The early mink history of Nova Scotia while somewhat lacking in firm dates is blessed with three valuable sources of information. First, Fur Farming in Canada 1914, 'Fur Farmers in Nova Scotia who have taken out permits to ranch mink' seventy names in all. Second, The Federal Government list of Nova Scotia mink ranchers in 1938. Two hundred and forty-nine ranches listed. Third, Don and Ruby Mullen's dedicated search into Nova Scotia's mink ranching past and present. While David A. McRae is generally regarded as the earliest Nova Scotia mink rancher beginning in 1907, we have not been able to confirm that date. The 1914 Fur Farming in Canada fails to include him in their list, which may mean the list is not complete, and probably there were more that McRae missed out.
In 1938, we find six of the 1914 group still in business - Robert F. Nowe, W. T. Powers, John Slaughenwhite, Robert C. Stewart, Wallace Wilneff and the unlisted David A. McRae. The 1924 statistics of Lands and Forests says there were only seven mink breeders operative that year. It is interesting to speculate if the seventh was one of the 1914 list or a newcomer to the business.
Don and Ruby Mullen's excellent story on Nova Scotia's mink ranchers presented us with two problems from a historical. aspect. First they wrote about each of several districts separately from the beginning to the present day, and second as this book is to cover from the beginning to the start of World War II, it required us to rearrange the material in the order of the dated appearance of these mink people and the dropping of ranchers who began after 1940. So with these explanations, we'll get on with it and let Don and Ruby tell us the Nova Scotia story.
The earliest known mink rancher and., Nova Scotia's pioneer mink rancher, was David McRae, West Middle River, Victoria County. Mr McRae began to raise mink in 1907 and his story is most interesting. He started with mink trapped in the wild and bought many live mink from trappers in Victoria and Inverness counties. Mr McRae had spent his younger days in the Yukon Territories, working at gold mining, before he decided to return home and start raising mink. At first, like most early ranchers, he thought that mink needed water in their pens so the pens were built so that part of the pen was in the brook. He lost a lot of mink during the fall and winter months, probably due to pneumonia. The principal feed was fish in the summertime and horse meat and rabbits in winter.
Most people who began ranching in the 1920s and 1930s bought mink from Dave McRae and he was the recognized top mink man in those early days. John MacInnis mentions that he bought mink from him in 1937, and says that at that time most of McRae's pens were about three feet wide and fourteen feet long, but he had some sheds built such as we use today and he told John that he found it much easier to look after them in these types of pens. Alyn Townsend says that he remembers Mr McRae telling him that the offal of the animal and the fish were the best feed for mink but the ranchers at that time were throwing this part away. This shows the wisdom that he had as the ranchers today have been forced to use this kind of feed and it has proven to be good.
It is believed that Mr McRae at no time kept more than one hundred females on his ranch but he made a name for himself and is known to have sold mink across Canada and the United States. The year of the big bank failures in the U.S.A. he had sold quite a few mink to a man there named A. B. Dehaan. After speaking for the mink Dehaan lost all his money in the bank failures. However, when he notified McRae about this, McRae let him have the mink anyway. Dehaan made a success after that and built a large ranch, from which McRae continued to receive dividends for many years.
In 1936, McRae and several other ranchers with his stock in Victoria County averaged $40 per pelt. At that time, ranchers in that area considered that a mink was at its all prime, as they called it, when three years old. They considered the male made a better pelt at that age.
In 1937, there were eleven ranches in the Middle River area and sixteen small ranches in all of Victoria County. McRae stayed in business the longest of these. When he pelted out about 1940, he was the only rancher left in Middle River area.
Wilfrid Baker, R.R. #2, Middleton started ranching in 1925 with wild mink. In 1928, he bought mink from Cyril Roberts and also from David McRae. He continued ranching until the early 1970s. He can remember visiting a ranch in the Windsor, Nova Scotia, area about 1920 and says that this rancher had quite a few mink and was selling breeders to the United States for $200. a pair. (likely Martin T. Greeno) However, we were unable to find more information on this ranch. Mr Baker was also a great fox rancher. He is retired now and, although in his eighties, is still a great hunter and fisherman and continues to breed dogs which he sells.
R. Jost Boyd became interested in fur-bearing animals, mink in particular, at a very early age. He trapped with his father on the west side of the Chebogue River and mink were the first animals caught. Jost says mink were few but there was a good market price for them in 1923. Females brought about $45 and males about $30. from buyers B. Garson and M. Davis of Colonial Hide of Windsor, N.S. Occasionally a mink would be caught alive and this started a young boy dreaming about raising mink in a manner similar to the way foxes were being raised at the time. In 1925, he was able to save five or six and pen them. Jost says that caring for them was very awkward at first and he had a lot to learn.
