The first mink ranch in the Buffalo Narrows area was owned by Halvor Ausland. It was located on Deep River about seventeen miles from the town of Buffalo Narrows. Estimates as to when Ausland started ranching vary. In 1952, C.S. Brown, a geographer with the Department of Natural Resources stated in a geographic report that Mr. Ausland had begun mink ranching in 1920. While a planning study, prepared by Amisk Planning Consultants, states that this ranch started in 1939. Halvor Ausland stated he began ranching in 1928. Ausland is reported to have started with wild mink and later purchased some tame mink in the United States.
According to his own written notes, Halvor Ausland, started mink ranching in 1929. He never started with wild mink, he purchased three ranch raised mink, two female and one male. The male died and so the first year of mink ranching was over. He later purchased more mink and continued from there. Although it is not part of the original history of Buffalo Narrows, I am taking the liberty of including a picture of those original mink (above). One of these mink can be seen in the pen on the right in the photograph.
In a quote from his book, The Managers tale, Hugh MacKay Ross, the Saskatchewan District Manager for the Hudson's Bay Company, had this to say: (Courtesy of J. Gordon Shillingford Publishing).
"Credit for the success of the mink ranches in the Buffalo Narrows area has to go to Mr. Halvor Ausland who owned a large ranch on Deep River, a few miles east of Buffalo Narrows. From the start, he became interested in genetics and did a lot of experimenting to produce new mink strains. He originated the "palomino" strain--a light brown or dark orange colour. In fact, he made more money selling breeding trios--two females and one male--than he actually made in producing mink pelts. He was more than generous with advice and assistance to other embryo ranchers and was always quick to lend a hand when requested".
By 1950-51, there were thirteen mink ranches in the Buffalo Narrows area with several ranches having over one-thousand mink. In 1952, Churchill Mink Ranch was established. This is reported to have been one of the largest mink ranches, with as many as seven thousand at one time. By 1956, there were thirty-three mink ranches in the area with a combined total of twenty-one thousand mink. In 1965, there were eight ranches on Little Peter Pond Lake, seven ranches on Big Peter Pond Lake and eighteen on Churchill Lake. From the accompanying map it is evident that there were as many as fifty mink ranches in the area, although in all likelihood, these ranches were not in operation at the same time.
Most of the mink ranchers in the area went out of business (pelted out) in the late 1960's, when the price of mink pelts declined dramatically. By 1969, there were only fifteen active mink ranchers in the area. This number had declined to eight in 1970, with only Claude Bouchard, Francois Daigneault, Thomas Hansen, A.C. Krivda, George LaLiberte, Jergan Madsen, Fred Thompson and Walter Vickland still ranching in the immediate vicinity of Buffalo Narrows. By 1975, there were no active mink ranchers in Buffalo Narrows, although Adolf Krivda is known to have kept a few mink.
Halvor Ausland sold some of his mink as breeding stock to the other ranchers to get them started. Some of the prospective mink ranchers worked for Mr. Ausland to obtain their breeding stock, while others paid cash. Breeding stock was quite expensive, ranging from around fifty dollars to several hundred or even a thousand dollars.
Tom Pedersen and his mink ranch, 1947.
(Photo Courtesy of John and Mary Hansen).
Halvor Ausland (right) and Oscar Petit at a
mink show in Waite's yard in 1956.
(Photo Courtesy of John and Mary Hansen).
Several of the other mink ranchers, such as Tom Pedersen (first mink ranch in the town of Buffalo Narrows), sold breeding stock in a similer fashion. The mink rancher made much more money selling mink as a breeder than as a pelt.
Pelts varied in price from six dollars to one hundred and twenty dollars, depending on market conditions, colour, size and the condition of the pelt.
Prices fluctuated wildly according to the dictates of fashion. White mink were known to have the greatest price variation. Colour was a critical factor in that fashion changed radically from year to year. The mink rancher found it nearly impossible to predict which colour mink would be in demand in the coming year.
The type of mink raised in Buffalo Narrows was varied. The most common types were pastels (brown in colour), and darks (black), sapphires (light blue), silver-blues (grey-blue) whites, aleutions (gun-metal), topaz (light brown or dark orange), flukes ( homosegous) incapable of producing offspring) were also to be found on ranches in the area.
During the mid 1950's, mink shows became popular. One three day mink show held in 1956 in Waites yard brought people form all over Saskatchewan and as far away as Manitoba.
