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A Pioneer Rancher

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In 1874, The newly created North-West Mounted Police wanted men who could withstand danger and hardship: nights without beds, days without meals, and storms without shelter. James Walker, resplendent in teh scarlet Northfolk jacket and pillbox forage cap of the force, was such a man. Colonel James Walker
Man of the Western Frontier
Copyright 1989 Western Producer Prairie Books
171 pages,
ISBN 0-88833-304-8.

The cattle were exhausted, the result of being driven too hard and too fast. Their condition may have been a result of instructions from the eastern directors, who were worried about the risk of their cattle being caught on the trail when winter set in. To make matters worse, many of the cattle were delivered unbranded and none had the new Cochrane brand. The eastern directors ordered immediate marking with hair brands, but such marks were not very reliable, and come spring, they decided to brand everything on the lease with permanent hot-iron brands. Unfortunately many cattle owned by settlers were caught in the sweep and marked with the Cochrane brand. Previously friendly neighbours fought back by placing their brands on all maverick stock found running on the range, including many cattle that were the rightful property of the Cochrane Company. It soon became obvious that the Cochrane ranch had lost more cattle than it gained by the reckless branding.

The winter was, from its outset, unusually cold, and the snow was deep. Too much reliance had been placed in chinook winds that didn't come, and the Cochrane cattle wandered in search of feed and perished. Story had it that a thousand cattle were lost. Although nobody could be sure of the number of deaths, according to a diary entry made by Frank White, an Ontario man who came to the ranch as treasurer, secretary, and bookkeeper in 1882, Walker had estimated the Cochrane cattle at the first of April, 1882, at 5,844 head exclusive of calves, a total that represented a loss of 955 head from the count made in November.

The problem of too many managers was getting worse: the senator's son was spending more time on the ranch and Dr. McEachran, who was now managing director of the new Walrond ranch as well as the Cochrane ranch, was more often in the foothills area. Administrative conflicts were inescapable.

Notwithstanding the losses suffered in the first year of ranch operations, Walker went to Montana to buy cattle for the ranch. He had the senator's confidence and the senator's instructions to buy at least four thousand more cattle, to bring the herd to ten thousand. He was closing a deal with two well-known cattlemen, Poindexter and Orr, when he received a message from Dr. McEachran advising that he was in the state and had made arrangements to buy the cattle needed for the Cochrane ranch through the I. G. Baker Company. McEachran's explanation for so intruding was that the Baker Company was about to start its own herd in the foothills, and by purchasing the Cochrane cattle through the Baker Company, the two herds could be forwarded together, thereby saving substantial delivery costs. Walker accepted the McEachran arrangement and acted at once to cancel his deal with Poindexter and Orr, embarrassing as it must have been.

It was then the great Dr. McEachran's turn to be embarrassed when he discovered that the I. G. Baker Company had changed plans and was not sending a herd to Canada; he was obliged to ask Walker to try to reinstate the deal with Poindexter and Orr. Instead of leaving McEachran to make the best of the trouble of his own designing, Walker returned to Poindexter and Orr and made a firm deal for the cattle, but because cattle values had risen, at a considerably higher price. It was estimated that McEachran's indiscretion had cost the Cochrane ranch an added $25,000, and Walker was now determined to resign from a company of which McEachran was a part.

The contract signed by Poindexter, Orr, and Walker read:

It is agreed this 16th day of May, 1882, between Messrs. Poindexter
and Orr of the first part and James Walker of the second part as
follows: The parties of the first part agree to sell to James Walker
of the second part all their herd of cattle, except 150 dairy cows
and about 60 thoroughbred cows and heifers ... at the rate of 825
per head .... All unbranded yearlings and calves over eight months
to be counted. The balance of the calves to be given free with the
herd and not counted. . . . The parties of the first part agree to
provide corrals with branding chutes and will corral the cattle and
assist the said party of the second part to brand the cattle. Cattle
as soon as branded to become the property of James Walker. And
the said James Walker agrees to purchase the said cattle at the rate
aforesaid, $5,000 to be paid by draft on I. G. Baker and Co., the
receipt of which is hereby acknowledged, and the balance to be
paid in New York Exchange on due delivery of aforesaid cattle.

In spite of Poindexter and Orr's experience and good intentions, the trail trip was made too fast and too late. The herd reached Fish Creek, a short distance south of Calgary, in a bitter September snowstorm that buried the trails and cast huge drifts before the weakened animals. Poindexter suggested that the herd be left at the creek to wait for a major change of weather. He was prepared to leave his cowboys there to control the herd, but Walker was compelled to follow eastern orders to get the stock to the home range as soon as possible.

"Poindexter sent men ahead, picked up some scores of lusty native steers and jammed them south through the snowdrifts, turning them back at Fish Creek and then throwing the weak, trailworn herd into the path they made. Driving fiercely, they forced the herd to Big Hill where Poindexter addressed Walker, saying: 'Here they are. Count 'em now because many will be dead tomorrow.' ".,

Shortly after his appointment to the ranch, Walker had persuaded Senator Cochrane that the need for lumber to construct ranch buildings would make the purchase of a sawmill a profitable investment. Now, two years later, when the need for building materials was practically satisfied and the lumbermill had fallen into disuse, Walker believed he could find more use for it than the ranch was likely to have. He had made a cash investment in the ranch, and when the senator asked him if he wanted his money with interest or if he would prefer to retain an equity in the business, Walker considered briefly and said: "If you would price that sawmill so I could pay for it, I'd take it for part of my account and leave the balance of the money with you."

"Is it worth ten thousand dollars to you?" Cochrane asked. "That's a fraction of what we paid for it, but it has more than paid for itself already."

"It will suit me fine," Walker answered.

Frederick White, a former railroader and bookkeeper who had no background in livestock when he came to the Cochrane ranch, was appointed to fill the vacancy created by Walker's resignation and probably felt the need for sympathetic guidance. White would not dare to ask him for advice, but if he expected Walker to be vindictive or inclined to nurse a grudge, he was quite wrong. Walker lost no time in coming to White with an offer of advice.

Senator Cochrane, who was visiting at the ranch at the time, was much impressed and was the first to seek his assistance. Cochrane invited him to a private meeting for a complete review of ranch policy before leaving. When the two men were alone, the understanding Senator said philosophically that losses are part of learning, and far from blaming Walker for the bad weather or the other misfortunes of the previous two years, he suggested that he might try to obtain a spread farther south. The weather would be more favourable to winter grazing in the area between Waterton Lakes and Belly River, he said, and as soon as a lease in that part of the country could be obtained he would move his cattle to it and convert the Big Hill property to a sheep and horse ranch. He wanted Walker's opinion.

But if the senator could have looked ahead as well as backwards, he would have been shocked at the tricks played by western weather: for the next two winters, the range west of Calgary offered the best of grazing, and the Waterton area was cold and blanketed with heavy snow. Such was the gamble in ranching, but the senator persevered, and in the next couple of decades, the Cochrane outfit performed handsomely.

Senator Cochrane and Walker remained good and loyal friends; Walker certainly came out of the ranch experience with more friends than the great Dr. McEachran could count.

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