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The War Years

Mink. Mink. In an earlier chapter we said that the only reason for the mink live-stock sales was the spectacular success of the silver fox industry. At this time we'll try and describe the silver fox bonanza, which reached its peak in 1914, and its improbable but true statistics. The silver fox was a naturally occurring mutation of the wild red fox. It was not a rarity as some would have you believe: The Hudson's Bay Company's wild collection was just under one thousand pelts a year from 1850 to 1900 when the first ranch-raised pelts were offered. In price, the silver fox pelt was much higher than other furs, about five times its nearest competitor. But the romantic stories of the `trappers dream' - a silver fox pelt that would put him on easy street for the rest of his life - were ridiculous.

Dalton and Oulton the pioneers who put fox raising on a commercial basis were trying to get red foxes to breed in captivity with little success until they secured wire netting and built outside pens in 1896. By this time they had added silver foxes and their separate operations started to show a small profit. They surrounded their affairs with great secrecy, shipping their pelts direct to London, England for sale and fending off neighbours who wanted to buy breeding stock and get expertise. So successful were they that while some people secured wild-caught foxes and started on their own, only fourteen silver fox ranches are recorded in 1909 in P.E.I.

Then the lid blew off. Dalton, Oulton and the rest sold young silver fox pups at $3000 a pair. There were far more potential buyers than silver foxes and the prices escalated rapidly to $16,000 a pair in 1913. Fur Farming in Canada notes there were 200 fox farms in P.E.I. in 1912. They carried six hundred and fifty silvers and one thousand, one hundred and fifty reds, crosses and hybrid reds. The pressure to buy silver foxes continued to mount resulting in two interesting developments.

First was the purchase of options to buy foxes yet unborn. J. Walter Jones describes how it works "Because of the keen demand for breeding stock, it has been customary to sell options for future delivery. Usually, the options are taken on the unborn pups, and ten per cent of the price agreed upon is paid when the options are taken. Time of delivery is made the essence of the contract and, if the rancher has not as many pups as he has sold options for, the orders are filled consecutively, i.e., the earliest orders are filled first. In case delivery cannot be made, the agreement provides that the deposit must be returned with six per cent interest per annum. Then 1913, as in 1912, options were sold on more pups than could be delivered."

It sounds simple but its effect was turbulent. By selling options on next year's crop the ranchers converted it into `pieces of paper' that could be immediately bought and sold. Smart businessmen, who had no intention of being fox ranchers, bought options early and often. There was a very active market in these `pieces of paper' whose price increased every time they were sold. Often the final purchaser paid almost as much for the option as he was required to pay the fox rancher to fulfil the agreement.

The second development was based on the theory if you can't buy a whole silver fox buy a piece of one'. This was accomplished by buying shares in the incorporated fur farming companies that were springing up as if by magic. Fur Farming in Canada 1914 lists in P.E.I. one hundred and ninety-six incorporated fur farms capitalized from $3000 to one million dollars though most were less than one hundred thousand. J. Walter Jones in a note at the end of the list says "Probably not over sixty per cent of the authorized capital has been issued. It is also to be noted that a considerable number of companies failed to float."

The ones that `floated' paid astonishingly high dividends until World War I ended the boom. Austin Scales told me that he invested $3000 in a Bedeque fox company early in the boom and his dividends were never less than $6500 a year. The madness of this wild scramble for equity in the silver fox business becomes more apparent when you realize that the largest of these incorporated fox companies had no more than five pairs of breeders and the majority much less.

The December 1914 issue of the Silver Black Fox devoted a page to these earnings under the heading of 1914 Dividends Paid and Declared. "The most interesting feature of any business, at least to the stockholder, is the payment of dividends. Taking it as a whole the fox companies have paid and will pay good substantial dividends this year. Because extensions were given in many instances to purchasers of foxes, companies have had to pay in instalments. From the information at hand, we are assured that the stockholders in the various fox companies are more than satisfied with the dividends they are receiving, at a time when almost every other form of investment is not paying at all. We give below a list of the companies that have so far either paid or declared dividends; we learn, however, that quite a number more will pay their dividends after the first of the year.

