Joe and his brother (known as “Gus”) were, you might say, brought up with horses. Their father was from Carberry, Manitoba. Prior to World War I, that area of the west was famous for fine horseflesh, both utility and sport. After graduation as a veterinary surgeon he practised in Saskatoon but returned to Manitoba and served many years as a judge at the Brandon Exhibition Horse Show. Then he turned importer and trader.
“Dad didn’t have any money,” said Joe, “but he had no trouble borrowing enough from a banker to finance a trip to the Old Country and bring back thirty-two head of English horses, all stallions — Clydesdales, Hackney, and Shetlands. Twelve he shipped to Calgary and sold them all within three weeks. He took twelve more to Fort McLeod and sold them all in a short time. All thirty-two went at prices that cleared a thousand dollars a head. Then he returned to the Old Country, buying more expensive stock, including some fine Belgians. The best, a red roan Belgian weighed over 2200 lbs. and went for a high price although he was a “man-eater” — cross and stubborn.
“He really knew horses. In Scotland, he picked out a hackney that was not considered a show horse as it had won no prizes, but which impressed Mr. Henderson as having the qualities of a prizewinner. When he got it into good condition, he showed it at Winnipeg, where it won Grand Champion as best of all breeds, three years running. It repeated the performance at the Royal City Exhibition at New Westminster, B.C. There it was bought for a handsome price by Alex Steele, but thirty-five days later it sickened and died. So great was Steele’s confidence in Henderson’s judgment of horseflesh that he gave the importer a handsome sum to pick out a Hackney and a Clyde on the next buying trip.
Presently, he had taught Joe well enough that he entrusted to his son the care of a carload including several standard bred race horses from the famous farms of Senator McMillan of Rock Rapids, Iowa. They rented a barn behind the old Alberta Hotel in Edmonton and sold the lot in three weeks. Joe got himself a Standard bred racer, in 1913, on which he paid board for four years while he and Gus were overseas in World War I.
Once, in France, Gus and Joe came out of the trenches for a leave in LeHavre. There was a picture show that night, which turned out to be a movie about the settlers in the Peace River Country. Their sergeant, a character named Rochford, had been filling the boys with tales about the charms of that area. The movie convinced the brothers that when they got out of the army, they had to see that country. They did — and made it their home.
It is hard to get Joe to talk about himself, but others speak of him as a fine horseman. He drove a fine Standard bred trotter into the country on a buggy. His father had bought the mare from a man named Cox who brought seven racers up to Brandon from Chicago, went broke, and had to sell one of his horses. Mr. Henderson, Sr. fancied the trotter and gave five hundred dollars for her, even though she had a fever at the time. He shipped her to Saskatoon. “She was a beautiful horse!” said Joe, regretfully. Shortly after arriving, they tethered her with a forty-foot cow chain on which she cut a foot. She had to go out on native grass pasture because they had no crop as yet. Within three days she developed foot rot, although they had cleaned the foot well. At the end of the three days, said Joe, “The hoof was rattling”. She had to be destroyed. We buried her up on a hillside on the Nickle place,” said Joe. That was over fifty years ago, but Joe’s silence showed that he still felt the loss.
The Henderson brothers brought in many other horses, both to work and to trade. “You had to have a ‘cash crop’ of something in those days, and horses sold well at first. Later, you could hardly give them away. Having good animals, the Hendersons could sell if anyone did.
Joe farmed with horses until after the oil well came in near Rolla. He had forty-two head at the time. Every time they “blew” the well, all forty-two took off in all directions. “You couldn’t work all day, and round up horses all night,” said Joe. In any case, hired help was becoming impossible to get so, regretfully, he had to change to tractors.
“I used to drive eight up,” he said, “two fours. Then I had five combines,” he ended, not with satisfaction.
Mr. Henderson gave us an overview of the beginnings of the livestock industry in this area.
Joe Henderson and his brother arrived in the country shortly after World War I. The Peace River Block was not yet ten years old as a homestead area. The railroad had reached Spirit River and Grande Prairie and the railroad grade from Spirit River to the B.C. boundary had been built. Many ties had been laid in preparation for the rails but taken up again. The resulting narrow grade and long, high trestles were being used as a winter route for marketing grain and livestock until 1931.
When we asked Mr. Henderson who were the original importers of good livestock, he answered briefly, “There were hundreds of fine horses on the Spirit River Trail.” In other words, most homesteaders had good basic teams — the best available. No wonder! Except those who drove oxen, no one moved anything or anywhere except by living horsepower.
Hector Tremblay ran a great many cattle — all kinds, none purebred. They were first for sale to homesteaders, and second for beef. As a freighter he also had a great many horses, also for sale.
The Yaeger family stayed to establish ranching after working on the railway construction. They had good horses, suitable for heavy freighting teams. Wes Yaeger, particularly, is well remembered for his outfit — four-up on the front sleigh, four-up behind on a jerk line, and the trained pair that trailed along behind on its own. Sometimes, they arrived an hour later than the leaders at the stopping place, but they did bring in their loads.
Later, the Yaegers set up a freighting enterprise between railhead and Fort Nelson. Mr. Joe Henderson once saw them pull out with twenty-seven teams. Winter after winter the Yaeger outfits supplied the trading posts and settlers. Travel, except by packhorse was impossible, except in winter. Year after year they had to recruit new drivers, for in the forty days necessary to make the trip they were never inside. Sleeping outdoors on the trail was too tough for most of them–not so for the Yaegers. The Yaeger brothers “had lots of horses — good, big horses, all kinds.” As well as draft horses they raised lighter riding horses and broncos for the Annual Stampedes.