The mink rancher sold his mink to "fur buyers". Some of the fur buyers were The Hudson Bay Raw Fur Dept. (Montreal), New York Fur Auction Sales ( New York), Western Canadian Fur Auction (Vancouver), and Soudak's (Winnipeg). The rancher would ship the pelts to the "buyer". The buyer would then place the pelts up for auction and sell them to the highest bidder. These "middlemen" took five percent commission for their services, but offered the ranchers an advance of four or five dollars per pelt. These advances allowed the rancher to continue in operation until he received his final cheque.
The Operation of a Mink Ranch
The mink kits were usually born in May. Mink have been known to have as many as fourteen kits (webmaster's note: I have seen as high as eighteen, usually, these were adopted out to other female mink with smaller litters), although the average is probably four. Mink kits are very susceptible to cold wet weather and must be kept warm and dry. To facilitate this, the rancher had to build a cage with a nest box area and frame made of wood. The cage was covered with mink wire. The rancher had to put hay (grown locally or imported from the south) into the nest box. The wealthier mink ranchers would build sheds to cover the cages as an added measure of protection from the elements.
The mink were fed a mixture of ground up fish, usually jackfish, but sometimes tullibees, mariahs, pickerel, whitefish, or cooked suckers (webmaster's note: suckers or mullet had to be cooked or the mink would die from eating them, most ranchers would not bother with suckers, but would throw them to the pelicans who followed the fish boats from fish-net to fish-net) and mink meal (cereal) and/or porridge made with oatmeal cooked in tubs. Vitamins were often added to this mixture. In long hot summers "Aureomycin" a preservative was added to the mixture to prevent souring.
Mink Rancher, Bill Publicover (left).
Ole Jacobson (right).
(Photgraphs courtesy Sask. Archives Board:
Star Phoenix Collection).
A full grown mink would eat about one quarter of a pound of this fish mixture in June and July, one half of a pound in August and September and three fourths of a pound per day in October and November. Males usually ate about one third more than females. Young kits had to be fed twice a day (a more liquid mixture than the adults), while the adults were fed once per day, usually after the heat of the day had passed . Some ranchers caught their own fish, while others bought "offal" (the remains of fish from the filleting plant). In the 1960's, Claude Bouchard had a contract with Waite fisheries to remove the offal in exchange for carting away the garbage from the plant and cleaning up part of the plant. Bouchard, employed a man to sort offal at the plant and perform the sorting operation. The offal was then put through a grinder and frozen into twenty-five pound blocks for sale at three cents per pound.
Tom Pedersen's mink yard.
( Photo Courtesy of Rose Ericson).
Mink pelting took place after the cold weather had set in and the mink had "furred out". The rancher knew the mink were prime when the fur on the top of the head was even with the fur on the ears and when the tail was bushy. This was usually in the neighborhood of November twentieth to twenty-fifth.
The rancher would kill the mink by breaking it's neck, although a few ranchers used cyanide boxes, (Halvor Ausland at pelting time, would inject the mink with nicotine. It killed them instantly). The rancher could either flesh and stretch the mink pelt himself before shipping it the buyer, or ship the unprocessed pelt to a fleshing company. Many ranchers preferred the fleshing company, because the rancher did not want to purchase the large number of stretching boards needed for the operation, and because the professional fleshers did a better job resulting in higher prices for the processed pelt.
Mink Ranchers had many expenses including wages, mink meal, gas, power, nets, boat repairs and medicine for vaccinations. However, the largest expense was that of purchasing equipment. The larger ranchers (six to seven in the Buffalo Narrows area) purchased large freezers to keep fish frozen in the summer. Other essential equipment included a fish grinder (usually driven by a gasoline motor), a mixer (to cook the suckers to prevent the mink from getting ill), and a water system (pump) for watering the mink.
The mink ranching industry in the Buffalo Narrows region died in the late 1960's and early 1970's because of the unstable and unpredictable nature of the market, and the increase in cost of such things as mink meal, power, gas, oatmeal and labour. Many of the mink ranchers lost money when they went out of business. Some, like Halvor Ausland, sold out before the prices went down, but many more did not. The death of the mink ranching industry dealt a devastating blow to the economy of the region, resulting in increased unemployment and welfare.
Sketch showing local mink ranches from 1928 to 1975.
Compiled by Richard Wuorinen, source Leon McCallum and Claude Bouchard.