Jost was a fur animal feed salesman for Parker Eakins all his life. On several occasions, he also ranched mink. In 1932, he purchased about 20 Black mink from a man in Vogler's Cove, Lunenburg Co. (probably Robert F. Nowe). However, in 1932, there was no commercial feed available and it was difficult to find out just what to mix to make a suitable dry cereal so these mink were pelted and the pelts sent to New York to what Jost thought to be a reliable company. He was quite pleased when he received a cheque for over $1200. However, when he cashed the cheque, it came back "Not Sufficient Funds" so this venture did not pay off very well. Then in 1940 he started again, but only kept these mink a few years before selling them live about thirty years ago to Jerry and Joseph Comeau, Little Brook. Later, Jost once again went into mink ranching, this time operating a fair-sized ranch known as Empire Ranch.
R. N. McInnis, West Bay, started ranching in 1926 and got his first license to ranch mink in 1927. He started with wild mink which he had caught and then purchased ranch raised mink from David McRae. Roddie and his wife, Daisy, were both very active in N. S. Mink Breeders Association. He served as President, and also as secretary-treasurer for several years.
Dr. Arthur Gill is the earliest known rancher in the Truro area. He is known to have had mink in the 1920s but is thought to have never had more than 100 mink on the ranch at any one time. He was a veterinarian and was more interested in genetics than in raising mink for pelts.
(Author's Note: The first breeding stock advertised was in the September 1928 issue of the Fur Trade Journal offering Nova Scotia strain mink. In the September 1931 issue, there was an advertisement for Gill and Townsend and an announcement "A partnership has been formed between Dr Arthur Gill of the Maritime Mink Ranch, Truro, Nova Scotia and Mr Fred Townsend. The business will be carried on at the above address as heretofore.")
Isaac Hatfield was an early rancher at Carleton, Yarmouth County. He began operation in the 1920s. Wallace Mullen remembers visiting this ranch in 1931 and that Mr Hatfield had 55 kits in cages in his barn, and Wallace says he still remembers how amazed he was to see so many mink together in one place. At that time Mr Hatfield was feeding entirely eels in the summer. He caught these eels in an eel weir in the brook next to his barn. He was grinding these eels in an Enterprise grinder and this too seemed amazing to Wallace since they were grinding their mink feed in their mother's hand meat grinder.
For many years Ernest Kenney operated a mink ranch at Atwood's Brook known as the Bluenose Mink Ranch. He bought his first mink from Frank Gothier and the Slack ranch in the U.S.A. around 1927. Mr Kenney was more interested in breeding than most ranchers of that time. He spent much time grading for quality and setting up matings. Dr Bowness helped him considerably with grading and also helped him introduce line-breeding into his herd.
(Author's Note: Ernest Kenney was a scholarly man and for many years we had a large volume of correspondence. It was a happy day when I finally met him at his home. My guide and counsellor, Charles F. Whitman, Mink Extension Officer of Lands and Forests and I were invited to dinner.
We ate enormously from platters of freshly cooked lobster meat. It was not the legal lobster season and Charles rose even higher in my estimation as he periodically commented on the excellence of their canned lobster, which presumably would have been caught in proper season).
Cyril Roberts started raising mink about 1927 in Salmon River and continued to operate a ranch until the late 1950s. We know that he was selling breeding stock in the 1930s, but it is thought that he didn't produce more than 100 pelts in any one year.
Bishop Bros. of Ellerhouse advertised mink for sale in the January 1928 issue of the Fur Trade Journal. This is the only mention we can find. There is a J. D. Bishop listed as a mink and fox rancher at Round Hill in 1938. There may be a connection.
Harold Gates, a neighbour of 'Wilfred Baker, started in 1928 and was secretary of the Nova Scotia Mink Breeders for several years. He is now retired from the mink business and continues to hunt and fish, and is also known as one of the best canoe makers in Nova Scotia and has sold canoes across Canada and the United States.
Guy Prime of New Tusket was the first man to raise mink in this area. He had mink in the late 1920s and continued with a small ranch until the 1950s. He started with wild mink and his first pens were a quarter mile from the house so that the mink could have access to the water of a brook. During the 1930's he moved the mink nearer and continued until the 1950s.
(Author's Note: Guy Prime appears in the 1914 Fur Farming in Canada list as a skunk rancher. Mink must have smelled good to him.)
Bernie Gaudet was the first man known to have started raising mink in the French Shore Acadian area. He began in Meteghan in the late 1920s, but we were unable to find out whether he purchased his first mink or started from wild ones. He operated until the late 1960s and then the business was carried on by his son, Harvie, until 1974 when the ranch was pelted out.
