The second edition of Fur Farming in Canada contains a list of P. E. I. ranchers up to April 1st, 1914. Most were fox ranchers. Of the 286 listed only 6 were mink ranchers: Wilfred Boulter, Tryon; J. W. Brown, Tyne Valley; Isaac Ives, Montague; Austin Scales, St. Eleanor; William Sheeham, Port Hill; Nelson Waldron, Port Hill.
We know that Roy Duggan of Seaview had been ranching for four years at the time this list was made. It is possible that other mink ranchers were missed as well. Probably all the people listed were raising mink for, at least, two years.
Austin Scales contributed a photo of his mink shed and a blueprint of his ranch plan for inclusion in Fur Farming in Canada. At the time of writing this history, Austin Scales is the only survivor of the early days. He is a highly successful businessman, up in his nineties, who still goes to his office every day.
It should be noted that Port Hill, two miles from Tyne Valley, was the nearest railroad station. Both William Sheeham (whose proper name was Sheen) and Nelson Waldron lived in Tyne Valley. No record exists of mink being ranched at Port Hill.
The author interviewed Nelson Waldron in 1944, eleven years after he had retired from the mink business. Mr. Waldron was 79 at the time and showed excellent recall on the details of his career but we did not realize at the time, that common to men of his age, he had difficulty in establishing events in their proper order. The story is true but the dates are not accurate.
Fortunately Clayton Mill was able to contact Mr. Waldron's daughter, Mrs. Nina G. Ross, who now lives in British Columbia and her letter clears up some of the confusion.
First we will deal with the interview as published in the September 1944 issue of Canadian Silver Fox and Fur. To save you perplexity, some parts have been deleted. "As a young man, Nelson Waldron went to New York where he entered the building trade. Eventually he was in business on his own, buying lots, building houses on then and selling to the highest bidder. He recalls vividly the hardships of the great depression of 1893 to 1898 and the difficulties he had in keeping going.
"At the age of 45, his success in the building trade enabled him to retire to Tyne Valley, Prince Edward Island, however, retirement sat heavily on his shoulders, so he looked around for a business that could be a hobby. The black fox business was in full cry then so he purchased a few pairs. In the spring of 1912 he bought a wild caught female mink from a Mr. McCallum in Bedeque, P.E.I.
"A few weeks later she produced five kits, three females and two males. The following spring the three kit females and the old female produced twenty kits. Mr. Waldron added wild caught mink to his herd from time to time and soon was selling breeding stock to England, Norway, most of the States in the U.S. and every province in Canada. He sold stock as high as $300. and for some years mink sold readily at $200. a pair.
"Some of the better known ranches that purchased foundation stock from Mr. Waldron in 1913 were the Stanstead Ranch in Quebec and Roy Duggan of Scaview, P.E.I.
"Mr. Waldron retired from the mink business is 1933. The ranch and its equipment is still there and in reasonably good shape considering it has not been used for eleven years. I was interested to note that apart from greater dimensions of both pens and nestboxes, the construction was as modern as any ranch today.
We found Mrs. Ross's letter to Clayton Mill most intriguing. As it is a long letter, we took the liberty of editing it to provide only the information on the mink operation.
"I am very interested in your search for information concerning the early mink ranching years and will be glad to tell you the little I know of my father's ranch in Tyne Valley.
"Unfortunately, my father did not leave any papers. They were all destroyed years before his death and I was young when he started his mink ranch. In the years since his death, I have often regretted not talking to him about his early experiences.
"William Sheen our next door neighbour in Tyne Valley kept foxes in a ranch behind his barn. He and my father got the idea to try and raise mink. Mr. Sheen bought a pair of live mink from somewhere off the Island, but I do not know where. They were dead on arrival at Port Hill Station. The box in which they had been shipped was divided down the centre with each side barely large enough for a mink to squeeze into lengthways. Once in, he could not move. No provision had been made to water or feed them and they had taken an exceptionally long time to make the journey.
"This bad luck dampened their enthusiasm for a while, but, later that year or the next, my father bought another pair of live mink from someone off the Island (certainly not the same man) but again, I do not know his name or address. The pair were living when they arrived.
"They put them in the pen Mr. Sheen had ready for his pair which had died, but, I do not know how long they were there, although knowing my father's temperament, I judge not for long.
"But dad may indeed have kept them there longer than I think and may have added to their number before building his own ranch. I cannot say. My understanding is that Mr. Sheen had only that one pen ready for mink and they certainly didn't put any more in it. I have a vague picture of pens behind our barn when I was very young, but, of course they could mean anything. The question is open for a discussion.
