In this year, 1980, with its excellent mink pelt prices and with thousands of people engaged in their production in many countries, it is difficult to realize that it was not always thus. For the first thirty years, the mink industry was wholly concerned with the production of live mink to be sold to people aspiring to be mink ranchers. In the initial years of a popular livestock promotion this occasions no surprise, but the fact that it lasted so long requires explanation. There are probably a variety of reasons but the two that appealed to us as being pertinent were something that happened and something that didn't happen for a long time.
The thing that happened was World War I. The eager buyers of live mink disappeared overnight. Most of the pioneer mink ranchers disappeared shortly after. A few struggled on to rekindle the live mink market in the early twenties.
The thing that didn't happen for a long time was the acceptance by the fur trade of ranch mink pelts as a desirable item. Even though wild mink pelt prices weren't attractive and that ranch mink pelts weren't accepted, the live mink business started to boom again in the middle twenties. By the end of the twenties, large numbers of people were engaged in selling small numbers of mink at high-profit levels.
Again disaster struck. The stock market crash of 1929 followed by the business depression of the thirties ruined the mink livestock sales. While many ranchers quit, some of the larger operators stayed in and, in the absence of buyers for live mink, pelted their crop and offered it to the fur trade. After some hesitancy, the fur trade found that they liked ranch mink pelts. The last of the thirties was a transition period. We had the best of both worlds. The encouraging prices for pelts attracted new people to the business and induced expansion on the existing ranches. This meant an active market for breeding stock until the outbreak of World War II had its sobering effect.
Thus the mink industry divides itself neatly into two separate and distinct phases. The first is the livestock selling phase which lasted until the late nineteen-thirties. The second is the pelt production phase which is the present aspect of the business. This book is to be the story of the people involved in the first phase.
To set the stage for the early beginners in the mink industry, we searched the nineteenth-century literature with little success. Fortunately, a book published in 1913 and its greatly expanded second edition in 1914 provided the type of information we were seeking. Fur Farming in Canada written by J. Walter Jones, B.A., B.S.A. and published by the Commission of Conservation, Canada is a treasure-trove of detailed material on all types of fur-bearing animals. Its author, J. Walter Jones, a native-born Prince Edward Islander, was an able geneticist and became a legend in his lifetime. At Bunbury Farm, he developed a quality breed of silver foxes and established the famous `Abegweit' strain of Holstein cattle. He became Premier of Prince Edward Island and later was elevated to the Senate of Canada. His successes were not only well earned, but they were also justly deserved.
Fur Farming in Canada is a two-hundred and sixty-eight-page store-house of information, but what makes it most valuable at this time is the statistical charts it contains covering much of the fur trade for some sixty years before the book was published. For comparison purposes, we have condensed the chart of the Hudson's Bay Company Fur Sales from 1850 to 1911 into the average prices in each decade for several common furs. It is interesting to note that none of these furs, with the single exception of silver fox, brought enough money to warrant raising them in captivity. The mink was the cream of the crop coming from the best sections. Their prices were five times greater than the average North American mink which was bringing about thirty-five cents in 1850.
In the sixty-one years recorded in this chart the Hudson's Bay Company's annual mink collection varied from 18,000 in 1909 to 111,000 in 1885. To strike an average isn't realistic, the best we can offer in thirty-three of these years is that the crop varied from fifty to eighty thousand pelts. Except for 1885, the other years were below fifty thousand. Emil Brass, a German commercial agent, who for thirty-five years had been collecting fur trade statistics, estimated that there were 600,000 mink pelts taken yearly in North America from the period of 1907 to 1909. Thus while the Bay's northern crop was considerably more valuable per pelt it only represented 4% of the annual North American collection.
It is interesting to note that in two of the decades listed, the average price for skunk was higher than that of mink. In the first decade, 1850-59 one silver fox pelt was worth forty-two mink, in 1911 one silver fox pelt was worth fifty-six mink. In the end, it was the high prices for silver foxes and the success that the early fox ranchers had in producing them that enticed people to raise mink in captivity. It certainly wasn't mink pelt prices.
The following excerpt from the Annual Report of the American Breeders Association made in 1908 is quite revealing and the second paragraph unintentionally entertaining. The writer seems to have confused his mink with pussycats.
"The mink is one of the most widely distributed furbearers of North America and one of the few species able to hold its own against persistent trapping; it is almost as common today in thickly settled sections of the country, as in the remote wilderness. A half-hour run on a bicycle to the creeks in the suburbs of Washington (D.C.) will enable one to find mink traps.
"Wild mink when taken young become perfectly tame and are gentle and affectionate pets. They breed readily in captivity, are hardy, easily enclosed and seem not to worry over confinement. They are fond of water, are expert swimmers and divers and get much of their food from streams and lakes in the form of fish, frogs and crustacea. They also climb trees and are at home in the forests.
"There are several instances on record of mink farms, or minkeries, that have proved successful, but the low price of mink fur for many years has discouraged the industry. A few years ago mink skins sold at $1 to $2 but they are now quoted at $5 to $8. As other choice furs decrease in abundance, there seems every probability that mink will hereafter increase rather than decrease in value.
"With no other species is a success in fur-raising so simple and well tested. The value of mink fur varies greatly with different parts of the country being least in the southern sections and greatest in the northeastern states and eastern Canada."
To quote from Fur Farming in Canada "When the perennially fashionable sable, ermine, chinchilla and silver fox did not supply the demand (for luxury fur garments) the Persians, broadtail and seal became more costly. Gradually too, from its plebian rank of coat lining at fifty cents a skin, mink was adopted into the select family of valuable furs, closely preceded by marten and latterly followed by fisher and cross fox."
It's interesting to note that while vague references are made in Fur Farming in Canada to numbers of early mink ranches or minkeries, no one got around to naming names until 1907. The mink entered the domestic ranching business not as a producer of pelts but as a livestock selling promotion aimed at people who couldn't afford silver foxes but wanted a piece of the fur business action. By this time, silver fox breeding stock had got as high as $32,000 a pair and few people could afford the entrance fees. Mink prices were much more manageable, but for a long, long time nobody raised mink for their pelts.