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The Early Birds

Mink. Mink.

From 1887, the end of the Patterson era, until twenty years later in 1907, there are generalized references to mink ranches but no specific naming of individuals or places. It is all very mysterious and we suspect that while trappers jailed the odd wild mink until the proper pelting season no real effort at breeding mink in captivity existed in Canada during this time.

Now we come to a brief period when we have lots of names, few dates and fewer facts, which terminated during World War I. Mink farming then practically disappeared and did not reappear until the 1920s. But we are getting ahead of our story, so let's go back to the fascinating and sometimes unbelievable years of livestock selling that was the small beginning of the mink ranching business.

Fortunately, we have eyewitness accounts recorded in early literature and amazingly one of the early ranchers has survived to the present day between his good memory and his early account books we have gathered much useful material. Fur Farming in Canada 1914 records "The list of fur farming companies and fur farmers which follows, has been compiled from returns kindly supplied to the Commission of Conservation by provincial officials and by the Under Secretary of State for Canada. The names of fur farmers given are of those who reported to or were otherwise known to provincial game officials. The whole list has been revised to April 1, 1914."

In Nova Scotia, J. Walter Jones lists sixty-nine premises that are regarded as mink farms and identifies the owners. In Prince Edward Island there are six named. In Ontario, the list is for fur farmers but we recognize seven names as mink ranchers but are not sure of whether three of them were in mink that early. The Quebec list is for `"Permits issued for taking and keeping in captivity, fur-bearing animals for breeding purposes." Probably means the same thing and four people are named. The Manitoba list contains just one name and no names from the rest of the western provinces. The New Brunswick list seems to be different from the above. "Permits issued to capture fur-bearing animals." It lists the names of twenty-one trappers and the number and kinds of furbearers that may be taken on this permit.

It should occasion little surprise that these records are not complete but it does concern us in the case of David A. McRae of West Middle River Victoria Co. Nova Scotia who is unlisted. Many Nova Scotians, in particular, Don and Ruby Mullen believe that David McRae was "The earliest known mink rancher and, in fact, Nova Scotia's pioneer mink rancher beginning in 1907." Unhappily we have been unable to substantiate this claim, though we believe McRae to be, if not the earliest, one of the earliest mink ranchers in the twentieth century. The first mention of McRae was found in the October 1916 issue of the Silver Black Fox. "For sale choice, Nova Scotia ranch bred mink-forty females, twenty males-kittens or proved breeders - David McRae West Middle River Victoria Co. N.S." Sounds like he was around for a while. He was to be around for a lot longer than that but we'll leave his story for the chapter on Nova Scotia.

The second name to emerge is that of Nelson Waldron, Tyne Valley, Prince Edward Island. Clayton Mill gives the date as 1909 and this is substantiated in an article by Mrs. Annie Pond in the Maritime Farmer of August 21st, 1934 entitled Mink Farming on Prince Edward Island "Mr. (Roy) Duggan (of Seaview, P.E.I.) first started in business away back in 1910 when he bought two pairs (of mink) from Nelson Waldron of Tyne Valley, Prince Edward Island who had started in the business the year before."

The second edition of Fur Farming in Canada, published early in 1914, lists Nelson Waldron and William Shechem both of Port Hill, about two miles from Tyne Valley, as mink ranchers. We suspect that they were associates, if not partners from 1909 to 1912. The grounds for this suspicion are found in a current letter from Mrs Nina G. Ross, Nelson Waldron's daughter, which will be quoted in the chapter on Prince Edward Island.

1910, not only saw Roy Duggan entering the mink business, but was also the entrance of a remarkable man who only stayed six years, but left his mark upon the industry.

A present-day Portrait of Austin Scales.

Austin Scales (left) of St. Eleanors, P.E.I. born in 1886 and presently hale and hearty at the age of 94 gave us, with the aid of meticulously kept account books, much factual history of the period from 1910 to 1915. His first mink were bought locally possibly as early as 1909. They were housed in individual pens in an upstairs room in one of his outbuildings. By 1911, demand for live mink outgrew local supply; so he made a trip to Nova Scotia and New Brunswick to buy available mink and arrange with trappers for all they could catch. He remembers buying a mink in Vogler's Cove, N.S. As Robert Nowe and Alex A. Smith were the only ranchers listed there, it indicates that one at least started sometime before that date. In a later transaction dated September 19, 1914, he bought mink from E. M. Gardner of Brooklyn a few miles from Vogler's Cove.

In the New Brunswick end of the trip he seems to have dealt principally with trappers, though E. W. Douglas of Stanley, N.B. who sold him mink appears as a mink rancher in later lists. W. B. Milner of Moncton must have been a trapper as no record of him as a rancher exists. Mink in those days were sold by the pair - a male and a female. Austin recounted an experience he had with one N.B. trapper who shipped him a pair of mink that turned out to be males. He wrote back and complained and the trapper agreed to send a female. When it arrived it turned out to be another male. On the second complaint, the trapper wrote and asked how to tell the difference between the sexes. Austin decided there was no future in sex education by correspondence and terminated their business arrangement.

