With Canada 150 celebrations and the All Canada Sheep Classic coming to Alberta for Canada Day, when better than now to take a look back on the history of wool in Alberta. It might sound funny given Alberta’s world renowned reputation for cowboys and cattle, but the early days of colonial expansion in Alberta saw a woolen mill, and later sheep, among the first to arrive.
According to Fish Creek Provincial Park, in 1883, British pioneers Samuel and Helen Shaw arrived in the Fish Creek Valley south of Fort Calgary in the area that would soon be called Midnapore. Being quite wealthy, well educated, and prepared for almost anything, they brought with them all the equipment and training to establish a woolen mill. They could wash, card, spin, and weave up to 300 lbs of wool a day!
The one thing the Shaw family might not have anticipated is arriving prior to any sheep (or wool) in the area. The first flock of sheep did not arrive in the area, to the Cochrane Ranch, until 1884. The Cochrane Ranch Company held the original grazing lease, granted in 1881, for 109,000 acres west of Fort Calgary. After initial years of crushing losses in cattle they decided that sheep might be better suited to the area and brought in an 8000 head flock of merino and shropshire sheep from Montana. With this infusion of wool to the area the Shaw family could get to work on their mill, officially opening their doors and production in 1889 as Midnapore Woollen Mills and becoming Alberta’s first industry. Their shop on Steven Avenue in Calgary quickly became a staple in the Calgary area and an essential stopping point for folks outfitting themselves for the Yukon Gold Rush.
However, unfortunately for the sheep and wool industry in Alberta, there were some big set backs on the horizon. A “range war” raging in the US between cattlemen and shepherds (mostly extremely aggressive cattlemen who didn’t like the competition for grazing leases, terrorizing and killing shepherds and their sheep) began to carry up into Canada. While violence was mostly avoided in Canada, propaganda distributed by cattle folks claiming sheep secreted a poison from glands between their hooves that ruined pastures for cattle, made sheep an unwelcome and even unlawful addition to many homesteading areas. To make matters worse, lambs were easily lost to coyote and dog predation discouraging farmers. Then in 1917 the Shaw Mill was destroyed by fire and while new mills were established again in later years, due to concerns about synthetic fibres taking over market demand, the wool industry never really bounced back.
Of coarse today we know that sheep are excellent complementary grazing companions for cattle and that wool fibre out performs synthetic fibres hands-down for warmth, moisture handling, fire resistance, and biodegradability; an encouraging change of sentiment for those of us operating in Alberta’s oldest industry!
Grant MacEwan. 8,000 Sheep Changed Face of the Prairie. Sheep Canada: Fall 1989.
Grant MacEwan. Prejudice and Ingorance Bred The Ugly Range Wars (reprint). The Shepherd’s Journal 1997.
Alberta Parks – Fish Creek Provincial Park. The Shaw Family. www.fish-creek.org
Heritage Resources Management Information System. accessed June 2017. https://hermis.alberta.ca/ARHP/Details.aspx?DeptID=1&ObjectID=4665-0153
Collections Canada. History of Cochrane Ranch. accessed June 2017. http://www.collectionscanada.gc.ca/eppp-archive/100/200/301/ic/can_digital_collections/pasttopresent/rural_life/cochrane_ranche_history.html