If you sought a one word definition of the fur farming history of Saskatchewan - that one word would be `perplexing'. In its heyday, there were over six hundred licensed fur farms in the province. The great majority of them were fox farms. Today the fox farms are gone, leaving only twelve mink ranches to mark a once robust fur industry. No doubt there are many reasons but the lack of suitable, economical food due to the mechanization of the wheat farms and the disappearance of the horse from these farms and horsemeat as a plentiful cheap food is the critical one.
While this dramatic reduction occurred after 1940, it makes it difficult to trace the early mink people. Lack of written records and of people whose memories would bring some enlightenment is a disappointment. We do have the memories of Orville Griffin and Archie Campbell and the advertisements in the early mink magazines to assist us. We lack firm dates for many of the later Saskatchewan ranchers some of whom probably came after our 1940 deadline. In this case, the errors of commission are more excusable than errors of omission.
The Dominion Bureau of Statistics lists three mink ranchers in 1924, A. M. Fulton of Indian Head, H. K. Schumann of Raymore and Frederick Leonard Smart of Paynton. A. M. Fulton was the only one to last any length of time. He appears in the 1926 and 1927 D.B.S. lists and advertised in the July 1927 issue of the Fur Trade Journal. He must have sold out at that time.
Ernest Edmund Curson of Coleville, who was in the 1926 D.S.S. list, first started to advertise northern Quebec mink from his Superior Fur Farm in the June 1927 issue of the Fur Trade Journal. By 1929, he had added black raccoons and silver badgers to his offering. From 1932, to 1935, D.B.S. listed him as a raccoon rancher only.
Dr. Alexander K. Cameron is in the D.B.S. 1926 list as both mink and silver fox farmer. His first advertisement in the September 1929 issue of the Fur Trade Journal, includes badgers and later fisher and marten were added. He ranched at Delisle until 1936 when he moved to Grandora.
In the October 1926 issue of the Fur Trade Journal, Dr. W. B. Davidson of Windthorst advertised "hardy, wild Saskatchewan mink for sale". He was not as hardy as his mink because this was the sole record of his existence as a mink rancher.
Dudley Fuller of Alida began advertising mink in the November 1929 issue of the Fur Trade Journal and continued throughout the thirties.
Orville Griffin reports "the earliest record of ranch mink in Saskatchewan that has come to light is a receipt dated March 12th, 1928 made out to K. Cook of Hazel Dell, for two pairs of ranch-bred mink, signed by L. N. Buchanan. The receipt, for $150, was written on a piece of brown paper bag.
"Ken Cook and his family raised mink in Saskatchewan from 1928 to 1974. In later years they did custom killing, scraping and drying and one year processed 120,000 mink."
Dr. D. D. Reid of Canora ran the Twin Spruce Mink Ranch and invited inspection of his northern Quebec mink in the February 1930 issue of the Fur Trade Journal.
M. W. Campbell of Rocanville advertised "Minks - ranch raised from choice Prince Edward Island and Quebec foundation stock".
The Fur Trade Journal classified advertisements for August 1930 had a little mystery added "Dark Northern Manitoba mink out of litter of seven and eight. One hundred dollars per pair. 3223 Riverside Avenue, Regina." This rancher's name is not going into the hall of fame unless some Regina resident can solve the problem.
R. Hanson of Tessier was offering Quebec mink for $175 a pair in the September 1930 issue of the Fur Trade Journal.
Orville Griffin recalls "In the late 1920's and early 1930's a large fur farming venture was started north of Kisbey, in the south east part of Saskatchewan. An area of small lakes and swamps was fenced for muskrat farming. Silver foxes and mink were pen raised.
"The dry thirties killed the muskrat venture, poor management finished the foxes, but the mink prospered for a few years. A large mink herd of pretty good quality was developed, but eventually mis-management put the venture into bankruptcy. The mink pens, guard wire and other equipment from this defunct company helped start and expand many individual mink farms in this part of the Province."
I believe the venture referred to was the Hillsdale Fur Ranches Ltd,, of Kisbey and Montreal. In 1934, I was managing a fox ranch near Lake Placid in New York State. By some means, forgotten at this late date, I learned that the Hillsdale people were looking for a resident manager for this large operation. As their head office was in Montreal, not far away, I wrote to them and was asked to come in for an interview. I met R. E. Mcllhone the managing director and he explained their operations and problems. By then the muskrats had had it, the foxes were in a precarious position, but the mink aspect looked good. I was interested in the job and they were interested in me. Their problem was finances. By the time they got that straightened out and offered the job to me, a year had passed. In the interval I went to a Chicago veterinary hospital and became a dog and cat doctor.
