Tuesday, August 31, 2010

Code of the West

Sharon Wildwind

There is a manure warning out in Clearwater County.

Those of you who may have visited only Calgary or our sister city to the north, Edmonton, may not be aware that the majority of Alberta is still farm and ranch country. About 140 miles north west of Calgary is a huge rural area of the province called Clearwater County.

It’s gorgeous with huge swatches of open farmland, backed to the west by the Canadian Rockies. For a real feel for the place, take a look at these photos. (Click on Photo Contest 2009 on the home page.)

It’s so pretty that city folks are buying acreages and moving out there, seduced by the promise of clean air, scenic vistas, and the sound of chirping birds. Sounds idyllic, except that there is a problem: those city folks are now surrounded by the realities of working farms and ranches.

At harvest time combines run in the fields until two in the morning. Most of the county roads are unpaved. In winter, they are unplowed. When it doesn’t rain, both the roads and the fields produce great clouds of dust that blow in the wind. The place is full of cows and cows are full of manure.

Following the lead of some American western communities, Clearwater has published a “code of the west,” a guide meant to help people decide if rural life is really for them. It’s not meant to scare people away, but rather to give them a realistic idea of ways in which living in the country is different from living in the city.

If you’re still interested in rural living, have I got a deal for you.

Southwest of Calgary near the town of Longview (opposite direction from Clearwater County), but still rural and still subject to the “code of the west,” the OH Ranch is for sale. Or I should say ranches because there are four of them. For a photo spread of the—well—the spread, go here. Asking price for the four ranches: $49 million dollars.

It’s one of Alberta’s oldest working ranches, founded in 1883, and the place drips history. Their registered brand—OH—the initials of Orville Hawkins Smith, one of the original co-founders was the twenty-fifth brand registered in Alberta. In the early nineteenth century the ranch was briefly owned by Senator Patrick Burns.

Senator Burns was an honest-to-goodness cattle baron, and a member of the Canadian Senate. He owned 700,000 acres of cattle ranches from Cochrane, Alberta to the U.S. border, founded the largest meat packing company in Canada, and supplied meat to both the Grand Trunk Pacific Railway workers and Canadian troops overseas during World War I. He also made sure that the local orphanage always had meat on the table.

From his Bow Valley Ranch House he not only ran his business interests but also oversaw the founding of the Calgary Stampede, and the equipping of a mounted rifle regiment to send to France in the Great War. He gave away millions of dollars to aid in disaster relief and supported churches, schools, and charitable organizations. When he died in 1937, his estate tax paid the Provincial debt and balanced the budget.

What all of this is leading up to is that I would dearly love to write a mystery with Senator Burns as a main character. Set, I think, at one of the parties he gave. If you were anybody in Calgary, you got invited to one of those parties. Wouldn’t it be fun if one of the guests ended up dead? Let’s see, it could be either winter (blizzard) or spring (rivers flooding) and the house is cut off, so the guests have to solve the murder. You know, the typical English manor murder, only set on the Canadian Prairies. Maybe I’ll even find a way to work the “code of the west” into the story. Talk about an embarrassment of riches!
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This week instead of a quote, I have a photo for your.

On the grounds of what was Bow Valley Ranch is a statue dedicated to farm and ranch women. It honors the contribution that women made, and are still making, to the rural life in Alberta. The woman is feeding chickens, while her children gather eggs. For many Alberta women, her butter-and-egg money was all the money that really belonged to her. Around the base of the statue are engraved the names of real Alberta farm women.

9 comments:

David Cranmer said...

I don't have to think twice. That's me. Beautiful country.

Ron Scheer said...

As a farm-raised boy, I fully appreciate the code of the west you describe. The cowshit-averse are not an easy fit into country living.

The Senator Burns story has lots of potential - I always wonder about these cattle barons who have ruled the West, dating back to the open range. Larger than life, richer and more influential than any ordinary citizen could ever dream to be, they tend to have such mixed reputations.

Sharon Wildwind said...

Thanks, David and Ron. To tell you the truth, country is me, too, but for a lot of practical reasons, I live in the city.

Burns loved power, no doubt about that. He also was a devoted Catholic and had a strong sense of noblesse oblige, particularly where disadvantaged children were involved. The problem with a story like this is that, at the beginning, there are so many possible story lines it's hard to settle on one.

Deb Salisbury said...

I've lived in the country most of my life. I still shake my head at stories of city folk moving into a country setting and calling Animal Control to come get the raccoons out of their yard. Sorry, guys, the raccoons and possums and bobcats were there first. City-people calls got to be such a nuisance that the county was considering an ordinance making them sign a document stating they acknowledge there are wild animals in that area before they could buy a house out in the boonies.

Sharon Wildwind said...

Oh, Deb, that's a wonderful story. I'll bet that agreement could be expanded to cover all sorts of "rural life" conditions.

TheaM said...

WOW - that brings back memories of my vacation to - we drove from northern California through British Columbia and up through the Canadian Rockies, stopped at Lake Louise, etc. to Banff -- SO much space!
I'd love to read your story when it's ready -- so interesting! Maybe something mysterious and ghostly?

Donna Fletcher Crow said...

Great post, Sharon. I'm packing for Calgary at the moment and hope to get to the heritage park you picture. Do write that book--I would love to read it! Hope to see you at The Owl's Nest.

Sharon Wildwind said...

Ohh, Thea, I love the idea of adding a ghost.

Donna, hope you have a good trip to Calgary. You'll find the house in Fish Creek Park rather that at Heritage Park, though there are some nice old houses in Heritage Park as well.

Donna Fletcher Crow said...

My daughter said this morning we would go to Reader Rock Gardens, too. It's really near their home and Felicity loves the garden.