There is a slight, but not too serious, confusion as to the earliest mink ranchers in Alberta. In the June 1935 issue of the Fur Trade Journal, J. B. Gillies reports on an Alberta mink meeting "President Hollingsworth introduced Mr. N. A. Frond to the meeting, stating that Mr Frood was one of the pioneers in the mink breeding business in Alberta, having started at a time, ten or more years ago when there were only two registered mink men with the Alberta Government." The Dominion Bureau of Statistics lists two Alberta mink ranches in 1924. They were E. Farr of Blackfalds and Johnson & Hainline of Cheecham. The latter partnership never showed up on later D.B.S. lists, Farr seemed to be a catalyst. In 1924, he was also a partner in a rabbitry with G. P. Burns, who is listed as a mink, fox and rabbit rancher in 1926. Farr acquired a new partner, Dr C. W. Sanders in both the rabbitry and the mink ranch in 1926 and this lasted until 1929. Farr ranched alone the next year and must have pelted out as there is no further record of him. If we accept 1925 as the date Frood started, then there were five, not two earlier ranchers. The Tredway Fur Farm of Edmonton and later of Wildwood was the first to advertise breeding stock for sale. The advertisement was in the August 1927 issue of the Fur Trade Journal. In the September 1938 issue of the Canadian Silver Fox and Fur, their advertisement contained the words "Alberta's Oldest Mink Farm".
H. A. Blodgett of Edmonton started in 1924 and R. W. (Bob) Gillies has this to say about him, "My first recollection of mink being raised in the Edmonton area and possibly the first in the province, was by a Mr H. A. Blodgett who by the way lived just a few blocks away from the Gillies family home in northwest Edmonton. Mr Blodgett was a musician who taught music at Alberta College and also played in the pit of the new Empire Theatre. In the year 1924, he brought his first mink into his backyard at 124 Street and 110 Avenue in Edmonton. Since there were few houses close by, he did not run into any environmental regulations such as a farmer of today does.
"With the coming of sound movies to the theatres, Mr Blodgett could see his job as a movie house musician going down the drain, so he got started in mink as a diversified endeavour. I was recently informed by his son Stan, whom I went to school with, that in the year 1929, his father sold over $20,000 worth of livestock, which in those days was considered a fortune, but that the next year when the stock market crashed, he could not get $4. for a mink pelt.
" Mr Blodgett persevered with the mink and when the ranch got too large for a backyard operation, he leased property on the old Gardner estate in the Capitol Hill area of Edmonton. This property today must be considered the best residential view property in Edmonton and looks east down the beautiful Saskatchewan River valley, overlooks Mayfair Golf and Country Club, Victoria Golf Club and the City of Edmonton's Centre. Later he moved the mink farm to Lake Isle at Gainford, sixty miles west of Edmonton and operated in this pretty lake location until he sold to the Lawrence family and retired in 1945. As a result of finding this background, I was informed that Mr Blodgett is now 96 years old and living in Victoria, B.C."
H. L. Caine of Edmonton started to advertise one month after Tredway. Bob Gillies reports "The Caine Fur Farm of North Edmonton started by H. L. Caine and later joined by son John T. Caine, is truly one of the pioneer fur farms in Alberta. Mr Caine Sr. started raising fox in 1922 and two years later introduced mink to his fox farm operation, so he has to be one of the first mink farmers reported in Alberta."
In the December 1929 issue of the Canadian Silver Fox News, we find F. M. Brooks of Cochrane advertising "Dark Alaskan and Quebec mink". He is in the 1928 D.B.S. list and in 1933, he is also listed as a fox rancher.
William Bleasdale Cameron writing in the May 1930 issue of Agricultural and Industrial Progress in Canada, tells the Frood story well. "I may cite a few cases which will serve as illustrations to account for the rapid rise to popularity of mink farming.
"As an example, take the operations of N. A. Frood of the village of Faust on Lesser Slave Lake, Alberta, whose calling in 1925 was that of a fisherman. In September of that year, Mr Frood on going down to the lake one morning found a female mink aboard his gas boat. He captured her and a little later sent to a rancher in Prince Edward Island and bought a pair of minks. With these three as the nucleus, at a cost of a few hundred dollars, Mr Frood has in four years developed a property worth close to $20,000. In 1929, he had 150 mink and from his increase in 1930, he expects a return of $20,000, without diminishing his parent stock. Mr Frood has lost interest in fish, save as food for his furry charges, and now gives all his time and attention to the breeding and sale of stock from his colony of minks. A rancher in Edmonton who likewise began four years ago with a small investment and three or four pairs, last fall sold $4,000 worth of mink.