Mark Corkum, Filtzen South, Lunenburg County, began raising mink in 1920, starting with a few wild mink. In 1955, he went out of business, pelting 230 mink that year.
R. W. Newcombe of Ellerhouse, who first appeared in the 1914 Fur Farming in Canada list, advertised breeding stock on one occasion only in the August 1929 issue of the Fur Trade Journal. Likely he was the seventh pre-1914 rancher still in business in 1924 as noted in the N.S. Statistics that year.
Augustus Woods and Oscar Hatfield of Raynardton began a partnership in 1929. Woods and Hatfield bought four mink (two males and two females) from Isaac Hatfield in 1929. The price they paid for these four mink was $325. Les Woods, Augustus's son, continues the ranch operation to the present day.
Clifford d'Entremont, Eel Brook, started mink ranching with wild mink, as most people did, in 1929. I suppose we could say that he had the first automatic feeder used on a ranch in Nova Scotia. The first female he kept had eight kits. When these were small she somehow escaped and went down to Eel Lake, just a few feet from her pen. After catching all the eels she wanted to eat, she returned to her pen. Getting the idea that she might continue this, d'Entremont began letting her out each day and she would go to the Lake for eels, always returning to be put back into her pen. When the kits became large enough to require solid food he continued to let the female out each day and she would bring back eels for food for her kits. In the early 1930's he had about 100 mink on his ranch. Les Woods remembers going there to buy breeders about that time. Clifford's son, Archie, continued to operate this ranch until about ten years ago.
Rev. J. Z. Gordon, or Minister Gordon as he was always called, had a ranch in the 1920s and 1930s in Deerfield, Yarmouth Co. We don't know how he began his ranch, but it is quite possible that he bought his first mink from Isaac Hatfield who lived in that same area. He operated a small ranch and a small farm and preached on Sundays in the small Baptist churches which didn't have full-time pastors. Minot and Frank Mullen bought their first mink from him in 1931.
Nova Scotia Minkery at Hantsport advertised mink for sale in the April 1930 issue of the Fur Trade Journal.
Several in Digby County had a few mink in captivity in the 1920s but the first to go into mink seriously and continue in it was Wallace Mullen, who started with his first mink in the fall of 1930. The story of the beginning of this ranch is very interesting. Wallace and his brother Leland left home with the horse and their hound dog to go to the sawmill and get a load of edgings. On their way, the hound chased a mink into a hollow log, and the brothers decided to try to capture the mink. They took off their coats and caps and plugged the ends of the log, then they loaded the log onto the cart and returned home with an old half-rotten log instead of the edgings. Their mother saw them from the window and couldn't imagine what was going on. When they shook the mink out of the log they were surprised to find not one, but two male mink.
A little later the dog chased another mink into a hole in the butt of a tree. Wallace was alone at that time so he stuffed some of his clothes into the hole to keep the mink in, then went home and got an axe and sack, returned and dug the mink out and carried it home. This was a female, so now Wallace was in the mink business. The next year another mink was trapped and this stock formed the foundation for their ranch. This ranch remained in operation for almost forty years and is known the world over for its jet black mink. In 1965, Wallace and Edsel Mullen broke the news to the mink world that they had developed on their ranch the world's first pure strain of jet-black mink. Buyers came from all over the world and their sales of breeders ran into millions of dollars. They have since pelted out and are not operating at this time.
(Authors' Note: I visited the Mullen ranch in the summer of 1960 and saw the first few dominant black kits. At that time Wallace and Edsel told me the story of improving the colour of the Nova Scotia wild mink by adding very dark mink from the U.S.A. They bought mink from two American ranches, one of which provided the bloodline that worked. As I could not recall, with accuracy, their explanations of twenty years ago, I asked Donald Mullen to ask Wallace for the details.
This is the reply. "I have talked to Wallace Mullen again and he has read over, once more, the original comments we sent you on his ranch and the jet black mink. You suggested that he probably purchased his first mink in the U.S.A. from Mr McArthur, but Wallace says they were raising the ordinary brownish-black mink and purchased the first from Mrs Perry Slack in the U.S.A. They continued to breed for colour until finally in 1960, they got the dominant black mink, which would breed with ordinary dark mink, resulting in half the litters being black and half ordinary.
They built up their herd to around 400 females when fire hit in 1964 resulting in a loss of all kits, most all the black females and some black males. They were able to save almost all black males so kept on breeding, crossing these males with their ordinary females in 1965 resulting in half the litters being black and half ordinary again. That year, 1965, they began selling the Jet Black breeding stock all over the world.")
