Stanstead. The ranch grew slowly for a variety of reasons. He was very particular as to what he would keep as breeders. The search for quality didn't allow for fast expansion. He also had other interests. He served as alderman in Owen Sound. In lacrosse, he wore many different hats, until finally he wore the presidential one. Later his sons, Ken and Jack helped expand not only the mink business, but other livestock enterprises as well.
Gregory R. (Bob) Oswald of Bridgeport was a hydro lineman. In 1928, he took part of his vacation money and bought a male and female mink from Fergus Fur Farms. He didn't have time for vacations after that. They were spent with his spare hours after work, hunting feed, butchering old horses and caring for the mink. Every spare dollar was invested in the ranch for pens and better breeding stock. It soon started to pay off - Springbrook Fur Farm pelts appeared in the top prices at the fur sales and his breeders began to win at the live shows. Breeding stock prices when Bob started bore no relationship to pelt values. Ten years later selected breeders were priced at five times pelt value. Bob introduced a system that benefitted both his customers and himself. Instead of paying fancy prices for one or two mink you bought a row of fifty mink at a little more than good pelt price. Took them home, selected what you wanted and pelted the rest to recover some of your costs. It worked for a lot of people. Today Bob Oswald's family, seven in all, along with four employees, look after the descendants of the original four mink, some 31,000 animals.
Dawes and Edwards, Model Mink Ranch, Port Arthur has left much on the record but never a date or a hint when they started. We are certain they were in business in 1928 and probably earlier. In February 1930, they were advertising kits from fifty pairs of mink for fall delivery and a gear later the ad read kits from one hundred and fifty pairs. In a full page ad in the August 1931 issue of the Fur Trade Journal of Canada this statement "We can supply you with one or one hundred pairs."
In December 1931 issue, a full page ad invited everyone to come and see their exceptional mink at the Canadian International Mink Show at Sherbrooke that month. Later in that same issue, the editor states, "Most breeders were disappointed that Dawes and Edwards, Northern Ontario breeders were unable to be present, when they had anticipated attending and had made entries." Oddly the same full page ad was repeated in the January 1932 issue. The last evidence of Dawes and Edwards in the fur business was an ad in the September 1932 issue of the Fur Trade Journal offering wild caught, live fishers. In 1932, the Model Fur Farm was sold to E. E. Johnson, President of the Pigeon River Lumber Company. The first advertisement we could find for the new ownership was in the October 1935 issue. In this ad they claim to be the "Finest and largest select herd in North America."
The Model Mink Ranch was located on the flats of the Kaministiqua River near Fort William. Because of deep snow in the winter, the pens were carried on racks much higher above the ground than usual. This was fortunate because an ice jam in late April caused the river to flood over the flats for several days. There was no problem watering the mink, but feeding had to be done by pairs of men, one poling the boat, the other putting the feed on the wire. We are not sure of the year or whether this occurred on several years. We remember seeing a photograph of this scene. It looked like a Rube Goldberg's interpretation of a poor man's Venice, or life along the Orinoco.
Following this the Model Mink Ranch was moved ten miles out Arthur Street to a high and dry location. The ranch manager was R. H. (Bob) Beattie under whose management Model became the largest mink farm in Canada.
Shortly after World War I, Baron Kervyn de Lettenhove came from Belgium and started a silver fox ranch at Cooksville. Later he moved to Crookston and started the Moira Lake Fur Farm adding beaver and muskrats. In 1928, he secured mink breeding stock from Clairval Limited and three years later appeared as a prize winner at the Sherbrooke show. In 1934, the Baron returned to Belgium. He sold his entire mink herd to the Homer Farms of St. Catharines. This latter ranch had a brief but interesting history. It was located in the Welland ship canal hospital after the canal was built and the hospital was closed. The partners who owned the ranch were Dr. John McCombe who had been head of the hospital and Miss M. O. Boulter who had been the matron.
In 1937, Canada's first super highway, the Queen Elizabeth Way, was surveyed through the property and the ranch was moved to Lennoxville, Quebec and renamed Langdon Hill Mink Ranch. More about this mink ranch will be found in the chapter on Quebec.
J. O. Mitchell of St. Marys, a retired undertaker, was the first fur rancher in the area. He had silver foxes in 1912. In 1928, he caught a litter of seven wild mink on the nearby Thames River. They were about weaning age and were added to his fur ranch population.
