By Dorthea Calverley
He lives alone and “does for himself” at the home place on the large acreage he owns around Bear Flat. The house there he built for himself when rangeland became limited around Dawson Creek. The huge log barn was built by a still earlier rancher and stopping-house keeper, and the land represents a number of small, older ranches he has bought out over the years including those of the Freers, Goodings and Dopps.
Here he still raises the Hereford cattle he prefers, herds many sheep, and just because he still loves the big, black Percherons he used to breed, he pastures numbers of them. Sometimes he still uses them for hauling feed.
He had just cooked himself a substantial meal when we visited him one late summer Sunday in 1975, and he was in an expansive mood. He could have been visiting his son’s family on an adjoining ranch, but the doughty Scot prefers to be independent.
Mr. Bentley had been ranching around Coaldale, Alberta in 1919 when he decided to come north. There had been some bad years on the prairies and, the war being over, the demand for beef had dropped off. He liked what he saw of the Old Dawson area. West of Pouce Coupe and a little north of the hamlet known later as Old Dawson Creek was the sheltered valley now occupied by the city, with ample water and grass. In what later became part of his pasture, huge old decaying willow crowns showed that there had been heavy tree-growth at one time. The charred remains of six-inch tree trunks indicated that fire had cleared the valley, perhaps twenty years before, around the turn of the century. The Napoleon Thomas family already had an established ranch a few miles west. There was free range — no herd laws — and much grass area was still unfenced. The nearest rail outlets were at Grande Prairie or Spirit River, but to a rancher this was not a serious drawback. In fact, it looked good.
So Bentley bought a quarter section from a war veteran named Wilson, who found he did not want to farm after all. There were thirty acres broken already. The oxen he had driven over the Edson Trail broke thirty more that summer, finishing on Christmas Day. Then Bentley went back to prepare to wind up his affairs in Alberta, although the family would have to stay there until he got a home ready.
Back home, he sold most of his cattle and gathered up eighty-four horses to ship as far as Spirit River. They were mostly mares, and all medium-weight — 1400 to 1500 pound animals. Four-up could haul and break land, but were also suitable for roadwork, and were therefore preferred by older, experienced settlers and would be in good demand at once.
With an eye to the future, he wanted heavy horses to breed up the light stock. Always a lover of good horses, he bought a good black Percheron stallion — and coveted another magnificent animal for which the owner wanted $2,500. Though Bentley’s capital was all tied up, his reputation was good. He bought it “on jaw-bone” [credit] and paid for it later. The stallion weighed a ton, and afterwards sired many farm animals around Dawson Creek. Although Bentley later went into cattle, his son says he never knew his father to have fewer than thirty horses around him, and still at his Bear Flat ranch he has thirteen Black Percherons, but sired by another animal.
In 1920 he trailed his stock in from Spirit River, and spent a winter hauling grain. The rigors of those trips on the Spirit River Trail were not for him. He decided to go into beef instead of grain, and traded off many of his horses to gather a herd. By 1924 he drove his first surplus to Spirit River for shipping. William Bullen presently became a cattle buyer in the “Old Town”, after which he managed the cattle drives for the district farmers who did not have enough animals to sell to make their expenses for a several day’s journey.
Cattle drives to Spirit River had to be made after the ground froze. There were high trestles to negotiate over some of the rivers where railway bridges were intended before the line swung south to Grande Prairie. To keep the herd from straggling through the bush and to lure them over the trestles, four or five racks were loaded with feed, and horse drawn by a four-up ahead of the herd. The cattle would follow the fodder, and when one rack was emptied, that team and driver would turn back. Bentley sold as many as possible of his cattle to settlers for a better price as milk cows, or for local slaughter.
In time he put up a substantial barn and extensive corrals on his home place located just west of the present 17 Street in Dawson Creek, just a short distance from the bridge over the North Dawson Creek. The corrals could accommodate sixty to seventy head of cattle, and were often used by ranchers from across the Peace to rest and feed up a herd that had been trailed for days. Bentley cut hay where possible and sowed his own land to grass and feed grains as he broke it.
He is proud to have had a part in early stampedes. Jack Thomas, then known as “Johnny Napoleon” and his brothers rode for him. They were good workers, and good horsemen.
Mr. Bentley prospered because he exploited every possible way of turning his place and his livestock into profit until the railroad drew near. Settlers began to anticipate the arrival of the steel. The “old town” began to grow, but after the market crash of 1929, money was scarce. Until they had set themselves up on homesteads, the new comers were sometimes hungry. The area abounded with prairie chicken — game laws could not be enforced and hungry settlers were not much bothered in any case. And then one year when Bentley turned out on the free-range a hundred cows — sixteen of which had calved early — he got back exactly sixteen calves. It appeared that the rest had been popped off by the hunters, slung in the back of the wagon, and in a short time were in the brine of the “pork barrel”. As settlers took up homesteads, more land was fenced. It was time for a rancher to find wider pastures. The ranchers from over the river passed the word that Frank Freer, up on the Peace beyond Fort St. John, wanted to sell out. Bentley bought, and steadily acquired the Dopp place and other small spreads and farms as they came on the market. Today, besides the thousand acres he has broken and seeded he has ample grassland to run his herds and horses. He also went into sheep, which the Dopps had previously run successfully. He still runs sixty for fleece and slaughter.
When he set up his Bear Flats ranch, he wanted Herefords to breed desirable qualities into the range stock. From Lloydminster he brought in five exceptional bulls, for one of which he had paid a thousand dollars – in those days. The very first year his prize animal was found dead — starved to death — on the range with his lower jaw shot away. Mr. Bentley isn’t bitter about it — he thinks that someone practising with a high-powered rifle didn’t realize how far it might carry.
Some of Mr. Bentley’s family thinks that another purchase at a Calgary stock show was not as premeditated. “I think he was shaking his head, fighting flies or something, for when the auctioneer said “Sold” he found he owned a two-year-old Percheron stallion. I can’t imagine a man “pushing sixty” wanting to break a two-year-old, but he took him up to Bear Flat. I guess that horse is the father of the thirteen head he still keeps, even though there was so little sale for them for four years that the colts weren’t worth branding. He always liked horses — but he sold that stallion to a man from Alaska.
“Dad still has to have surgery now and again from having been thrown and drug three times. Not many can survive that, for when one foot is caught, a man gets in front of the horse’s hind feet. But once Dad’s boot pulled off in the stirrup, and once he was riding an unusual horse. Most, when the rider is dragging will bolt and run, but this horse started spinning, round and round so that Dad’s body was flung out like mud off a wheel until Dad got hold of something and pulled free.”
Yet much as the venerable stampede enthusiast is disabled by his ranch experiences, it hasn’t slowed him down as slow as most of the farm hands he hires these days. He’s still acquiring land and, being of good Scots stock, he’s still making it pays, or he’d change his occupation.