It wasn't until 1938 that I again met R. E. McIlhone and learned that their mink operation had prospered. A year later World War II started and I suspect that the backers of Hillsdale decided that they had enough and withdrew their support.
Orville Griffin's report continues "An early mink farming family were Hubert and Joe Kopp of Humboldt. They purchased a trio of mink in 1932 from Isaac Spillet of Dauphin, Manitoba. They also bought two bred females, that spring, from Frank Koller of Rainy River, Ontario. They ended up with 9 kits that year. In 1933, they produced 42 kits and in 1934 - 127 kits. In October 1934, they advertised trios of mink for sale at $100. They sold all they felt they could spare and had to return a number of deposits. They sold all their increase alive until 1940, when they offered their first pelts.
"The feed used was horsemeat, jack rabbits, bush rabbits and boiled wheat for a total feed cost of .72¢ per mink. Joe Kopp was a very successful show man, having several champion dark males at Provincial shows."
In the October 1935 issue of the Fur Trade Journal, there was a display ad by the Pasquia Fur Farms of Veillardville offering "Fine Interior Canadian Labrador and Northern Quebec Mink" and in later ads featured Alaskan mink.
John Rothpletz was the Manager and elsewhere in the issue was published a series of some 22 answers to ranch questions published the month before. These answers were given by John Rothpletz and were the beginning of a long series of practical advice by this man, covering a number of years. Later G. Walton was listed as an associate in the operation of this ranch.
In a letter dated February 10th, 1936 and published in the March 1936 issue of the Fur Trade Journal, Bert Pierce of Archerwill writes "I have just received my check of $383.50 for 40 mink pelts which I culled this year. This is two or three times the amount I would have received from the fur trade (author's note: probably this reference is to local buyers) according to past experience. The fur trade told me that my mink were small, but certainly failed to tell me that quality was more important than size. But that is not all; I had just about decided to pelt my minks and buy a few good ones, as the best cost no more to keep. I changed my mind, however, on receiving my grades, 29 of the 40 averaged $12.00."
Bert Pierce's letter illustrates the problem most ranchers of that period had in getting true market value for their pelts. No wonder they preferred to sell their animals alive as breeders.
The Do-Well Minkery of Lady Lake offered "Extra Dark Silky Quebec Mink" in the October 1936 issue.
Orm Francis and his brother Robert of Tilney near Moose Jaw started trapping local fur as teenagers. Rabbits at .10¢ a skin were their principal catch and don't forget .10¢ did buy some things in the thirties. However, they did develop a champagne taste when they caught a wild mink and sold its pelt for $12.00. In 1934, they decided to be mink ranchers. Consulting the Winnipeg Free Press they found the Frank's Fur Farm ad and invested their trapline funds in two bred females. One had two kits, the other none. Fred Armstrong of Moose Jaw, who had 70 mink traded even up for the two kits giving them unrelated animals for next Spring's breeding. The herd grew to 40 mink but had to be pelted out when they enlisted in World War II.
When the war was over, Orm invested his gratuities in two males and ten females from Drucker and Markson of Winnipeg in 1946. The ranch expanded rapidly, but as the feed supply was contracting just as rapidly, he accepted Premier Joe Smallwood's invitation along with some 20 odd ranches to migrate to Newfoundland and unlimited mink feed in 1954. Several years later he moved to Alliston, Ontario and started a pelting service in connection with his ranch. The pelting service was a winner. It took so much of his time that he had to pelt out his Echo Fur Farm. Today he operates the largest raw fur processing business in Canada. This is a real success story.
Archie H. Campbell of Saskatoon, whose father Dr. A. H. Campbell was a pioneer fox breeder, started in mink in 1936. Archie has a number of firsts to his credit. He hosted the first Saskatchewan mink field day on his ranch in 1936. He was the first to use chicken viscera from broiler plants.
In association with S. A. Early Seed & Feed, he commenced to manufacture mink food cereals in 1936. Archie contributed much to the success of the mink industry and has been a reliable source of information on early Saskatchewan mink ranchers.
B. F. Eyford of Hudson Bay Junction offered Pasquia mink kits in the August 1937 issue of the Fur Trade Journal.
Dand's Fur Farm of Swift Current operated by Joe Dand better known for its foxes at that time began advertising mink for sale in the October 1938 issue of the Fur Trade Journal.