S. U. Messenger started in mink in 1930 with breeders bought from Trail's End Mink Ranch in Lunenburg. He also was a great fox man and won many prizes with his foxes and mink at Shows and Field Days.
One of the earliest large ranches in the province was Trail's End Ranch, situated at Martin's Rock, Lunenburg County, and operated by Spencer Stevens. This ranch began operation with ten females in 1930 and 1948 had 5000 mink on the ranch. However, he went out of business in 1949 and the reason given us for his pelting out was that low flying planes caused the loss of nearly all the kits. An interesting thing about this ranch is that Stevens tried raising 1000 kits together in one large enclosed area. This was a failure because, not only did people steal the kits, cannibalism was a problem.
(Author's Note: In 1938 W. T. Powers, one of the 1914 Fur Farming in Canada list, was listed as a partner. It is interesting to speculate if he was a continuous mink rancher or returned to the business with Spencer Stevens in 1930. In other words, were the original ten females Mr Powers contribution to the partnership.)
Herbert Sears of Shelburne started in 1930 with mink bought from Jost Boyd. His ranch grew until he was pelting about 2000 yearly, and he continued to operate until 1966 when he pelted out. Since his retirement, he traps in the fall and is a noted taxidermist who spends the winter mounting these animals which he sells in summer to the tourists. This would be an interesting stop for anyone driving through Shelburne.
Acadia Farms was situated in Clementsport and operated mainly in the 1930s and 1940s. The farm was owned by Dr Leo Stone of New York City, and Israel Potter, Clementsport, was the manager. They introduced the first mutation mink into Western Nova Scotia and they sold breeding stock to local ranchers. This farm also raised fisher.
(Author's Note: An unusual item in the April 1938 issue of the Fur Trade Journal read: "Mink - we are buyers of fine young male and female stock, preferably bred. Send description and best prices in the first letter to Acadia Farms, Clementsport.")
Minot Mullen of Havelock started in the mink business in 1931 with the purchase of three mink from his brother, Frank Mullen, who had bought them from Rev. Gordon, Deerfield, Yarmouth Co. This ranch has continued in operation until the present time except for two years during the war. Mr Mullen soon turned his ranch over to his sons, Walton, Earl, Austin and Donald, who for some years operated together with the one ranch. Walton left the mink business and took over his father's lumbering business, operating a lumbering and sawmill operation until ill health forced him to retire.
(Author's Note: In the 1938 list, the ranch was under Earl Mullen's name.)
In 1956, Earl established his ranch at Easton now known as Hillsdale Fur Farm Ltd., in 1963 Austin formed A. and J. Fur Farm Ltd. at Havelock and Donald formed Brookside Fur Farm Ltd. at Havelock. These are the three largest ranches operating in Nova Scotia at this time and together they produce over 30,000 pelts annually. Minot Mullen until his death in April 1977, at the age of 93, was the oldest rancher alive in the province.
Minot's brother, Frank Mullen, started in 1931, also but only remained in the mink business for, a few years but continued to raise foxes for several years.
Donald Urquhart, West Bay, also started with wild mink. He had a ten-mile trap line and caught both male and female mink in this. He also caught quite a few each year in box traps. His first fur farming license was obtained in November 1932. His first report, made in December 1933, showed he had two adults and five kits on the ranch December 31, 1933. He had pelted four mink and sold one breeder to R. N. McInnis. Donald's son, Neil, is associated with him part-time on the ranch.
Joe LeBlanc, Little Brook, bought his first breeders from someone on the South Shore, probably Trail's End Ranch, about 1932. Although we don't know for sure from whom he purchased them, we do know that they were shipped by train from the South Shore to Little Brook. He continued to operate a small ranch until the 1940's when he pelted out.
Stephen Barr, Weaver Settlement, had a ranch in the early 1930s from mink which he caught in the wild. He only continued in business for a few years.
Leigh Sabine of Riverdale had a ranch from wild mink in the early 1930s, and also at that time bought his first ranch mink from Mr Devoe in Saint John, N.B.
William Barr, Weaver Settlement, also had a mink ranch in the early 1930s from wild mink. He continued this for only a few years. His daughter, Mrs Annie Dennison, who is employed at the office of the Department of Agriculture, Weymouth, remembers having to get up early each morning to bake a Johnnycake (cornmeal cake) to feed to the mink.