"Certainly dad had more than one pair of mink when he built his ranch and he must have kept them somewhere.
"However it was, dad decided to go into the mink business for himself. Running ads in hunting and trapping magazines, he soon built up his stock. From the very first he was lucky.
"I cannot decide whether the date of 1911 as given by Canada Mink Breeders Association as the year dad started mink ranching indicates the year he purchased his first mink, or the year he built the ranch. "Nor do I know the length of time which elapsed between these two events. All his early mink came from trappers in Maine and eastern Canada. They all knew him and some corresponded with him for years. Rod and Gun, Hunter-Trader-Trapper and National Sportsman were favourite reading in our home.
"He had remarkable success with his mink - and no wonder! He pampered them like spoiled children. It is absolutely correct that he only sold live mink for breeding purposes. He never pelted any. "Always a great believer in advertising, he advertised extensively. People from around the world came to see him and his ranch. He shipped mink to all parts of Canada, the States as well as Europe. Later he kept foxes but never enjoyed them as he did his mink. They were dirty and smelly and sulky and he could never make pets of them.
"After mother died, dad continued to live alone in the old house until a year or so before his death when I took him to Livingstone and McArthur nursing home in Charlottetown, where he died on January 29th, 1959 aged 94 years, with all his faculties bright to the last days. I have rambled on and on but I am afraid not much will be of use to you. I cannot think of anyone now living who knows anything of the early years of mink ranching. But I have forgotten something very important. Mr. Sheen and dad were not the first on the Island to raise wild mink in captivity, they were the second! The first was a man living in the general area out from Kensington. I have thought and thought about it, but cannot recall his name. Dad told me this himself and I have heard him, in conversation with others, give this man the distinction of being a year or so earlier than he and Mr. Sheen. I hope you can locate him."
We are delighted with Mrs. Ross's letter for several reasons and not the least of these is that she has remained a true Islander despite her long exile. A Prince Edward Islander divides the world into roughly equal parts - on. the Island and off the Island - and this she does in her letter.
It is obvious, to us at least, from Nina Ross's story that the mink operation existed for more than two years before World War I. It is probable that three years after his initial venture with William Sheen when they purchased the pair of mink off the Island, that he built the home ranch and added more wild caught mink - Mr. McCallum's wild caught and happily pregnant female and the mink from trappers in Maine and eastern Canada.
William Sheen continued to raise mink, so obviously there were some mink to divide between them when the Waldron ranch was built. In the twenties William Sheen's son Nelson carried on the mink and built the Sheen ranch up to a sizeable operation.
While Mrs. Ross answered a lot of questions and put the record straight, she left us a puzzle in the last paragraph of her letter. We haven't the slightest idea who the rancher was who kept mink in captivity the year or so before Waldron and Sheen.
In an advertisement in the June 1927 issue of the Canadian Silver Fox News, we find the following. "Prince Edward Island, Nova Scotia and Northern Quebec mink. Seventeen years selective breeding. Nelson Waldron, Tyne Valley, P.E.T."
In 1927, Nelson Waldron wrote a bulletin to assist his customers in caring for their mink. It's a bit wild in places but you must remember that ranchers in those days did not use meat grinders. Meat and fish was fed as chunks and bread, biscuit, milk and blood as a mix in a dish. We believe, that while you wouldn't want to follow some of the suggestions today, that this bulletin is a useful view of the thinking at the time regarding diet, pens and management practices.
"My favourite food for mink is rabbit; I have fed for six months on rabbit, with excellent results; one ordinary sized rabbit cut in six pieces will feed six mink for one day. Smelts are my next choice, have fed smelts for months, with excellent results - three big smelts will feed a mink for a day. Have fed on trout for three weeks with good results. But I always took the insides out of the trout. Have fed for two months on silver perch with good results. Loaf bread and puppy biscuit broken up fine and made moist with milk or blood can be fed for a week or two; then change off to meat or fish again. You cannot feed mackerel as it would kill them as quickly as arsenic would. You can feed beef, mutton, horsemeat, any kind of scraps from the butcher's shop, tripe, liver or heart for a week or two then change off for a week or two on fish.
"Mink do not like fat meat, in fact I do not think they will eat fat. Any kind of birds make splendid food for a change.
"My mink house is 70 feet long, 9 feet high in front, 6 feet high in rear and 8 feet wide; rough boarded with good boards all covered with good english felt paper and shingled. The floor is double boarded, with two ply english felt paper between.
"In the centre of the house there is a walk 2 feet wide running the whole length - this gives 14 nesting boxes on each side; the boxes are 18" high, 5 feet long, with a partition about the centre. The mink come from the outside pens through a chute 3" square into the first apartment - this is where they leave their droppings - then pass through to the next apartment where they sleep and have their young.