George E. Gould of Moose Jaw got started in 1938 with mink purchased from Morley Pirt. He enlisted in the RCAF and when he returned in 1945, the original mink were dead. He made a fresh start with mink purchased from Walter Lefurgey. He also bought mink from a neighbour who was a street car conductor but whose name he cannot recall. Bert Andrews sold him breeding stock as well. In 1954, he joined the migration to Newfoundland and eventually moved to Bridgewater, Nova Scotia where he finished out his mink ranching days and is now retired.
The Prairie Rose Fur Farms of Jansen advertised trios of Pasquia Pedigreed mink in the March 1939 issue of the Fur Trade Journal.
The Stratford Fur Ranch of Ridgedale advertised in July; Bert Andrews of Moose Jaw in September and in October 1939; Jackson Bros. of Shell Lake advertised "Trio freak silver black mink, must sacrifice, besides 200 Quebec mink".
Reap Bros. of Luseland in the July 1941 issue said, "Gothier blood line herd improvement males. Selected for size, colour and density. Fall delivery, $35.00 each, 3 for $100."
We now come to the end of the Saskatchewan history for which we have firm dates. Orville Griffin of Weyburn, who began as a fox rancher and later changed to mink provides us with much early and interesting information. Orville is in a position to know - 25 years as President of the Saskatchewan Fur Breeders Association, the Saskatchewan delegate to Canada Mink Breeders since its inception and Chairman of `Mink International'.
Orville Griffin writes "The pioneers of mink farming in the far North located in the general area of Buffalo Narrows and Dore Lake went there originally to trap and commercial fish.
"The only way in was by water in the summer, or on the ice in the winter, by horse drawn sleighs, then later by charter float, or ski plane and winter roads pushed through the heavy bush. Now they have quite good gravel highways. One of the earliest mink farmers in the Buffalo Narrows area was Mr. Tom Petersen. He made big money in the early days, live trapping and digging out silver and black foxes, then selling them live to fox farmers in the southern part of the Province. His first mink were caught in the same way.
"Mr. Halvor Ausland was another trapper turned successful mink farmer in 1928, along with Mr. Jacob Halverson, Mr. Ed Theriou and others. "Der Tom, a Chinese cafe owner with rooms over the cafe, at Buffalo Narrows, was also an early mink farmer. When mutation mink came along, he had some difficulty pronouncing the various names, Sapphire came out sack-a-fire, Miscellaneous Whites were Mussolini's Whites, etc.
"Mr. Bernard Johnsen of Dore Lake, a champion dog team owner and driver was a successful early mink farmer. Two of his sons still are raising mink at Dore Lake.
"Mr. Harry Husak of Dore Lake established a halfway house in the very early days for the winter fish hauling teamsters. The teamsters brought in supplies and hauled out the frozen fish for the southern mar-ket, stopped overnight to rest and feed their horses. Mr. Husak was written up in Macleans magazine a few years ago, was also an early mink farmer.
"Mr. John Thompson, originally of Big River, now of Buffalo Narrows, was one of the first mink farmers and still is mink farming. One of his sons made a name for himself boxing, another son Fred, a successful mink farmer turned politician and is the MLA for his northern constituency.
"Mr. Edwin Olsen of Big River, was another early mink farmer. At one time he brought car loads of fish from Manitoba for his mink, cheaper than he could fish them or buy them at home.
"Some of the early prominent mink farmers of the south: Archie H. Campbell, Lee Mahone, Tom Rooke, Saskatoon; The Cook Family, Hazel Dell; the Kopp Families, Humboldt; Dwight Lough, Moosomin; the Erikson and McNeils, Fort Qu'Appelle; Geo. Mason, Howard Humphries, Qu'Appelle; Bill Hipperson, Bert Elliot, Regina; Joe Dand, Swift Current; the Browns, Earle Motta, Geo. Gould, Orm Francis, Moose Jaw; Walsh & Murphy, Omar Crabb, Walter Lefurgy, Rouleau; Ralston Kerr, Lang; Dr. Clark, Orville Griffin, Weyburn; B. B. (Rusty) Kerr, Carlyle; Sam & Stanley Sheeves, Estevan; and others.
"One of the best known and liked mink farmers in the industry was Omar Crabb of Rouleau. He was a great booster and promoter of mink. A very friendly and hospitable gentleman, tireless in Saskatchewan Fur Breeders Association work.
"Our humble apologies to the great Saskatchewan fur farmers and important events that must have been omitted; lack of written records, time and failing memory is the only reason they are not included."