On August 22nd, 1914, Austin contracted to buy three pairs of mink for fall delivery from J. E. Jardine. As no address was noted we believe he was a local P.E.I. fur broker. The mink was delivered in two lots. Two pairs on October 31, 1914, and. another pair later in the next month. The total transaction amounted to $426.00. On November 1, 1914, Austin bought one female mink from Wilfred J. Leckie, Summerside, P.E.T. This rang a bell with me. Wilfred Leckie who operated a large fox ranch down through the years was an old and good friend. Knowing my interest in mink he told me on several occasions about his being a one mink, mink rancher. It seems that a neighbour had caught this mink and either gave or sold it to Wilfred. He kept it for quite a while before deciding to sell it and forget about mink ranching. Wilfred is gone now and the proof of his one mink, mink ranch story haunts me like a ghost out of the past.

The final entry in the account hook for late fall 1915 records Austin's instructions to his rancher to pelt out the remaining mink and close the ranch. The following spring there is a note describing the sale of lumber, wire and equipment from the mink ranch. This precise and meticulous man never returned to the mink business but went on to success and fortune in other fields.

But Austin Scales did leave us two pieces of evidence of his grasp on the requirements of our industry. In 1911, the upstairs room became overcrowded forcing expansion. He then planned and built the first multiple pen mink shed on record. Fur Farming in Canada 1914 shows not only the photograph which we have on page 19 but includes a fold-out page drawing of the plan and structural details. The man standing outside is Austin Scales.

He wrote the first article on mink that we can find. It was published in the January 1915 issue of the Silver Black Fox under the heading of Mink Ranching a Profitable Business and reprinted thirty-two years later in the November 1946 issue of Canadian Silver Fox & Fur. It showed a grasp of mink management details far ahead of his time. It will be quoted in full in the next chapter. One final word on Austin Scales, unlike most of his fellow ranchers, he knew fur quality. Reminiscing on his exploits of seventy years ago he said "I only made one serious error, I bought a shipment of Minnesota mink, and they were terrible. Their rough, coarse, harsh fur far outweighed their two virtues of large size and dark colour." This assessment would be made on many occasions by later generations of mink ranchers.

The chapter on mink in the second edition of Fur Farming in Canada was written in 1912 with a few additions made in its revision in 1913. It gives a somewhat startling view of the various ranching methods in vogue at that time. J. Walter Jones lists the three principal systems in this fashion. The Natural Plan - a fenced area of some acreage in which food is provided and the mink are caught by trapping. The Colony Method - a single community pen in a shed with a runway to a creek. The Single Pen System - each mink is kept in a separate pen.

In 1911, La Compagnie Zootechnique de Labelle Ltee, established a natural plan mink ranch on an island in Lac Chaud, Quebec. The company was capitalized at $49,000 and the ranch manager was a Mr Desormeaux. In 1912, J. Walter Jones visited the ranch and described it as follows "In 1911, some two dozen mink were placed in a fenced area, a one-quarter acre in size. They increased by about 100 percent in number in 1912. The manager explained the small increase as being due to the limited quarters which they are now enlarging. Another possible explanation is that 1912 appeared to be a poor year for both mink and fox. It is also possible that the old wild animals captured did not take kindly to their new location, or, to the artificial nests. This last cause will disappear as soon as ranch-bred mink is available.

Natural plan mink enclosure at Lac Chaud.

Natural plan mink enclosure at Lac Chaud.
Picture courtesy of - Fur Farming in Canada

"The situation of the ranch is on an island in Lac Chaud in an uninhabited section of the country in the Laurentians. It is high and rocky and covered with birch and spruce. The ranch is enclosed with one continuous fence about twelve feet high, set on solid rock on land, and on sunken piers in the water. The chief difficulty is in the construction of the water fence as the ice breaks the wire in the spring. It is proposed to prevent this by dropping a plank fence three feet wide into the piers to protect the wire during the icy season. In the spring the planks will be removed. Not more than a dozen feet of the margin of Lac Chaud are included within the fence. To prevent the escape of mink under the fence, a wide carpet (of) wire is turned in on the lake bottom. To prevent high climbing, a strip of sheet iron a foot wide is fastened halfway up the fence. There is also an overhang of iron."

Evidently this ranch didn't last long. The list of Quebec ranches as of April 1, 1914, does not show its name. Another 'no show' was the Colony Plan. Walter Jones says "no ranches of this type (the colony plan) were examined, but proof that such exist was furnished by owners who did not wish to reveal to the public (he methods they used. The promoters of this method claim to be highly successful and have given considerable study to the habits of mink. a fact which is proved by their intelligent discussions of mink ranching problems.

"The chief difficulties appear to be in securing the first litter from the wild animals and in getting suitable food. The wild mink is usually wholly unsusceptible to domestication or even semi-domestication. They frequently kill themselves by hanging, cutting their throats or beating their heads against a wall. Most of them will commit suicide or die of fear on the near approach of a dog. These facts have been corroborated in the experience of 1912, a large proportion of wild minks having died while being shipped and a large number of those caught for ranching purposes being found dead, sometimes badly cut or lacerated.