`"These boxes need to be as black dark as possible and made of good sound boards; they should be double boarded to make it dark and so avoid gnawing. Each box has a cover, so you can look at any one mink without disturbing the others. Fine, dead grass makes splendid nests.
"The outside pens are the same width as the boxes inside, so every five feet of houseroom takes care of a pair of mink. The pens are 10 feet long and six feet high. The only advantage of having them so high is in going from one pen to the other.
"Wire is sunk into the ground two feet and turned in one foot. The walls and top covered with 1" mesh wire, the same as the ground wire.
"For water I keep an ordinary candy pail in each pen (never in the house) filled with clean water once a day - this is just as if they had a pond to swim in. When the snow is on the ground I do not water them.
"The pens must either he 4" apart or double wired. You understand if there is only one wire they are sure to kill each other through the wire. It would be safer to put the two in the one pen than to put one wire between them in separate pens.
"There is no animal that does so well in captivity as mink; they are of a bold nature, and breed equally well in captivity as in the wild. They are exceedingly prolific - have raised 42 young mink from 7 mothers and when their young are born they are sure to raise them. In my opinion you are hitting in about the right time; mink ranches are very scarce, consequently there is a big demand for mink. I think a boom is sure in the near future. Mink sold readily here before the war at $150. a pair; the war killed the mink business for some years but they are back to prewar prices again.
"You cannot put two females or two males together at any time with any degree of safety. I put mink together the first of March and leave them together until the 7th of April, if I don't see them mate; if I see them mate I separate them. When the mink are born you should feed through the pen outside, for four weeks, for if you raise the cover the mother mink will carry the young out, and in some cases destroy them. You can tell when the mink are born, by listening, as for two or three days after they are born they keep up a little fine cry. Of course you understand that when a mink is nursing you will have to feed twice as much. When you want to see that you are not feeding more than she is eating, trap the mother mink in the pen and examine the nest.
"There is only one practical way to ranch mink and that is in pairs. There is not more than one male out of twenty who will not kill and eat the second female you put him in with.
"To keep their nesting boxes clean, I put a few inches of dry sawdust or dried clay on the bottom of this makes them more easily cleaned out.
"In buying mink, do not be influenced by the inexperienced, as we often read nicely written articles on mink raising, by men who would not know a mink from a muskrat; and in these beautifully worded articles they would advise feeding vegetables to mink, which shows it must have been muskrat they were thinking of. I have been a mink rancher for 15 years and have raised many hundreds, and never knew a mink to eat vegetables of any description."
Of the several ranchers that originated the mink business in Prince Edward Island, only three carried on after the first World War. The third one was Roy Duggan and he was to outlast the other two. He ranched mink for forty years and survived the transition from breeding stock sales to pelt sales. There were not many who did.
The August 21st, 1934 issue of the `Maritime Farmer' carried an article by Mrs. Annie Pond entitled `Mink Farming in Prince Edward Island'. The article was interesting historically and personally. Mrs. Pond never did mention Roy Duggan's first name anywhere in the article! She was a very precise and proper Englishwoman, the mother of my boyhood churn and the frustrated lecturer on morals and manners to us both.
"Prince Edward Island has always been associated with the silver fox industry, but not much has been said in connection with the raising of mink in that fertile province of the Dominion; but that it can be a profitable sideline for the farmer has been the experience of Mr. Duggan, who has two hundred and sixteen of these pretty fur bearing animals on his farm at Seaview.
"Mr. Duggan lives on the farm where his grandfather cleared the virgin forest for a homestead. He does not believe in get rich quick schemes; but says that anyone who has a natural liking for fur bearing animals, providing he is careful in choosing his foundation stock and follows the ad-vice of an experienced breeder, can make money raising mink on a pelt basis. He admits that it is more difficult to be a successful mink rancher than a fox rancher, but it can be done. In 1928 and 1929, there was quite a boom in mink raising on the Island and mink were selling as high as $225. a pair for breeders; but that did not last and the depression of 1930 practically wiped out the ranchers.
"Mr. Duggan has been raising mink long before this and stayed with it and now has a substantial ranch. He averages $8. a pelt for most of his skins at the present time (December 1933).
"Mr. Duggan first started in the business away hack in 1910 when he bought two pairs from Nelson Waldron of Tyne Valley, P.E.I. who had started in the business the year before. Their foundation stock came from Nova Scotia, as they did not find the mink on the Island very much good.