Percy V. Noble of Shallow Lake started in 1929 with wild caught Georgian Bay mink and silver foxes. He added Quebec strain mink from Overbrook Mink Ranch in Ottawa and later from John A. McKinnon. The family business was manufacturing wagons and sleighs. Percy left his father's employ in 1933 and devoted full time to fur farming.
In 1937, a happy accident in genetics created a white mink in his herd, we'll let Percy tell about it. "Our first white mink was actually a Kohinoor, or blackcross. Knowing very little about genetics, at that time, I thought I would need another of the same type to produce this color. Our mink was a male and I began searching for a (white) female which I found on the Stephen Ranch (near St. Marys). They agreed to send me the female as they were unable to get her mated. The result was a mating with my male which produced two males, one like their female and one like our male. We also bred three dark females to our male resulting in 50% mutants in each litter, on average.
"I had promised (Earle) Stephen half the litter and when I approached him as to which male he would like, he said he would rather have a couple of dark males. The Stephen female died before the next breeding season, but we had a male from her almost white and the other male also produced whites. Four years later we had hundreds of whites with varying degrees of dark markings. The original female was not wholly white, she had a black crown and some black on the body. However through selection we produced pure whites. We had some (males) that were able to produce all whites on any female. We took pride in being able to produce the first pure white mink coat in the world."
Realizing that he needed help in marketing, Percy entered into a partnership with John Taylor an American furrier. From then on profitable things began to happen. With the white mink money, the Noble ranch expanded into top quality dark mink and in other mutations as they occurred. He had a very successful run in silver and mutation foxes especially in the last years of that industry.
Politics beckoned and Percy was elected to the Parliament of Canada with the largest majority ever given a candidate in Grey North. His popularity never waned and he was re-elected five times and spent fifteen years at Ottawa. He sponsored many national projects but the one most interesting to us, the bill to ban the use of diethylstilbestrol in cattle feeding, was his most important success. Percy was able to spend all that time serving his country because he was well served by his sons, Jim, Murray and Jack who continued to run the ranch in an efficient and successful manner.
Harold R. Noble a brother of Percy, began ranching in Shallow Lake probably a little later than his brother. When we first knew him his ranch was on the east hill in Owen Sound and he had purchased Lesser Slave Lake mink from O. Lee of Faust, Alberta. They were much larger than eastern mink and attracted a lot of visitors. He also purchased a pure white female from R. J. Sinclair of Ceylon. She was to prove a disappointment as she never bred. In October 1943, a fire destroyed the mink sheds and most of the mink. Harold purchased land on the outskirts of Mount Forest and proceeded to build up a large and successful mink ranch. A tribute to his courage and determination.
F. O. England of Mobert sold breeding stock for several years. One advertisement that he ran in February 1930 in the Fur Trade Journal still rates as one of the classic put downs "One pair of mink recently purchased from Brockington Fur Farm, Montreal at $215.; will sell at true value $50."
There were at least four ranches around Blenheim at this time. Pineridge Mink Ranch was operated by Bill Braithwaite whose trade was barbering. The ranch grew throughout the years to the large operation it is today under the management of Bill's son Len. The Presant Brothers Ranch, Eric Ridge Fur Farm, is interesting to me, at least. There were three brothers all graduates of the Ontario Agricultural College. John in 1911, Harold in 1913 and Fred in 1923. The first two operated a successful livestock and horticultural farm. The third brother, Fred after setting up a marketing system for them came to Toronto and started the Master Feeds' Division of Toronto Elevators. In 1937, Fred persuaded me to leave the staff of the Ontario Veterinary College and develop Master Feeds for fur bearers. Today, Fred and I are both members of the same curling club and as befits the happily retired, we discuss our past deeds and misdeeds.
Captain Dimitri Blochin of Huttonville began his mink ranch at this time. He and his brother Victor who ranched foxes at Aurora, were White Russian army officers who escaped after the revolution. Dimitri's background and training brought a touch of old world gentility to our business. This ranch continued on until recent times.
C. O. (Chuck) Ashwell of Weston began in 1929 with mink secured from R. G. Hodgson. As his ranch grew, so did the number of would be ranchers who spent their evenings there working and learning the business. Chuck was a mechanical superintendent of a large factory and was a genius at inventing and developing mink ranch equipment. In 1939, he organized Canadian Fur Supplies to provide pelting equipment, catching boxes, wire and other ranch needs. Later, it was renamed Ranchers Fur Supplies and under Edna Ashwell's management it grew to be an important business. Few people were as useful to our expanding mink industry as were Edna and Chuck.
