Mr. Tompkins, back from World War I in 1919, set out to see Peace River Town and then decided to board the old SS D.A. Thomas and proceed west to Hudson’s Hope. On a hunch, which he could not explain, he disembarked at the Halfway, one of the ports-of-call on the long river run. The Ardills, later well-known ranchers, were trapping there at the time; having canceled a homestead abandoned by someone named Goldthorpe. Phil Tompkins, again on a hunch, and with plenty of financial backing bought out Forfar and McDonald’s E ranch which they had been running on shares but were now willing to leave for more exciting pursuits. Tompkins’ ranching enterprise, therefore, is older than Ardills’, although the latter are “older timers”.
The flats along the Peace already had several small ranching operations, among them the Cadenheads. Tompkins had met them many years before under not exactly friendly circumstances. Both were in Edmonton in 1911, when Tompkins was working for an electrical company, and Ross was operating a stopping house. There was a little matter of a twenty-five cent debt in dispute between Cadenhead and the company. Young Phil Tompkins was sent out to collect the two bits, as a matter of principle. As a matter of principle the debtor invited the young collector to take himself off — fast. Eight years later and hundreds of miles away, he was invited back. As he was setting up this tent, Phil was invited to have come over and have supper by Hayward Cadenhead — the customary northern hospitality. The “Where have I seen you before?” was mutual but on the banks of the Peace, any old animosities dissolved. Two famous Peace River families became friends.
The winter of 1919 was a bad one. Phil drove out to Spirit River to get supplies. It took him ten weeks to get back, the two teams bucking deep snow and intense cold. But the prospects were good and prices were high — but not for long. By 1920, ten thousand dollars worth of cattle had no sale value. Twenty years of tough going followed.
During those twenty years the Tompkins family laid the basis of today’s Tompkins empire. Versatility was that basis – -grasping at any opportunity to acquire, to profit and to save. Barter was the order of the day but two hundred dollars “cash money” had to be found twice a year for an Eaton order for whatever they could not grow, make, barter for, or capture. Today it sounds trivial but then those orders were worth all of the risks and weariness of the weeklong journeys to railhead and back. When the [Second World War] brought the boom of the forties the Tompkins family was ready to branch out. Each of the boys selected his favorite enterprise, the rudiments of which he had learned on the land, for the Tompkins family had made itself a self-sufficient as possible.
The home place was retained as a horse and cattle ranch, but all of the cattle accumulated over the years were sold off. The operation was restocked with Black Aberdeen Angus, chosen for their characteristics on the range. Phil explained that, on account of their Scottish ancestry they were able to rough it, although Easterners considered them good-tempered, fast-fleshing and easy keeping animals. On the range recessive qualities from their Highland ancestry reappeared — a Black Angus cow will protect her calf against predators, and even chase off wolves and bears. She gives plenty of milk to put growth on her calf. She has less trouble calving, costs less for veterinary services because she has disease-resistance, and also has stronger bones for the rough, hilly grazing along the river. Although she does not make as heavy a carcass as the Hereford, the meat is said to have better flavor and quality. Mr. Tompkins said that it was customary for him to have $1000.00 less a year to pay for veterinary fees than ranchers raising other breeds. Even today he cited a neighboring rancher with fewer cattle who had to claim several hundred dollars of the government’s subsidy for victims of the current wolf-increase since they have been declared a protected species. On the other hand, almost every Angus cow brought her calf home from the summer range at roundup time.
In time the Tompkins family built up a notable breeding and feeding operation, very profitable during the construction of the Alaska Highway. However, during the wartime boom the boys wanted to try their hand at trucking and all of the other enterprises that World War II and the ensuing oil boom made exciting and profitable. The Tompkins ranch went into a pit-silo feeding and finishing operation in which a very few men can handle large numbers of cattle in a small area. As well, to diversify, he has put the thousands of acres of pasture that he owns or holds on a lease-purchase-agreement to work for range-grazing a six hundred cow-calf operation. To take advantage of the Hereford’s tendency to make a larger carcass, he has bought four very high-grade Hereford bulls and twenty-two others of good quality to try interbreeding for more profit per ton of feed.