"At that time good mink sold for $50. a pair for breeding purposes and Mr. Duggan did fairly well until 1914 when the war made fur prices so low that it did not pay to raise mink in captivity.
"In 1921 Mr. Duggan started up again with some Nova Scotia and Cape Breton mink, six females and three males. From this small beginning he did well and sold livestock continuously for breeding purposes until 1930 when the bottom dropped out of the business for so many ranchers.
"Mr. Duggan then went to a pelt basis. During the depression his profits were small but they are now showing an increase and present prices are 60% over the March sales and Mr. Duggan says that at the present time one should get $8 - $12. for a good pelt, which brings a fair profit. Fifty pair of mink should produce one hundred and fifty to two hundred kittens and the total cost of production should not be more than $350. - $450.
"There is little demand on the Island for live mink at the present time as so many breeders are discouraged as their efforts have been attended with such poor success. To those contemplating raising mink, Mr. Duggan advises buying Quebec or Nova Scotia mink as they are far superior to Island wild mink and very near to the one type. It is very risky to buy one's breeders through the mail. A mink rancher should learn to select his stock when it is properly furred, usually late in December or the first week in January; the best mink have dark brown coats.
"It is often the practice to offer mink for sale in September but at that time they have not shed their old coats and it is difficult to choose the good mink. The kittens are usually horn from 10th of April to May and are maltese in colour. They gradually become reddish brown if not protected from sunlight. The early coat is shed about the beginning of October and the winter fur comes in. By the middle of December they should be mature; although sometimes they are as late as the beginning of January. Most ranchers pelt the animals in December.
"It is very essential to give them the right food. Mink require meat or fish once a day and a mixture of cereal and minerals. They also need a dish for bathing with a supply of clean water daily. They do not require a great deal of attention as they keep themselves clean. Mr. Duggan has his ranch arranged with the house running down the centre of two double runways. The males and females are kept apart except at breeding time, but, the litters that are born together can be allowed to run together with little danger of them hurting one another. Mink should not be handled except with gloves as they are of a very wicked nature, although quite tame in other respects. At feeding time, they push out the little trays for their meat or fish as a gentle reminder that they are hungry.
"Mr. Duggan warns prospective mink ranchers not to be discouraged if they do not have much success at first as the first three years he was in the business he did not raise a kitten. This was due to poor selection of breeders and lack of experience. When a breeder has established good mink on his ranch it is better to rely on his own foundation stock than risk buying from unknown sources to increase his stock.
"Anyone with a natural liking for fur bearing animals should make a success of mink ranching if they go slow and are content with a fair profit. Careful selection of foundation stock and gradual experience are the main features towards success".
My father, George A. Bowncss, was a harness maker in Summerside. As a sideline he had a fox ranch located in a 35 acre piece of vacant land near our home on the outskirts of town. The harness was sold both wholesale and retail. The former was sold for cash but some of the retail was paid for with, eggs, butter, barrels of apples, potatoes and oysters. These were used or re-sold depending on our need and supply.
The most interesting trade commodity to me was the assorted livestock that came in. Young cattle for our fox feed (the best cuts for our table) old, broken down, hard to milk, cows for the same purpose. We always had two which I milked before school and after to provide milk for the foxes and our house. In the early twenties beef was the usual meat fed. The use of horsemeat began as the twenties ended.
While I had snared rabbits for fox food and trapped a few muskrats each year and helped the hired man with the chores around the ranch, my first entry into the fur business came when dad gave me two pairs of muskrats that he had taken in a deal. I built two pens 8 feet long by 2 feet wide and high, down by the brook and sat back to await my fortune. I was still waiting a year later when one of the muskrats was killed by its mate. They were unpredictable critters - eat out of your hand one moment and fly in your face the next. This worried my parents and they talked me into pelting the muskrats. When I pulled the skins off them, I found they were all boys, which probably explains the lack of reproduction.
In the summer of 1924, two pairs of mink replaced the muskrats and after checking their sex, I subdivided the muskrat pens so each mink had its own quarters. The next spring both females had litters one of five the other three. Unfortunately, the mother of five died of a condition that was to plague ranches for many years - nursing sickness.
That fall, I went to Prince of Wales College in Charlottetown, 40 miles from home and with the exception of weekends, the hired man became the mink rancher. We carried three pairs over the winter. I repaid dad with five mink, for the original two pairs. My father had an unusual business theory which I was happy to follow - always make sure the other fellow has a profit, but not too much'.