The Ashwells got into the meat and fish supply business which led to Chuck buying a whaling factory in Newfoundland which he operated for a number of years. Today, Ranchers Fur Supplies and its associated businesses go on their profitable way still under the guidance of C. O. Ashwell.
In the July 1930 issue of the Fur Trade Journal, there was this advertisement "Every mink rancher should have the Canadian Mink Ranch Directory listing over 500 established mink ranchers and containing articles of interest on raising minks. Send a quarter for your copy to Canadian Mink Ranch Directory, 559 Barton Street East, Hamilton, Ontario."
In less than four years since Statistics Canada reported 95 ranches the business seems to have expanded five times. We have been unable to locate a copy of this Directory, so if you have one please loan it to Canada Mink Breeders for copying.
Anton Swanson of Hogarth began ranching in 1927. We visited this ranch in the late thirties and as it was on the Nipigon River, well known for its speckled trout, we went armed with fishing tackle. It was the first wilderness farm that we had seen. Anton had cleared about 100 acres of good farmland and it was in a highly productive state. It was evident from the Swanson's stories that the farm livestock was under constant siege from wild predators. Here was where they shot three wolves trying to break into the sheep pen. There was where a bear had killed one of their pigs. Foxes, weasels and wild mink kept the surviving hens well drilled in evasive tactics. Even the ranch mink had their problems with owls. Mink being aggressive fighters got into difficulties when the owls would strike through the wire mesh with their talons and inflict wounds, sometimes fatal.
The ranch was interesting and obviously old. The ageing fox pen didn't look to be strong enough to hold their lively occupants. The mink pens ran from ancient to modern all full of mink. Anton was most proud of a litter of eleven kits. While the area abounded in game, most of the food was brought in by rail to Nipigon and by truck the rest of the way.
We found the water too high and turbid and the shoreline too rugged for comfortable trout fishing on the Nipigon River. Anton told us about a lake on the top of a nearby mountain that was good for evening fly fishing. Late that afternoon we loaded a canoe and equipment in the farm truck and Anton drove us about three miles up a bush road to the trail that led up to the lake about a half mile away. The mosquitoes were not too bad when, I being young, strong and not too bright, took the upturned canoe on my shoulders and started to trudge up the trail which rapidly became steep. With Anton pulling on the anchor rope and Norm Shields steadying the canoe from behind, we staggered and stumbled up the mountain for what seemed a fly bitten age. The lake was small about 300 yards long by 200 yards wide made smaller by a luxuriant growth of cattails and lilies progressing out from the shore. While the others got the fire going, I pushed the canoe through the cattails and in short order had enough trout for our supper.
When the sun was setting we paddled to the centre of the lake and caught our limit of trout in a very active and exciting hour. During this time we heard snorting sounds coming from the shoreline. Anton explained that the local moose banqueted on the sedgy growth in the lake and in fly season preferred to do it partially submerged. In the dusk, the moose deciding we were harmless, started to move into the water and from the noise of their feeding sounded to be very close. Anton didn't seem to be concerned until a large bull materialized about twenty feet away and appeared to have some idea of joining us in the canoe. We beat a precipitous and noisy retreat, banging our paddles on the gunwale to alert moose in our path that traffic was coming. In the years since when I listen to people concerned with our shrinking wild life populations; I remember the night when we had more moose than we needed, in fact, a lake full of them.
The Beckman Fur Farm of Rainy River was first operated by Al Beckman a railway trainman who was a friend of Frank Gothier. He started out with eastern mink and when Gothier brought in his shipment of Yukon mink he took about ten of them. It is probable that these were the mink that Gothier afterwards called Kenai. The Beckmans always called these mink Yukons. Al died, in 1937 and his wife Edith carried on. The ranch was principally eastern mink and Edith was puzzled about how to treat the Yukons. Fortunately, she kept them separate and when Yukon classes appeared in the Winnipeg and Toronto shows she entered them and won convincingly.
At this time, I had become unhappy with the reddish cast in the underfur when I bred for darkness in my eastern mink. I liked the clear color of the underfur of the Beckman Yukons at the Toronto show and decided, in the next few months, that if this was a trait of all the Beckman Yukons we would replace our eastern stock with them. We made an agreement to purchase dependent upon this clarity factor which I was to determine by grading all their Yukons the next fall. It took me three days and I found that all the Yukons were free of the castiness that plagued not only our easterns, but Mrs. Beckman's easterns as well.