"Neither of these men are making a business of pelting their minks; if they were, although good skins are high and for one reason or another they sell an occasional pelt, their profits would be much less. They are selling their minks alive as breeders. The price of good breeding stock runs from $200 to $400 a pair and there seems at present no limit to the demand. Last year the Germans bought at least 150 pairs of mink in western Canada."
Andrew Lucas of Edmonton, started advertising in September 1930. In an ad in September 1937, he said "Ten years of careful breeding." This would indicate that he started mink raising in 1927.
Western Fur Farms of Busby, managed by J. W. Ritchie, only advertised once and that in the July issue of the Fur Trade Journal. They claimed "Twelve generations of Yukons." In our estimation, this means they or someone else were raising Yukons in 1919. No other record of this has been found.
Oscar Lee of Faust began his many years of advertising breeders for sale in the August 1929 issue of the Fur Trade Journal. We first saw his stock on Harold Noble's ranch in Owen Sound, Ontario in the late thirties. Compared to our eastern mink, they were much larger and darker. Their fur was not as silky but was strong and rugged like the mink themselves. That winter some of the ranchers in the Lesser Slave Lake area shipped their pelts to the Canadian Fur Auction sales in Montreal. We examined them carefully. They didn't have the volume or cushion of fur we expected, but in all else they were interesting. They were much larger, had a heavy somewhat oily leather of a yellowish colour, guard fur and underfur appeared to be black. As the trade was critical of the size and colour of eastern mink we were curious to see what they would pay for these westerns.
They paid good prices for them, but they paid more for the top eastern bundles. They wanted cushion first and then colour and size. However, for all who wanted to read, the handwriting was on the wall. Once these western mink developed cushion, the market was theirs.
At a later date these mink unexpectedly developed cushion. It happened when the abundant supply of tullibee, a herring like fish, began to fail in Lesser Slave Lake. Ranchers were forced to supplement the failing fish supply with horsemeat, tripe, liver and chicken waste from the southern part of Alberta. The diet was more expensive but it was better balanced nutritionally and the mink produced more volume of fur. Unfortunately, the failing fish supply and depressed mink pelt prices caused all but a few of the 220 licensed mink farmers along the 70-mile shore of Lesser Slave Lake to go out of business before the verdict on fashion was understood.
Speaking of northern Alberta ranchers in the pre-World War II era, Bob Gillies has this to say, "Mink farming started in the Lesser Slave Lake area when Norman A. Frood, lumberman and fisherman, one morning caught a female mink in his fishing boat. This mink produced young and was his incentive to obtain more mink. With this start and some success, others soon became interested. This was only logical because here was one of Alberta's largest freshwater lakes with ample fish to support many mink farms. So with this incident, a mink industry in this area was born. Soon such famous mink farming names as N. A. Frood, Oscar Lee, C. Croft, J. W. Murray, R. Pearson, E. E. Kenney, O. Fourneitt, Slim Bartlett, F. Nystrom, O. A. McKinley, A. Hangartner, J. Galbraith, B. Rippin, Don McVean, Ron Potts, D. L. Reid, Cliff Engelbretson, A. Tate and many others were raising mink in this northern district.
"I can recall such pioneers as Oscar Lee and Norman Frood visiting my father on their rare visits to Edmonton, since the major way of transportation at the time was by way of Northern Alberta Railroad, as the roads were impassable when it rained. I remember Mr Frood visiting our ranch and showing me how to break the neck and pelt a mink. A lesson was never forgotten. I can also remember Mr Lee told us about his efforts to raise mink in fenced, or gang enclosures. My father went to see this operation and said it was quite a sight to see a hundred or so mink having supper from the same feed table. While this method of raising mink never became successful, I have often wondered why further trials or experiments were not tried in other places, over the years.
"Lac La Biche located 150 miles northeast of Edmonton and nearly 180 miles east of Lesser Slave Lake, attracted many mink farmers before the war. Such names as E. Hogan, M. Combs, H. Nelson Steve, John and Bill Yackimec, R. Sheltens, M. Magcagno, N. Masalyk, Gus Brykelo, J. Insch, M. Steffin, N. Young, L. Brockhage, N. Hrynyk, C. Plamandon, A. Stratton, F. Smith, were some of the pre-war pioneers."
John B. Gillies of Edmonton, "J. B." to all who knew him, ran a general insurance agency. He served the fur industry organizations in Edmonton as Secretary for many years. We will let his son Bob tell the story "My dad was always a venturesome Scotsman looking for a way to invest and make a fortune. He first became interested in the theory of raising muskrat and he and a friend by the name of George Allen were looking for a place to raise muskrats. I can well remember as a boy, driving with him out to the Cooking Lake area. They nearly bought, at that time, the acreage and lake which today is the site of Al Oeming's famous Alberta Game Farm.