The Murray Harbour Black Fox Co. - 30% and expects to be able to pay a further amount of 30 to 35% shortly.
The Provincial Silver Black Fox Co. - 40%, and promises a further dividend of 40% before the year is out.
The Richmond Bay Fox Co. - 20%, and will pay a further amount in a short time.
The Spring Park Black Fox Co. - 10%, and will pay more at a later date.
The Pure Canadian Silver Black Fox Co. - 40%, and announce 35% in stock.
The Rayner International Fur Co., Ltd., have paid 20% and will pay a further amount of 20%.
The B. I. Rayner Black Fox Co., of West Gore, N.S. - 105%. The Rayner Clark and Harlow Co., Bridgetown, N.S. - 20%.
The Rayner Stonehurst Silver Fox Co. - 200%.
The R. J. McNeil Black and Silver Fox Co., have paid 50% in cash and 50% in stock.
The Royal Silver Black Fox Co., Ltd., - 110%.
The Mount Edward Silver Black Fox Co., have paid 10% and announce 10% to 20% more to be paid soon.
General Fur Farms, Ltd., paid 12%. 12% more will be paid soon. New London Black Fox and Farm Lands Co., Ltd - 200% and expect to pay 200% more.
The Willow Hill Co., Ltd., have paid 25%.
The Crapaud Fox Co. - 40%.
The Silver Tip Fox Co. paid 15% cash and have added three pairs to their reserve.
The Westmorland Silver and Patch Fox Co. - 35% cash and 70% in Stock.
The Upton Silver Black Fox Co. - 10% and will pay more later. The Magic Silver Black Fox Co. paid 50% in cash and 100% in stock.
The Tantramar Black Foxes Ltd. paid 150%.
The Diamond Silver Black Fox Co. paid 30% and has one male fox to add to reserve.
The Rogers Paton Silver Black Fox Co., 10% and will pay more later.
The Seal River Silver Black Fox Co. has paid 16%.
The Carruthers Silver Black Fox Co. has paid 30% and expects to pay 80% more.
The Sovereign Silver Black Fox Co., - 15%.
The Peerless Silver Black Fox Co. paid 10% and will pay a further amount January 1st.
The Ellis River Black Beauty Fox Co. paid 60% and announce 60 to 70% more later.
The Hackett Silver Black Fox Co., have paid 15% and added two foxes to their reserve.
The Taylor's Silver Black Fox Co. - 25%, and will pay 25% later. The Charlottetown Silver Black Fox Co. - 15%, and added ten foxes to their ranch as a reserve.
The Dundas Silver Black Fox Co. paid 300% in cash and 200% in stock.
The Freeland Silver Black Fox Co. paid 50% in stock.
The Black Prince Fox Co. - 50%.
The Prince Albert Silver Black Fox Co. paid 10% with more to follow.
The Bedeque Black & Silver Fox Co. paid 150%.
The Silver Fox Ranching Co. paid 20% and will pay more later. The Regal Silver Black Fox Co., 16%.
The Bedeque Fur Farming Co., Ltd., 10%.

It comes as no surprise that the fever engendered by these extraordinary silver fox profits spread to other fur hearers. The 1914 list of incorporated fur farms in P.E.I. includes St. Eleanor's Mink Ranching Co. Ltd. capitalized at $10,000 and Tryon Mink and Fur Trading Co. Ltd. at $3,000. The Young (Dr C. C.) Karakul Sheep Co. Ltd. at $150,000 also made the list, but the most intriguing variation to me was the Silver Fox and Cup Oysters of Malpequc Ltd. with a capitalization of $95,000.

Individuals were offering beaver, muskrats, marten, fisher, raccoon, skunk, blue, white, cross and red foxes as well as mink, as breeding stock. The skunk and raccoon prospered in captivity but their owners didn't. Both ate more than their pelts were worth and few people could be enticed to pay the higher breeding stock prices. Raccoons and skunks were not native to P.E.I. and had no natural enemies. A skunk that escaped and those that were voluntarily released by disillusioned skunk fanciers gave rise to an abundant, fragrant population. From 1931 to 1964, the Prince Edward Island government paid a $1 bounty on skunks totalling $126,000.00. To claim it, all that was necessary was the skunk's snout. It was a popular campaign, and each succeeding year greater numbers of snouts were cashed until it was realized that there was no lessening of the varmint population. While suggested, there was no proof of a lively import trade in skunk snouts from other provinces.

The first advertisement for mink that we have found was in the December 1914, issue of the Silver Black Fox "Mink supplied for companies and private ranches at reasonable rates. I can supply them in pairs or will construct, equip and stock a ranch on your property ready for breeding and producing litters next spring. John Downham, Strathroy, Ontario."