"If the young are taken from the mother as early as possible - say six or seven weeks old - in Eastern Canada about June 15 - they become very tame and according to the advocates of this new method of ranching, can be reared in family colonies afterwards. A colony house, or large box, can be provided and a considerable runway or paddock may extend in front to include a portion of a stream.

"The Single Pen Method of ranching mink which has been used almost exclusively in America is one that employs a small pen for each animal. The two largest establishments visited in 1912, consisted of an ordinary barn about twenty feet wide and thirty feet long. The walls were open under the eaves to make the interior as airy as possible. On either side of a central alleyway were pens about four feet wide and eight feet long, provided with a nest box on a slight elevation and having a crooked passage for entrance. Water ran through troughs at the end of the pens or was pumped in daily. The partitions were of wire above and boards near the floor. If wire is used for the walls, an overhang is necessary to prevent climbing out, or the wire might be made to extend over the pens completely. Very little light is required, as the mink usually sleeps during the day.

"Mink can be reared in such pens, but there are grave doubts of the permanency of the good health of the animals. In a Nova Scotia ranch, there was no difficulty in rearing an average of three and a half (kits) to the litter. The young minks had litters of from two to four and the older breeders sometimes had six. With such satisfactory results, when every pair raised could be sold for $40.00 and food could be procured freely, it is inconceivable why the development of the business did not proceed. The managers were continually selling off their stock and capturing more wild ones. They also admitted that they would not again use board floors for mink, but would have pens enclosing a large area of ground. From these facts, it may readily be concluded that there were considerable difficulties of some kind."

At this late date, we have an advantage over J. Walter Jones. We know how these and similar ventures panned out. But the thing that amazes us was the ability he showed in sorting through all the old wives tales and crazy theories to arrive at conclusions that are not too different from those we hold today.

The Natural Plan, where man plays mother nature to a few acres of enclosed land, was tried in several places. The story was always the same. Every year they added more wild-caught breeding stock, but somehow the population did not grow. Some mink escaped but most died or were killed by the more aggressive members of the group. Because the ground was rough, with many hiding places, the owners were not aware of these losses.

When these businesses went bankrupt or were wound up in disgust, few live mink were found in the enclosure. This led to accusations of theft that usually were unsubstantiated. The fact, that should have been evident, was that the mink was a solitary animal in the wild which marked out and defended its territory against other mink with great vigour. Put a number of these fighting machines in an enclosed area and only the winners survived. For the dreamer and the promoter, what was a beautiful theory became a disastrous plan, or more accurately, an unplanned disaster.

The promoters using the colony method learned immediately the savage nature of the mink. With no place to hide, the victims were very evident. No wonder J. Walter Jones couldn't secure permission to view this type of ranch, or should we say battlefield. You recall J. Walter referring to "their intelligent discussions of mink ranching problems." We are intrigued by the thought of mink committing suicide by "beating their heads against a wall" and we might even accept the fact that under some accidental situations mink might `"kill themselves by hanging;" but we refuse to believe that a mink could cut its own throat. We think that Walter was fortunate not to visit such premises with owners so pre-occupied with suicide.

The Single Pen System prospered and continues today as the method of choice. Of course, the modern pen is very much smaller and is a wire cage off the ground. The board and ground floored pens became filthy, harboured parasites and spoiled the colour and condition of the mink's coat. They were abandoned except for a brief period during and shortly after the birth of the litter when there was a danger of losing young mink through the wire.

J. Walter Jones' puzzlement as to why "the managers were continually selling off their stock and capturing more wild ones" is easily explained. Mink accustomed to captivity were more docile and productive. The demand was for ranch-raised youngsters and proved adult breeders. Shrewd ranchers knew that they could take wild mink, settle them down and the next year, sometimes the next week, move them out as ranch-raised animals. Thus many of the successful early ranches were a busy pipeline from the wild to the tame with a little halt for conversion and not much conversion during the halt.

The ranch of Davis and Swaim at McIntosh, near Sioux Lookout in North Western Ontario, listed in Fur Farming in Canada 1914, started in 1913 according to an advertisement by A. E. Swaim in the thirties. More about this ranch will be found in the Ontario chapter.

Stephen Poliquin reports that George A. Bullis of Rock Island, Quebec started ranching in 1913 with wild Quebec mink secured from trappers in the northern part of the province. Nelson Waldron, in a 1944 interview said that Stanstead Fur Farm, George Bullis' ranch, bought mink from him in 1913. Other interesting information on this ranch will be found in the Quebec chapter.

We know there were at least ninety mink ranchers in existence in Canada on April 1st, 1914. We know the dates on which six of them began ranching, but, sadly, eighty-four have left no such record. Less than twenty survived the disruption of World War I to assist in the rebirth of the mink business in the early 1920s.


Author: Webmaster - jkcc.com
"Date Modified: October 6, 2023."

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