Audio Part 2
Cross-posted: 08-075: Ivor Johnson’s Story of Ranching on the Pine River in the 1920’s and 1930’s
The three Johnson brothers, Ivor, George, and Albin came to the Pine River area with their parents in 1922 with the idea of ranching and doing some trapping. Ivor was about twenty-five at the time and already experienced in the business. His father, John, and his mother had had a spread near Calgary after immigrating from the United States. Pat Burns, the beef man, was a crony of the elder Johnson, and Ivor says, “I used to be around with Pat Burns’ outfit a lot. Played a lot of snooker with him in the pool hall he had on the main street in Calgary — in a basement”. In spite of his speculation on the merits of the Pine Valley that resulted in his having the “Burns Block” surveyed, and then abandoned, Pat Burns still thought it was a good place for a man with competent sons to build up a cattle industry. But he told the Johnson’s the truth — they could not count on the cattle “rustling” for themselves; they must be prepared to grow some feed, but there was enough natural pasturage for a start. The Johnsons, both mother and father, had a yen for real frontier life. “She was tough”, said Ivor admiringly of his mother. “She loved the frontier life. She could ride saddle horse, and did a bit of trapping too!”
Just before the early 1920’s there had been some dry summers and bad winters on the prairies, and post-war settlers were taking up land around Calgary that might otherwise have been bought or leased for grazing. The Johnson men considered the little-known, already surveyed “Burns Block” in the sheltered Pine Valley — and took Burn’s advice to sell out and move to greener pastures. The location was primitive enough to suit even the Senior Johnsons!
They moved the hard way, driving their stock over the old Klondike Trail of ‘98 — eighteen days between Athabasca Landing and Slave Lake. Beyond Dawson Creek, there was only a rough wagon trail to East Pine, but no bridge or ferry at that river. Beyond the river was only an ancient Indian pack trail to McLeod Lake. A couple of years earlier some men had driven horses into the Pine country, past Treadwell’s place at the mouth of the Sukunka, and left them to fend for themselves for the winter while the owners (?) went back to get “the rest of their ranch stock”. They never came back. The horses survived unattended, and they multiplied until the stallions became a nuisance to the packtrains that used the old route. Their survival proved that Burn’s scouts’ enthusiastic report was not altogether unfounded — at least for horses. The Johnsons, however, were also bringing in cattle from the South — not purebred, but good grade Black Angus which they had found to be better rustlers, and hardier than other breeds on the prairies. Later the Johnsons got registered stock from near Fort St. John, “The finest I had ever seen”, said Ivor.
The senior Johnsons stayed in Old Dawson until the boys got a wagon trail roughed out beyond the river. After swimming the river they drove about a dozen head of cattle, following what is now known as the Jamieson Trail — East Pine to Graveyard Creek, thence to Little Prairie (now Chetwynd). Finding that they had too many animals for the natural hay, they set about breaking some of the river flats to sow oats. Although they did not seed until July 12th, they got a good crop to cut for feed, and as well cut patches all through the bush. They had a mowing machine in their settlers’ effects, but Mr. Johnson, Sr. used the scythe to cut all the odd corners — feed was precious.
One bad early winter followed a poor hay year. When the whole herd were obviously threatened with starvation, some of them appeared to be strong enough to move out to Dawson Creek where some settlers had straw stacks. Half of those cattle died. The rest that were too thin to drive moved up onto the grassy south – facing valley slopes that were bare in February. Said Ivor, “They all pulled through fine”. This would indicate that the Pine Valley grass was of the “hardier” variety that ripened off like “prairie wool” instead of remaining succulent, to be destroyed nutritionally by the autumn frosts.
The Johnsons did not try to grow grain to haul out because until a ferry was put in to serve the Commotion Creek oil-drilling venture in the thirties, there was no way to reach the railhead.
Other ranchers moved in such as Wilkie Smith, whose holdings on “Moose Flats” now form part of the townsite of Chetwynd. Horses were in demand until the John Hart Highway was built in the 1940’s. They still are, [in the 1970’s] for pack trains for hunting and survey parties and because the motorized vehicles cannot wholly take over.
A number of the settlers augmented their stock when the wild horses were killed off at last by settlers who were paid by the government for the job. According to old timers, the first band to be turned loose had been stolen on the prairies. Ivor said he recognized some of the brands as having belonged to ranchers around southern Alberta. If the “rustlers” had stopped at the first importation, they might have got away with it, but on their second foray, they were allegedly caught and sentenced for twenty-one years to a confined corral where there was no room for a horse.
There had been other wild horses since a settler named Puckett had turned loose a dozen head of mares and a stallion in 1912 — the year of the survey in the valley. In 1917 George Goodrich turned loose another bunch. By 1924 the herd had increased to over a hundred head of stallions. Geologist’s ranging all over the valley were losing their pack mares to the wild bands and complained to the government. In 1925 Phil Esswein, a packer and trapper a few miles up the valley, was commissioned to round them up and geld them, taking his pay in horses. The scheme was inadequate. Finally eight men were hired by the government to round them up, take for themselves as many as they could handle, and kill the rest. Wilkie Smith got sixty head — mostly buckskins, which he broke. In those days a range horse was worth twenty-five dollars, and an animal broken to pack or saddle brought fifty in cash or whatever one could barter for — wagons, hay, feed or lumber. Arnold Monk contracted to deliver wild horses to railhead at five cents a pound, live weight, and realized fifty to sixty dollars a head. Most of the ranchers in the valley had “punched cows” in the prairies, and knew their business. By 1940 the wild horses were all cleared out. As late as 1948 there were rumored to be escaped wild goats on the hills from Chetwynd west. Considering the number of bears, it is unlikely any of them lasted long!
Al Buchardt was said to be the first to settle at Little Prairie. Jim Bond settled at Graveyard Creek and Jackfish Lake. “Bond’s Siding” on the British Columbia Railway commemorates this later settler, but the Demean brothers had been at Graveyard first, and Bond’s place was locally known as Parsnip Flats. These ranchers are located in a valley which looks as if it were a prehistoric river valley, perhaps even the original Pine, leading over to the divide between the Peace and Pine Valleys, from which the Moberly Lake and River become tributary to the Peace. The west sides of this valley are grass-covered even today. Otto Elden is said to have imported Herefords which he pastured around Moberly Lake. Of course, we must recognize that the Indian and Metis around Moberly also raised livestock, some of them being prosperous before the white man came. Nearly all ranchers supplemented their incomes with guiding, trapping and packing for the numerous survey and hunting parties. Some, like Goodrichs, had trades, such as lumbering or carpentry which they worked at as well.
To conclude, though some families made ranching their main interest, the Pine Valley in no way could be called ranching country like the Cariboo or Foothills areas.