The first article on mink raising was by Austin Scales and it appeared in the January 1915 issue of the Silver Black Fox under the title of Mink Ranching, a Profitable Business. We quote this thoughtful, well-written article in its entirety.

"The public have been awakening during recent years to the fact that minks can be bred and raised in captivity. Ranches are now being successfully operated in nearly every Province of the Dominion and many parts of the United States. He is a very sceptical person who, after thoroughly investigating the business, doubts that we have with us an industry which will grow and develop as time goes on and which will compare favourably from a financial standpoint with many well-established industries in Canada. In the following, I shall give an outline of the construction and general management of a mink ranch and the business as I see it. These opinions are based on several years' experience in raising, buying and selling these animals.

"The mink fur is commonly known to be one of the most durable on the market. This, combined with its beauty, is bound to keep it among the popular furs. Hence, there will be a continuous demand. The yearly production of mink skins is over one-half million, nearly all of which comes from North America. The supply has been steadily falling off for many years because of persistent trapping while prices have been increasing. In future, the supply derived from trapping will continue to decrease while the demand there is little doubt will increase. For these reasons prices are more liable to increase than decrease.

"Fur of the highest quality can be produced in a ranch because through the careful selection and proper feeding one can produce minks of a high standard and can kill them when the fur is at its best and without any injury to it. The skins which have been put on the market in the past have been obtained by the trapper or hunter who would kill the animal whenever he got the opportunity and usually injure the skin in doing so.

"Dairying, with which I shall compare mink raising, is one of the most important industries in Canada. The average amount obtained per cow from the production of milk is about $30. The average production per female mink at a ranch where enough information or experience has been obtained to operate it with ordinary success is four or more. (It is only a matter of time when this information will be obtained as readily as it is for the production of milk). The price of late years for trapped skins has a range of from five to ten dollars. Four skins at the average price of seven and one-half dollars means $30. The average returns, therefore, from one pair of minks is equal to the average returns from a dairy cow. The cost of food required for one pair of minks and their young is trifling to that required for the cow, while the labour expended to care for the latter will care for many pairs of minks. The profits must be much greater.

"In starting a mink ranch it is important to select a suitable situation. Perhaps the most satisfactory is near a shore, river or pond where fish for the feeding of minks can be obtained throughout the year with little trouble, and where a small stream of water will flow naturally through the pens. Water to bathe in is preferred but is not essential, which is contrary to general opinion. Minks can do without it fully as well as the duck or the goose.

"Many different plans can be given for the construction of a ranch. Here is one which is efficient, convenient and cheap. Build a house eight feet wide with seven-foot posts and five and a half foot rafters and length according to the number of pens required. Board up and down with battens over the cracks. A warm house is not required merely plenty of fine dry hay or grass in the next box. Put a door at one end and enough small windows along the sides to light the building. Make the floor about one foot from the ground to keep water out during spring freshets. Make it of concrete or two tiers of boards. Board up on the inside of the studding about two and a half feet and put in partitions four feet apart. In each apartment make a nest box fifteen inches wide and fifteen inches deep with a partition across the centre. Have the top of each on hinges so that it can be opened.

On each side of building make pens four by eight feet and three feet deep. Use boards between the pens so that the minks cannot fight. The walls of each pen should go two feet or more under the surface of the ground, according to the nature of the soil, so that the minks cannot dig out. Boards will do for this purpose. If they are creosoted they will last much longer. On the outer end of the top of each pen put hinged board covers two feet wide. Cover the remainder of the top and the outer end with one inch, seventeen gauge mesh wire. Put a water trough twelve inches wide and twelve inches deep along the lower part of the outer ends of the pens. The water supply is better shut off during the winter months. Better success has been obtained where this has been done. The pens will fill with snow through which the minks delight to tunnel.

Austin Scales pioneer mink shed in 1911. Courtesy of Fur Farming in Canada.

Austin Scales pioneer mink shed in 1911
Courtesy of Fur Farming in Canada.

"Mink eat fish, meat, bread, milk, in fact, anything a cat will cat. They do not like herring or flatfish, while cod, smelts, trout, eels and many others are very suitable. Lean is more preferable than fat meat. Feed once a day excepting while the young are being suckled when it is better to feed twice. A mink will not eat a large quantity of food at a time, but they cat often. Feed only what will be eaten up clean before the following meal.