Seeing the Yukon mink on our farm, many ranchers came to the same conclusion and bought stock from Mrs. Beckman and from other Yukon breeders. It was a success story for the Beckmans and for our industry. When the mutations came along many were crossed over eastern mink and produced casty mutations. The Yukon based mutations were clear.
The Northern Lake Superior Fur Farm of Fort William was operated by the partnership of F. M. (Fan) McGeagh and F. D. (Dan) McAvay. They had been successful prospectors for minerals in north western Ontario and invested their winnings in a mink ranch. Their foundation stock was local wild caught mink. The ranch was located in a sandy pine grove and at the last of this period, covered a large area. There were no sheds. In winter the pens were placed on racks to be above the snow. In the spring, the pens were put on the ground for whelping. Because of the pines the ranch became very scattered and feeding became a matter of memory and searching. The woods were full of mink. In spite of the lack of organization this ranch became the second largest in Canada only exceeded by the neighbouring Model Mink Farm.
Moss Fur Farms of Sapawe started in 1930. C. S. Parsons an English mining engineer was a partner of William P. Moss in this venture. This ranch did not have a humble beginning; it was a high class operation from day one. Good stock in quantity and modern ranch equipment are unusual in an isolated area served only by the railroad. An interesting feature of their modern home was a large fireplace made of tons of high grade gold ore. The high cost of operation in this location eventually proved uneconomical.
Hans Viola of Dog Lake, a pulp and timber operator in a small way had mink as a sideline. He caught local wild Lake Superior mink and being a good feeder and manager, grew some of the largest mink of his time. He had two especially large males that he called `Joe Louis' and `Jack Johnson'. He showed them at the local field days and shows to the astonishment of the other exhibitors who had small eastern mink. Later he photographed the pelt of one of them and used it in his breeding stock advertisements. The pelt was 37" from nose to tip of tail, an unheard of pelt size in those days. When he moved to North McIntyre near Port Arthur he brought in eastern mink which he couldn't grow much larger than his neighbours' mink. But Joe Louis's 37" pelt remained in his breeding stock ad as long as he stayed in the mink business.
Archie Parkinson, Rural Route 4, Guelph, got started in 1930 with mink from western Canada. Mrs. Viola Parkinson gave us her memories of those days "In the spring of 1930 Archie bought three bred females at $125 each from Manitoba. I do not know the seller. From these he raised 13 kits and built the first mink shed that summer. In October 1930, we were married and then he bought ten females and two males from Fergus Fur Farms. Thus starting the ranch where I still live.
"In the spring of 1933, we lost nearly all the kits with meat from a horse which had been given medication. This affected the unborn kits so didn't get very far the first five years. Some of our early breeders came from Russell Griffiths but not in the first five years. We never had any wild mink on the ranch."
H. A. Hartley, C. D. Lake and V. Ruttan had a fox and mink ranch at Battersea in the late twenties. A Kingston newspaper clipping in 1929 reports "A shipment of mink valued at $1,000. and consisting of seven animals passed through Kingston today en route to Battersea. These mink were shipped from St. Marys, Ontario by Mr. Calvin Martin and are of pure Quebec strain. They are believed to be the first shipment ever sent into eastern Ontario. The recipient of the valuable animals were Messrs. H. A. Hartley, C. D. Lake and V. Ruttan all of Battersea who are conducting a fox and mink ranch a mile east of the village. According to Mr. Hartley mink are comparatively easy to raise as far as diet is concerned, living in the wintertime on fish and rabbits. There has to be plenty of water available for the animals however, although this is provided by artificial means. The ranch at Battersea now has 12 mink besides the number of foxes."
H. M. Hartley of St. George ranched both foxes and mink. He was quite research minded and experimented with housing and feeding. He was the Executive Secretary of the Ontario Fur Farmers Association and was chiefly responsible for my appointment as head of the department of fur bearing animals at the Ontario Veterinary College in 1937.
H. F. (Harry) Morren of Barrie raised mink, marten, fisher and exhibition poultry since 1926. He was appointed assistant postmaster at Barrie in 1939. He was a man with a past as well as a future. We quote from an editorial, at the time of his appointment, in the May 1939 issue of the Canadian Silver Fox and Fur "This well known Ontario fur rancher is 49 years old, the immediate past president of the Ontario Fur Farmers Association. He has had a diversified and interesting career. Years ago he spent a year as a sailor on the Pacific coast, he then learned the saddle-making and fancy leather trade in Calgary, followed by six years in the Royal North West Mounted Police, he retired to go overseas (World War I) as a sergeant from Moose Jaw, Sask. Later he was a pilot in the Royal Flying Corps, later transferring to the Royal Air Force, with the rank of lieutenant.