"They became sceptical of raising muskrat and in 1928-29 switched their interest to mink which a few venturesome pioneers were then raising in captivity. My dad bought mink from H. A. Blodgett and placed them on the Jack McLean farm at Looma, south-east of Edmonton. This partnership continued for several years and each summer holiday I would go out to the Looma farm to build mink pens (colony sheds with wood floors in those days) feed mink and help with the haying in the fall, all for the princely sum of $2. a day, if I was lucky enough to collect it.
"In the year 1931-32, I went into partnership with my father and the mink were brought from Looma to the Westmount City Park in Edmonton's west end, located at 111 Avenue and 140 Street where we operated the Gillies Fur Farm until about 1947. When the partnership ceased, I operated in Jasper place until 1952. My own experience in raising mink goes back to those early and interesting days when everything was learned by trial and error."
With present-day ranchers housing thousands of mink it is difficult for the historian to keep in mind that in this early time, mink ranching was a backyard hobby usually consisting of less than a dozen mink. In 1929, Statistics Alberta reported 35 mink farms with a total of 305 mink.
In the late thirties, a mutation mink, the Gorham Silver Sable, occurred in Alberta. At a later time, three other mutations showed up. The advent of four separate and distinct mutations happening in one province is so unusual we will depart from our historical time span and allow Bob Gillies to talk about them.
"Len Gorham of south Edmonton first put a mutation mink on the field day and show tables in Edmonton about the year 1937-38. This new mink was brown with a light blue coloured underfur and the guard hair had a white ticking spread over the body. The first mink shown had a rather blotchy appearance but later mink developed a uniform coverage.
"When Mr Gorham first brought these mink for a display he was advised by the judge of the time to take the mink home and pelt it, as it was nothing but a `cotton mink'. Mr Gorham was a determined man with greater insight than the judge, so he worked with this mink, following good genetic principles and developed a quality one which he named the `Silver Sable'. This mink when first placed on the pelt market drew very satisfactory pelt prices compared to the standard mink pelt prices of that time.
"This mink made Mr Gorham famous and he used this mutation to trade with people who were also coming up with different mutations. This mink proved to have what was later referred to as a `lightening factor' and when crossed with other solid coloured mink such as platinum or pastel, produced what was called `breath of spring' factor, that made some very bright coloured pelts which drew some very outstanding prices on the mutation pelt markets of the world. Mr Gorham got a lot of people started raising mutations including ourselves. The `Silver Sable' made Mr Gorham famous and indeed financially independent.
"Shortly after John T. Caine's return from overseas, or about 1948-49, the new solid coloured beige brown mink was discovered on the Carter Fur Farm, Lamont. The Caines were gamblers enough to buy all the descendants of this mink, to concentrate on raising a new mink.
"This was the start of the Caine Palomino, so named because it had a soft colour similar to the palomino horse, so popular at the time with Alberta horsemen. They concentrated on this colour storing all excess pelts until they had over 3,000 pelts ready for market. By 1951, several mink similar in colour were produced on other North American farms. These breeders co-operated and organized to hold the first Palomino sale under the `Diadem' tradename.
Some very fancy prices were obtained at the first sale of about 7,000 pelts, nearly half from the Caine Fur Farm. The Caine's top price was reported to have been $156. for their top bundle and they obtained an average of $67. for nearly 3,400 pelts. While the Caines had expected more, it was a successful selling promotion and launched a lively sale of Palomino livestock.
"John told me recently that while the raising of the Palomino was an exciting experience, the production of the Pearl mink was even more dramatic, as far as he and his dad were concerned. The crossing of the Palomino to such mutations as Platinum and Sapphire added a new dimension to their ranching of mink and the Pearl (blue beige) that followed. The Palomino, as a garment mink did not last long, but the cross or the Pearl is still very popular today.
"The original Tyrian Glo (dark blue brown) popped up out of Clarke Croft's standard mink at Canyon Creek in 1955. Mr Croft didn't know quite what to do with them so accepted an offer from M. Coombs of British Columbia, a former Alberta rancher, who made this mink quite famous on the west coast".
The Montgomery Fur Farm of Wetaskiwin began as a fox farm in Bedeque, Prince Edward Island in 1911 - and claims to be Canada's oldest fur farm still in existence today. Two brothers Hugh John and Frank Montgomery brought their Island Fox Ranch to Alberta in 1921. Mink was added to the ranch in 1936 and foxes eliminated in 1956. At that time Ken and Jim Montgomery, sons of Hugh and Frank continued operation on the same site - producing 20,000 mink pelts annually. Ken recently sold his interest to Jim's son Bob - so after nearly seventy years, it will now be continued by the third generation.
In the minutes of the October 1935 Alberta Fur Breeders Association meeting, "Mr J. F. Gerhardt was invited to give a practical demonstration of pelting and fleshing mink at the next meeting." We have not found an address for this man, but Bob Gillies says he was located in Edmonton.