The next spring there were twelve kits and, as no tragedies occurred, there were 18 mink on the ranch when time came to go back to college. Being an absentee mink rancher the winter before was a bit of a trial to all concerned. At a family conference it was decided that, as mink breeding stock prices had risen sharply, the best thing to do was sell all the mink and use the money for my education. It was a good decision. This money, together with what I was able to earn in the year and a half between the Prince of Wales and Ontario Veterinary College, and on my summer vacations, enabled me to graduate in the depth of the depression in 1932 owing very little. So ended my first participation in the mink industry.
The middle twenties saw the beginning of the export of live mink to Europe. Nelson Waldron in his 1927 bulletin, mentions London, England as one address. In 1926, 200 live mink were shipped to Bavaria from America. Further shipments were made in 1927 and 1928. The recipients founded the Mink Farmers' Corporation in 1928 and tried to discourage further importations.
In the summer of 1928 a Norwegian Purchasing Commission with permits to import 2,050 live silver foxes came to Prince Edward Island. Head of the commission was Dr. O. E. Langsacter who, I believe, was President of the Norwegian Silver Fox Breeders' Association. The other man was Dr. R. Rochman, their veterinarian. Dr. Cunningham's fox laboratory had the job of testing the foxes they chose for parasites and for providing the necessary health certificates. As a lab technician, I did the paperwork and assisted them in many ways during their stay.
When the Commission had chosen the foxes, they then decided to buy some mink which, I presume, was a private venture on their part. They bought mink from Nelson Waldron and Roy Duggan. If they bought mink from anyone else, I didn't know about it. All in all they took ten trios of mink at $350. a trio (a male and two females). When shipment day came, the mink arrived at the laboratory in their shipping crates for the veterinary inspection. No one wanted any part of handling them, so Dr. Cunningham counted their beady little eyes, divided by two, and issued a health certificate for 30 mink!
Dave Stevens of St. Marys, Ontario, recalls selling four pairs of mink to H. C. Mott of Summerside, P.E.I. in 1929 for $900. I can find no further information on this person and the name is not a local one. In those days we had a floating group of bank clerks, railwaymen, parsons, doctors and highway construction people who had the misfortune to be born "off the Island" and were known to us natives as "furriners". It must be admitted that some people applied the term to anyone they didn't know or perhaps, didn't want to know. Looking back it seemed as if this must have been one of those sex linked inheritances we talk about nowadays; while the men could take them or leave them, the girls enthusiastically married every available one. It's possible that H. C. Mott was a "furriner" in transit who said no and escaped, or was sunk without a trace.
In 1937, N. A. Wisner of Charlottetown advertised mink breeding stock for sale. The Government of Canada published a list of Fur Farmers in the Maritimes in 1938. The mink list for P.E.T. was all new except for Roy Duggan, the lone survivor of the old days, who was to continue on for another dozen years. Of the seven mink ranches listed, Byron Noonan of Bedeque was the only one that didn't have foxes as well. Raoul M. Reymond of Charlottetown, James Robertson of East Baltic and Lorne Wigginton of Cardigan had mink for a relatively short time.
Lowell W. Hancock appears for the first time as a mink rancher. He came to P.E.T. in the middle twenties fresh out of Ohio State University and started the Ohio National Fox Ranch. He married the prettiest girl in my high school class and took a leading part in the town's social activities. He sang in a church choir, organized minstrel shows and concerts. The service clubs never knew what hit them. He had the members running when they intended to walk, and when they tried to contain him, they found it as easy as putting toothpaste back in the tube.
In business, he started a feed company that had eastern Canada as a market. Later he had a chemical firm that produced pesticides. He edited and published a fur magazine. In all the organizations both civic and livestock that he served, he rose to the position of highest authority. He was a one man gang. The best thing to happen to Summerside since they built the electric light plant; in fact better - he had more voltage!
Later, when he was president of the Canadian National Silver Fox Breeders Association he made what, to me, was his greatest contribution to the fur industry. He organized the collection of old fur farming literature which included old fur magazines, pamphlets, prizelists, government fur farm reports and bulletins. These eventually were placed in the Public Archives in Charlottetown and have been of inestimable value in the writing of this history.
J. Walter Jones finally got into the mink business in the closing years of the thirties. His son, B. B. (Bus) Jones became the mink rancher of the family and introduced the first mutation mink to P.E.I. When J. Walter Jones became Premier of Prince Edward Island, Bus took over more of the Bunhury Farm management. When his father was appointed to the Senate of Canada, there was no more time for mink as Bus had the Abegweit holstein herd as well as the farm to manage. The mink were turned over on a share basis to another rancher who eventually took them over entirely. It's only fair to say that Bus Jones by dint of hard work brought the Abegweit herd to greater recognition and the farm to a most profitable operation.