"Returning from overseas he served 2½ years on the Ontario Provincial Police, part time as a criminal investigator in District No. 1 Windsor. Later he was transferred to Sault Ste Marie and spent a year in the Hudson's Bay country with the Ontario Department of Game and Fisheries."
I have two bright memories of Harry Morren. The first was his uncompromising honesty. The second was his progressive leadership in short courses and educational field days.
A. E. (Bert) Welch of Ancaster was a genius at preparing pelts for market. His mink were very good and with his excellent preparation were among the top bundles in the sales. His pelting demonstrations put on at local association meetings were well attended and he did much to improve Ontario pelt handling.
The Hilliard Fur Farms Ltd. of Waterloo are entering the fourth generation. Charles started with foxes in 1927. His son Bert brought in mink in 1937. Murray and Reagh the third generation expanded the ranch in quality and numbers. Their children are beginning to learn the trade. Murray has provided able leadership in our national association and is a capable innovator in ranch management and pelt production.
Joseph Hounam Dickson and his brother Robert started ranching in Blair in 1938. Joe was a victim of polio in childhood and was a partial but uncomplaining cripple. He and his brother planned to move the ranch to north western Ontario. War intervened. Robert enlisted in 1939. Joe moved the ranch to Umfreville twenty-five miles east of Sioux Lookout in 1942. Robert was killed in Italy in 1944. Hearing about this man who was running a mink ranch despite a severe physical handicap, I visited him towards the end of the forties. I spent twenty-four hours there as the only access was by railroad. Joe with the help of his wife ran a good operation, in spite of the high cost of everything which had to be brought in by rail. Eventually this high cost forced him out of business.
When I hear people complain about their lot, I think of Joe and his stubborn courage and realize that there are some people who may lose, but are never defeated.
William Foote of Toronto had a backyard mink ranch at 81 Broadview Avenue in the heart of old Toronto. Bill's main business was supplying horse feeds to the city's race tracks. The ranch had to be seen to be believed; the tiny backyard was filled with pens stacked four high. Bill was an obliging and kindly man and the neighbours put up with a lot of inconvenience, not to mention a few odours. Later Bill moved the ranch to more suitable quarters near Newmarket.
J. R. (Russ) Griffith of Clarkson, a successful business man, started in mink as a hobby in 1939. His business instincts and training took over and the hobby became a large successful mink ranch. He was one of the original group that formed Canada Mink Breeders and later he became managing director of the association. A post which he filled with distinction until his untimely death.
Russ and his wife Bea gave much of themselves to the development of mink breeders organizations in Ontario and to the larger national effort. We, the recipients of their gifts, take this moment to mark our appreciation.
The Timagami group of ranchers in northern Ontario make an interesting end to our recording of early Ontario mink people. Lake Timagami, ninety miles north of North Bay, is a very large body of water so filled with islands that there is very little open water. Its shape is roughly similar to your open right hand held in front of your face. The town of Timagami with its railroad station is at the end of your thumb. Frank Goddard who ran the hotel had a nearby mink ranch, the only one in the area on a highway. The rest of the ranchers lived on islands in the main part of the lake. It was twenty-five miles up your thumb to Timagami Lodge in the main lake which was run by Charles E. (Red) Spittel who had a small ranch to fill his off tourist season hours. Later he moved to North Bay and established a much larger operation.
Gib Cochrane, a teacher in a private Toronto school, had a boy's summer camp further on and had a mink ranch operated in the off season by some of his staff.
E. C. (Ed) Higbee of Rabbitnose Island had the largest operation. He was a scion of a wealthy American mercantile family and ran the ranch as a hobby. In World War II, Ed became a Brigadier General in the American Army.
The many lodges and the few mink ranches on Lake Timagami were serviced by an ancient steamship, the "Timagami Belle". Its daily round covered one hundred miles. My two trips on the "Belle" as she whooped and tooted her way around the lake are still fondly remembered. She had only one scheduled stop, at Bear Island, the Hudson's Bay post. All other stops depended on pick ups or deliveries and hence all the whooping and tooting to alert the residents.