Hon. J. Willie Comeau, M.L.A. and Cabinet Minister in the Nova Scotian government, and later appointed Senator in Ottawa, bought his first mink from W. R. McMillan, Jacquet River, N.B. about 1935. Two of his sons remember going to New Brunswick to get these mink. This ranch, located in Comcauville, has been operated by his sons, Hon. Benoit Comeau and Mcdard Comeau until 1976, when the ranch was taken over by Senator Comeau's grandson, Julian, a son of Hon. Benoit Comeau. Another of Senator Comeau's sons, Norbert, was associated with this ranch from its beginning and later operated a small ranch of his own in the late 1950s and 1960s.
Alyn Townsend, R. R. Truro, started in 1936 with a trio of mink bought from David McRae. That same year Mr Townsend bought ten females and five males from R. N. McInnis. He was later joined in his operation by his brother, Laurie, and Mr Townsend says that the most pelts that they produced in one year was 3013.
In the April 1936 issue of the Fur Trade Journal there was a testimonial letter addressed to the C.S.B.A. Fur Pool saying, "I wish to congratulate the Pool for the fine prices received for my pelts. As you know a beginner only pelts his poorer stock and hope to have better pelts to offer you this fall." It was signed Thos. A. Bare, Port Medway, N.S. In the 1934 list, he is recorded as a mink rancher.
Winston B. Mullen of New Tusket is listed as both a fox and mink rancher in the 1938 list. In the April 1936 issue of the Fur Trade Journal, he has a good article entitled "Pelting sheds for foxes" illustrated with a detailed diagram.
In a letter to the editor published in the May 1936 issue of the Fur Trade Journal, J. C. H. Benson of R.R. 4, Bridgetown discusses the causes, treatment and prevention of tail chewing in mink.
John MacInnis, Breton Cove, began raising mink in 1937. John says that there were three others in the North River area who started that same year but none of these remained in business for very long. John's interest in mink started earlier than this when, as a boy, he trapped wild animals. He found that a good fox pelt brought as much as $35, lynx as high as $79, muskrats an average of $3. Of all the animals he trapped, mink interested him most and it was this interest that led him to consider the possibility of mink ranching as a permanent sideline to his fishing operations. So in 1937, he made his first purchase of breeding stock - two females and one male from David McRae. From these small beginnings, John established himself as a leading mink rancher who has won more ribbons and Grand Champions than any other rancher in Nova Scotia.
Hilton and Jack Nickerson, father and son operated a good-sized ranch at Lower Clarks Harbour in the late thirties.
John Slaughenwhite of Tantallon, whom we presume was the same man as listed in the 1914 Fur Farming in Canada list, advertised for the first time we can find in the June 1937 issue, of the Fur Trade Journal saying "Nova Scotia Ranch Raised Mink - fine and dark, the kind that produce large litters and valuable pelts. Guaranteed to be good. Price very reasonable for fall delivery."
G. A. Bennett, 185 Young Street, Truro advertised in the July 1937 issue of the Fur Trade Journal "Fine dark Eastern mink. Reasonable prices."
Criterion Mink Ranch of South Milford, Annapolis County, advertised in the August 1937 issue of the Fur Trade Journal "Choice Eastern mink. Priced to sell. Foundation stock from the prize-winning ranch."
A. G. Saunders, 12 Slack Street, Truro, advertised in the July 1938 issue of the Fur Trade Journal "Fine Dark Eastern Mink, large producers. Price is reasonable for early delivery. Come and pick your stock."
L. I. Townsend of Valley, Col. County, advertised in the September 1938 issue of the Fur Trade Journal "Healthy Kits from excellent Eastern foundation stock."
Gustave Comeau, a brother of Senator J. Willie, began a ranch in Comeauville a few years after Hon. J. Willie Comeau and started with mink purchased from his brother. He continued operating this ranch until he retired in the 1960s, and then the ranch was taken over by his son Louis.
(Author's Note: It couldn't have been too long after as Gustave is in the 1938 list).
Mrs. Gertrude Sabean bought her first mink from Earl Mullen in the late 1930s paying $16 for it. This mink died, so she then sent to Quebec for a bred female which didn't produce any kits that year, but the following year she had it bred and it produced four kits. She then bought a male mink from Earl Mullen and she was then in the mink business. Hallett and Harold can recall catching rabbits in winter and fish in summer to feed these mink. In the early 1940s, both Harold and Hallett enlisted in the army where both served overseas and both were wounded in action - Harold at the front in Italy and Hallett while fighting in France. Their sister can recall that after the boys left home their mother walked a half-mile every day to the corner where she met the mailman, who, on his way to the village of Easton with the mail, stopped at Earl Mullen's and brought back feed for her. She found this too hard so after a year she pelted all the mink she had. This few years experience with mink created an interest in these young men and both later started ranches of their own.