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Trader Burns

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Homesteader, freighter, trader, dealer, cattleman, meat packer, buisnessman, but abover all else, in his own opinion, rancher. Pat Burns was indisputrably a many-faced individual. Grant MacEwan's accout of his numerous ventures and adventures reveals the short and stockly Cattle King as a man of remarkable vision, great resourcefulness, and strict practicality. Pat Burns
Cattle King
Copyright 1979 Western Producer Prairie Books
200 pages,
ISBN 088833-010-3 (cl).
ISBN 088833-010-9 (pa).

Of course he liked the girls and liked to dance, even awkwardly, but he was practical more than romantic and business purposes came first. One of the ladies who remembered, said: "His mind was full of schemes and even when we danced he made me think he was judging me for weight and market value."

After securing the adjacent quarter section as a pre-emption, his intention was to bring a big part of it under cultivation for grains with the least possible delay. He would raise a few pigs and as many cattle as his grass would support and be a mixed farmer just like most other people operating half-section farms. But for this aggressive fellow, farming did not work that way. He could not help seeing opportunities in trading livestock, and as he seized them, he was left with less and less time for the homestead.

Whether or not he was motivated by the challenge of public service, the frontier community needed somebody of his kind. Neighbors needed a person from whom they could buy soon-to-freshen milk cows and ready-to-use oxen, also someone to whom they could sell surplus livestock when they needed the money, and they encouraged his growing involvement in dealing. But there was that conflict between dealing and farming and gradually the former was gaining over the latter.

The homestead inspector shook his head and said in a warning tone: "You know you just meet the minimum cultivation requirement with nothing to spare and your house can't be approved until you get it chinked. But what is more serious, you fall short in time spent in residence on the homestead. Why don't you spend more time living on this place, at least until you get your patent? You know you can't get homestead credit for this place when you're working in the lumber woods more than fifty miles away, no matter how much money you're making there."

It was told, probably quite erroneously, that Burns and a neighbor fellow built a two-room cabin on the boundary line between their respective quarters, with each homesteader sleeping and claiming residence at opposite ends of the house. Technically, each resident would be on or over his own land. Such a prank might have been employed by some unscrupulous homesteaders but there is no evidence whatever that it was tried or even considered by Burns and his friends. Pat, to be sure, had his own cabin and its location was not even close to a fence line.

Nevertheless, there were delays in qualifying for the title and instead of getting it at the end of the prescribed three years, the official transfer of deed from the Crown to "Patrick Byrne" for both homestead and pre-emption quarters was registered on March 11, 1885.'

Some of Pat Burns' absences from the farm were short, some were long. After the rather long period of employment in the lumber woods at Totogan, there were various freighting assignments taking him and his oxen over the tortuous trails to Portage la Prairie, Brandon, and Winnipeg which brought more in grocery money than he could have made by staying on the homestead. The freighting undertakings, in turn, revealed still more business opportunities.

Before long, he and his oxen - four of them by this time - were conducting work of more diversified character, including a contract to break prairie sod for J. W. Sifton, just south of Brandon, at six dollars per acre. Sifton, who came to Manitoba in 1874 and was engaged in building railroads and constructing the government telegraph line from Winnipeg to Fort Pelly, was a man of substance. He was already a leading figure in Brandon, having represented a Manitoba constituency in the legislature and gained a reputation for strong views about prohibition as well as politics. His son, Clifford Sifton, later Sir Clifford, was beginning the practice of law in Brandon at the time. When the elder Sifton turned to farming, he was prepared to pay well for a good job of breaking.

Referring to this plowing contract, Beecham Trotter wrote that Burns "had more than one yoke of oxen and made a pretty good thing out of the contract. He boarded his team in our stable and himself at the hotel. He also had horses and did freighting to Rapid City, Minnedosa and other places. He was a jovial, reliable, altogether a fine fellow, not credited with extraordinary ability.'"

Trotter recited a sidelight on the Brandon enterprise. Alex Trotter, Beecham's cousin and business partner, had a fine formal swallow-tailed coat which he had brought from Ontario and it came to Pat Burns in a trade. Pat's interest in the coat was strictly utilitarian; a Prince Albert coat would help to keep him warm on chilly days, just like any other similar garment, and he wore it on a business trip to Winnipeg where it was understandably conspicuous. As Burns gave the account, the good people of that city took him for a foreign missionary home on furlough and treated him with appropriate respect.

Opportunity, as Burns was discovering, was where you found it, sometimes where you did not expect to find it, often where you simply made it. In the following summer, 1882, native grasses grew profusely and Burns, who could never be comfortable when seeing something useful going to waste, took to cutting hay and stacking far beyond the anticipated needs of his oxen, while many homesteaders were languishing in midsummer idleness. But how was he to turn the surplus hay to profit? There was only a negligible local sale for something that most people could have for the cutting but, according to rumor, there was a market for hay at Brandon.

W. G. Sanderson, whose Ontario plowshares before coming to the West were sharpened by the author's blacksmith grandsire, George MacEwan, settled beside the trail about three and a half miles south of Burns and was an observer of the Burns methods in marketing hay, the same techniques that carried him far in the world of industry. In anticipation of his plan, Burns bought thin oxen in the autumn when prices were deflated almost to give-away levels, then saw them grow fat on the good prairie wool. Late in the winter he borrowed sleighs from his neighbors and made hayracks from dry poplar poles, of which he had great resources. Finally, he loaded the racks from hay remaining in the stacks, hitched a pair of the oxen to each sleigh, and with oxen tied to racks ahead, creating a formidable train of loaded sleighs, he drove over the snow toward Brandon, normally a journey requiring two long days.

At Brandon's market square, Burns first sold the hay, getting seven dollars per load, then dismantled the empty hayracks and sold the poplar poles for firewood at six dollars per cord. Finally, he piled the empty sleighs on a single set of runners and sold all the oxen except one team which was reserved to pull the load of sleighs and the operator, with a rewarding roll of bills in his pocket, back to Clanwilliam Municipality.'

What might have been Burns' first Manitoba purchase of breeding stock for resale comprised two cows, a brindle and a red, bought from a farmer at Westbourne, at a time when he knew he could facilitate delivery as far as Minnedosa by throwing them in with a herd of cattle that John Wake was driving from Winnipeg. The two-cow transaction marked a new chapter in trading, also the beginning of a long business association with members of the Wake family who had come from Somerset, England, in 1879, and filed on a homestead farm about seven miles east of Tanner's Crossing. John Wake was an experienced livestockman, an expert judge of cattle values and had an understanding of meats. In the years ahead Burns and the Wakes were sometimes in competition, sometimes in cooperation, always in friendly understanding.

The John Wake and John de Manbey families had traveled on the same ship sailing to New York where their ways parted to come together again at Winnipeg, en route to Tanner's Crossing. At the Manitoba city, they resolved to travel together and share the troubles of the trail. It was the particular spring in which trail travel reached its wettest and worst. Wake acquired four oxen for his wagon but even the additional power did not spare him from mudhole problems. Before the travelers were out of the sight of Winnipeg, they bogged down in the mud for which Winnipeg was getting a bad reputation. There they were, mired, wagons, oxen and all, and to further aggravate the unhappy situation, Wake's wagon lost a wheel, necessitating his return to the starting point to make repairs. Members of both families had good reason to dwell in thought upon the dry roads, green fields, and comfortable homes they had left behind in England and to wonder how they had allowed themselves to get into this trying situation.


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