"The mating season is between the first of March and the middle of April. Each male must be kept in a separate pen excepting during this period when he is placed with the female. The male's pen should be next to the female's pen and the male may be admitted through a hole in the partition between the pens in the house. It is much safer for an amateur to admit the male with the female for about two hours every other day and continue doing so for six weeks. Often they fight fiercely and there are many instances of the male killing the female. This, however, occurs only where the attendant is not thoroughly conversant with his work. Should the outer pens be filled with snow when the male is admitted with the female, the slides covering the holes which connect with the outer pens should be closed, fastening the mink in the house. They should be kept thus until one is satisfied that the minks agree thoroughly. Several females can be mated with the same male but this should not be attempted by beginners. Much greater success is likely to result from single mating by them.

"The young are born during the latter part of April and throughout May after being carried forty-two days. A litter consists of from two to nine small, hairless, little creatures having no use of their limbs. The young usually make considerable noise which resembles that made by young mice in a hayloft. At about six weeks of age, they open their eyes and emerge from the nest. Before they come out the mother will carry in and share her food with them. At four months old or younger remove the young to other pens. If left sucking too long the mother may weaken and die. I have taken young minks three weeks old with eyes closed and still unable to walk and raised them on a cat with her own young. She mothered them very carefully and successfully. Some mother cats, however, will not mother young minks.

"The price of live minks of late years has been far above skin prices. During the last three years, I have not sold a pair, male and female, for less than $40 and I have sold them as high as $200. As the demand for stock for breeding purposes decrease, the price will decrease until it reaches that of skins. Ranch-raised mink bring much higher prices than captured ones. The reason for this is that a large percentage of wild minks die and few of those that do live breed in captivity, probably because of the sudden change in their state of living. Females bring higher prices than males because one male will serve several females and that the majority of captured minks are males, they being bolder and more easily trapped.

"One, to make a successful mink rancher, should be intelligent, careful and observing. He should study the habits of the animal and obtain all the information possible. And by deriving benefit from the experience of others and by having some experience, one should fit himself to successfully operate a ranch and please the most critical."
Austin Scales

The May 1915 issue of the Silver Black Fox rewarded us with the following four advertisements on mink. Holt Renfrew Co., Baude Street, Quebec City offered mink breeding stock but didn't say whether they were ranching them or procuring them from the wild. F. H. Copp, Port Elgin, New Brunswick, an important silver fox rancher then and later, offered options on mink. This was the only occasion that mink options were offered that we have found. Edgar Laliberte operated a fur farm at Raith, Ontario and offered "proven breeder mink" as well as marten, fisher, silver and cross foxes.

But the most interesting of all was the advertisement documenting the only early Western Canada mink ranch. "The Winnipegosis Fox Ranch Ltd. Ranch bred mink and foxes, Winnipegosis, Manitoba. From this year's litters of mink, we still have fifty pairs for sale. Price $50 per pair, shipping crate $2. extra. Apply to J. P. Grenon." In Fur Farming in Canada 1914, J. P. Grenon is listed under the general term of fur farmer. In the October 1944 issue of the Canadian Silver Fox and Fur, Wallace R. Waters says "I have a photograph, taken by myself, of an eighty pen mink unit, shed in western Canada in 1914." We think this photograph must be of the Winnipegosis mink shed and if so, it would have been one of the largest, if not the largest mink operation in Canada at that time.

In the January 1916 issue of the Silver Black Fox and several subsequent issues we found the following advertisement "Blake Vanatter Fur Farm, Georgetown, Ontario. Silver Foxes and all other kinds of fur-bearing animals. The best and most perfectly domesticated stock available." In a later issue, he claimed to have started in 1905. It is possible that he had mink but we never found any proof. He was a silver fox rancher, in his later years. Fur Farming in Canada 1914 lists him as a fur farmer. We have not listed him as a mink rancher.

Several pages of the February 1916 issue of the Silver Black Fox were devoted to a general fur auction put on in New York by the New York Fur Auction Sales. "The largest number of fur buyers ever assembled in one place to attend a fur auction sale was seen Tuesday, January 25, 1916, in the Grand Lodge room of the Masonic Hall, 46 West 24th Street, New York City. This room has a seating capacity of twelve hundred and it was filled to the limit. This is an attendance three or four times as great as is usually seen in London or St. Louis."

There is a full-page posed picture of this large group. When you look at the sea of unsmiling, soberly and somewhat identically garbed gentlemen, you are reminded not so much of an undertakers convention as you are of the mortician's art in embalming people in an upright sitting position. This was not a good omen for the nine thousand, five hundred and forty wild mink pelts when that portion of the sale opened "Mink was the next article to be sold; there were fewer buyers in the salesroom when this article was opened, and it was evident that the long-awaited interest in mink had not materialized to a sufficient extent to cause a boom in this article."

