Dr. Lionel Stevenson, addressing the Fur Conference at the Ontario Veterinary College in June 1938 said:
"It is but thirty years since Dalton, Oulton and Rayner of Prince Edward Island made their real beginning in silver black fox. With mink, a beginning was made seventy years ago and then lost for fifty years. A mink herd was developed near Richmond Hill on the property of Patterson Brothers, Implement Manufacturers of a century ago. The property where this first real attempt at domesticating mink took place is now part of the establishment known as Don Head Farms, owned by Mr J. D. Patterson, who as a boy did part of the work in caring for the one-hundred and thirty mink kept at that time. No furbearers are now kept on this farm, but it does support the finest flock of Southdown sheep in America."
The U.S. Fur Rancher reprinted in January 1977 an article by J. Mason Reynolds that appeared in the Grand Rapids (Michigan) Eagle in February 1870 which said in part "I will now give an account of one of the several minkeries I have visited. This (minkerie) is located near Toronto, Canada, and is under the supervision of one Conger, an old and experienced hunter.
"The grounds contain an acre of land enclosed by a tight boarding six or seven feet in height. Within this is a pond which is fed by water pipes from a neighbouring river. At one side of this park, a building has been erected for breeding purposes; this is a long and low structure, some thirty feet by ten.
"Along the whole length of the building on either side is a series of boxes with wire gauze tops which furnish air and light. The boxes or cages are situated upon the floor. In the back part of each of these cages are two little bedrooms, which the unmarried mink undoubtedly consider a very modest arrangement.
"Through the front runs a continuous trough furnished with a constant supply of running water. At the back of the cage between the two boxes is a small door opening into the yard. I noticed that sawdust was scattered about the floor. The boards of the enclosure must be sunk in the ground a foot or two, the latter depth gives protection against the escape of the animals by digging.
"The mink is a scavenger and a glutton. Nothing appears to be too awful for his palate. Refuse of butcher shops, entrails, and all sorts of carnivorous food, especially liver, make up for him a bill of fare most acceptable - and if a little putrid, all the better.
"The mink is as tough as an Indian but after a season becomes as playful as a kitten. I saw them frolic about Conger and caper over his shoulder like monkeys in a menagerie, their deep-set bullet eyes twinkling like diamonds."
We suspected that the two references we have just quoted pertained to the one mink ranch, but getting beyond mere suspicion proved to be quite a chore. J. D. Patterson and Lionel Stevenson had gone to their rewards, the time had erased the memory and local history had failed to record the existence, of a mink ranch.
There was no problem in identifying the Patterson Brothers. They were larger than life. As farm machinery manufacturers they employed some sixty people in 1867 and about two hundred people in 1885. The plant was located on their Don Head Farm which was well known for its livestock. It was important enough to have its own post office and letters were franked Patterson C. W. (Canada West). A local newspaper, the Richmond Hill Liberal, devoted much space in 1885 to the fact that they were about to lose this important business to the City of Brantford. The problem was that the finished farm machinery had to be hauled by horse and wagon several miles to the railroad for shipping. Brantford offered rail facilities, land and $35,000 which swung the deal.
By 1887 most of the plant equipment had been shifted to Brantford. The next year the firm was sold to Massey who later in that year bought Harris and combined them to be the beginning of the worldwide Massey-Harris Corporation. In all the newspaper coverage of the loss of this valuable employer of local labour, no mention of mink or the mink ranch could be found.
Armed only with the above facts, and a stubborn persistence, Fred S. Boyd our newly retired Executive Secretary of Canada Mink Breeders, set out to clear up the mystery. As this has all the aspects of a good detective story, we'll let Fred tell it in his own words.
"Where does one start in getting information on someone as far back as 1866? No one I talked to in mink ranching circles could recall hearing of the Pattersons. First of all, I asked Bob Garbutt at the Ontario Agricultural Museum who has a store-house of knowledge on the agricultural community in Ontario. He steered me to several sources of information including a historian for Vaughan Township, Mr Snider, who in turn gave me several other people I might contact.
"I must have talked to a dozen people but none could recall reading about the Pattersons raising mink. Not one to give up easily, I visited the library in Richmond Hill, north of Toronto and spent several hours reading about the thriving industry the Pattersons had built up in the area. They were the first to manufacture agricultural implements in eastern Canada and were well known in various parts of the world where they shipped such equipment. Nowhere could I see mink mentioned in these articles.
"Not satisfied, I proceeded to the Don Head Farm which was established by the Pattersons and under present ownership widely known for their Jersey cattle and Southdown sheep. On talking with the owner, Mr Ernest Redelmeier, who was well acquainted with the history of the farm, he could not recall mention of them raising mink. I was just about to leave his office when one of the veterinarians on his staff wondered if a former resident in the area, Mr Harry Charles, might be able to shed some light on the subject. I was told that Mr Charles recently had a stroke and presently was at a home for the aged in Newmarket and it was problematical whether his health would allow him to be interviewed.
"As this was my last resort, I went to Newmarket where the staff at the home were quite helpful in arranging an interview with Mr Charles. For his age, some ninety years, and despite his condition, he was quite bright. I was able to talk with him for a short while, but in that time he recalled seeing the location on the Patterson Farm where the mink had been kept. He was born on the farm and he recalled his father telling him about the mink and confirmed the story about Mr Conger tending the animals.
"Pursuing the matter further, I learned that Allanson Powell Conger lived at Wildwood which formed part of the Patterson Brothers property. In addition to looking after the mink, he worked as an iron moulder for them."
As a result of Fred Boyd's search several other less related facts came to light. Peter Patterson was the surviving brother that sold the firm to Massey. He had two sons Alfred and John who continued to work for the new firm for a while. Peter continued to operate Don Head farm until his death in 1904 at the age of 79. To quote the Richmond Hill Liberal "he left all his wealth to his son John, disregarding the older son, Alfred, who had fallen out of favour for some reason not recorded." John D. Patterson died in 1940 at the age of 78 and the farm was sold at that time to Willy Redelmeier the father of the present owner.
In an attempt to establish probable dates for the duration of the Patterson Bros. mink ranch we are short on facts but do have some useful references. The article in the Grand Rapids Eagle published in February 1870 must have been written about a visit that took place in 1869. By its tone, it wasn't a new venture so Dr. Stevenson's estimate of seventy years in 1938 might be a little on the low side. Without much more reason than we have offered, we accept 1866 as the probable date of origin. We have even less evidence as to when the ranch was closed. Dr Stevenson's observations indicate the ranch lasted twenty years. This would have it closing at the time the farm machinery business was moved to Brantford. John D. Patterson was born in 1862 and told Dr Stevenson that he "as a boy did part of the work in caring for the one hundred and thirty mink." This probably would be in the 1870s. While we think 1866 is fairly close as a starting date we are not at all convinced that 1887 has the same relevance as a closing date. We would be remiss if we did not express our gratitude to Lawrence Wakefield of the Michigan Fur Breeders Association who unearthed the article in the Grand Rapids Eagle and to Bruce W. Smith editor of the U.S. Fur Rancher who gave it prominence.