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Alberta Ranch Preserved recalls halcyon days

Russ Fitz pauses his team of percherons to allow his guests to view the layout of the Bar U Ranch National Historic Site near Longview Alberta. Rocky Mountains are in the distance. Donald McClure photo

Almost prancing with anticipation the big grey-dappled Percherons responded quickly moving the big wagon onto the road when our driver Russ Fitz snapped his reins.  The wheels travelled a short distance and came to a halt on the hill overlooking the 35 buildings and structures that commemorate the incredible days of the big ranches in Canada.

Our hosts Bob and Trudy Kliciak of Cochrane pause with Judy at the Chuck wagon that once catered to hard working cowboys on the Bar U. Our cowgal on the right made coffee over an open fire. Donald McClure photo

Here our tour guide described the scene before us which I soon concluded was one of the best kept secrets in Canada.  Below us in a historic setting was the distillation of an activity which helped build the foundations of Alberta and made  significant contributions to all of Canada.  Buildings dating back over 100 years were upgraded and restored to create a facsimile of ranch life for new generations.

At its peak this ranch which encompassed seven townships  and 152,960 acres was the Provinces biggest.  In the late 1880’s the ranch already grazed over 10,000 cattle and well over 800 horses on the native fescue grass that covered the Alberta foothills.  The scene before us with the mountains in the background was breathtaking.

Bringing the old west back into focus for visitors from around the world Kim is proud to show folks his horse barn and corral. Ranch once encompassed over 150,000 acres, and thousands of cattle. Donald McClure photo

Over the years the ranch had three different owners who all left their mark on the property.  The ranch grew and prospered until the 1950’s when most of its cattle and all but 367 acres were sold off.  In 1991 Parks Canada purchased the  original ranch headquarters which is now a National Historic Site owned and shared by all Canadians.  Backing up the government is a dedicated staff of volunteers ready to welcome visitors and pass along some of the lore and flavour  provided by the sights, sounds and smells that conjures up images of a time long gone.

From saddle maker to bronc buster the staff seem to love the environment and bend over backwards to share their knowledge with visitors.

As our wagon travelled through the site we passed barns for stud horses , work horses and saddle horses, chop houses. cookhouses, blacksmith and harness shops and all of the infrastructure that was necessary to support such an ambitions operation.  There was even a post office, corrals and a cattle squeeze.

Near the end of the ride  we passed through some cottonwood trees and over Pekisko creek and drew up near a chuck wagon where steaming mugs of coffee were poured from a pot heated over a wood fire. Then we were free to wander back investigating the cookhouse with it shiny Enterprise wood stove, and its vegetable garden out back, a building  incidentally which doubled as a bunkhouse.

At one time this ranch was the leading breeding site in the country for 1000 head of top blood percheron horses.  It’s beauty and vitality attracted such luminaries as the Prince of Wales (who  bought the ranch next door), the noted  western artist Charlie Russell and even Harry Longabaugh better known in a more modern era as the Sundance Kid.

Cowboy's red flannels recalled days when Canadian housewifes took them off the clothes line in winter and stood them near the kitchen stove to thaw out.

There are a lot of stories to tell, a lot of history to sort through.  In the end we each have inherited a small piece of history which we can pass on to future generations.

The important thing I think is that some people of vision could see that the resources there where worth preserving.  Otherwise the whole site would have vanished in the prairie wind,

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About the Author: He can tickle your funny bone or tug at your heart strings. County people may know him as a chronicler of everything that happens (or should happen) in the garden, but his interests stretch across the natural world. His unique sense of observation takes in a wide expanse of living and may even point out some truths about our own condition as managers of the world around us. With Loyalist antecedents in his family tree his roots go deep into the Ontario countryside.

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  1. Donald says:

    Thanks Kelly: Among the most picturesque horses we saw on this trip were a small herd of ponies belonging to the Stoney Indians grazing in the open prairie on a reservation in north Kasnanaskis. Beautiful picture recalling a bygone era….
    Regards

  2. kelly says:

    A beautifully crafted article with wonderful photos Donald! The horses bring back a lot of wonderful memories for me! Horses can bring such joy into your life with their intelligence and unconditional love! Wish I could have been there with you! Kelly

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