You must give the editor marks for trying, but words fail when you look at the figures. The top mink bundle brought $4.50; a few bundles were in the $3-4 range but much of the better quality offering sold in the neighbourhood of $2. Remember, the United States was not at war at this time. With livestock sales gone there was no encouragement for the mink rancher to produce pelts at these prices.

A letter to the editor in the July 1916 issue of the Silver Black Fox, while, not Canadian, illustrates the gung-ho attitude that prevailed in the fur farming business at that time. "Mr W. G. Gates of Spokane, Washing-ton, who is the owner of the North Idaho Mink and Marten Co., writes that this company is the outgrowth of the government experiment that has been carried on for some time at Prichard, Idaho. In his letter he says: We know what we are talking about when we say `mink farming'. We are going to pay as big dividends as the fox companies have paid. There are several men holding fox stock around here who have received their original investment back several times over and are still drawing good dividends. We don't envy your fox farmers their wonderful success, but we are going to beat their record now with mink and marten."

In the August 1916 issue of the Silver Black Fox were two interesting advertisements. `"For Sale: Extra dark ranch raised mink and fisher. Thoroughly domesticated and proved productive strain. Ranch in Ontario. Address correspondence to J. B. Lewis, Owosso, Michigan, U.S.A." We have been unable to identify the Ontario location of this ranch. The other advertisement was "Graham Bros, R.R. #1, Strathroy, Ontario. We are now prepared to offer our entire crop of Silver Black and high grade patched fox pups at prices that will appeal to anyone who wishes to get established in this lucrative industry at exceptionally safe prices. Our stock is bred from prolific strains and not inbred. Also, a few pairs of ranch-raised fisher, marten and mink. Interested parties will be welcome to inspect our stock at our ranches at Strathmore and Komoka."

One of the brothers was D. L. Graham who in the thirties became a fur feed salesman for Kellogg's Hextite. In a company announcement in the May 1938 issue of the Canadian Silver Fox and Fur, we note "Mr. (D. L.) Graham, who resides in Strathroy, Ontario, has been intimately associated with the fur business for the last thirty years." While Graham Bros are not listed in Fur Farming in Canada 1914, we believe they were in the fox business at a very early date.

We now come to what we believe was the last issue of the Silver Black Fox. It was dated October 14, 1916, and was followed by a seven-year interval devoid of Canadian mink ranching information until R. G. Hodgson launched the Fur Trade Journal of Canada in September 1923. This last issue was valuable for two items. "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." This was the first hard evidence of a ranch that some Nova Scotians believe started in 1907. There is little doubt that the above advertisement was not that of a beginner. We are inclined to accept the 1907 date and hope sometime, somewhere, to have it substantiated.

The second item gives us a chance to discuss another aspect of the fur business that was common in those days. "Standardbred silver black foxes for sale. Can ranch same if desired. Have also fisher, mink, marten and beaver, and an up-to-date new fox ranch for sale, two and one-half miles from Charlottetown. J. B. Rombough, Charlottetown, P.E.I."

This man was a stockbroker in the most realistic sense of the word. He was not listed as an early fur farmer because his business was not raising animals, he acted as a selling agent for many ranches. He not only sold animals and ranch real estate but also bought and sold options and sold fur farming company shares to investors. There were many like him in those clays.

In the December 1914 issue of the Silver Black Fox there is the following news item "Mr George D. DeBlois and Mr John B. Rombough of the Royal Investment Exchange of Charlottetown, P.E.I., lately made a trip to several cities in the United States in the interests of the fox industry. Mr DeBlois is quite enthusiastic over the outlook and stated that a growing interest was being manifested in all sections of the country. He secured a large number of applications for stock in the company his exchange is handling."

Eleven years later in an advertisement in the August 1927 issue of the Canadian Silver Fox News we find J. B. Rombough listed as a silver fox breeder in Niagara Falls, N.Y. He was offering the Rombough Mouth Clamp, a device designed to make pilling of foxes for worms easier. The cost was $10.

World War I made mink ranching so unprofitable that only the odd diehard retained any breeding stock. Some who pelted out returned in the early twenties to take part in the rebirth of the industry. This time the mink breeding business spread throughout Canada and we are forced to change our format. We will now tell the history of each province separately to avoid confusion. The stories of organizations, shows, research and publications will be treated in later chapters.


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