The agricultural centre circa 1900-16

by Esther Darlington MacDonald

  • Jan. 17, 2011 4:00 p.m.

by Esther Darlington MacDonald

The agricultural industry was alive and well at Hat Creek Ranch prior to the First World War and afterwards, while Vancouver brewer, Charles Doering owned the property.

Looking at Historic Hat Creek Ranch today, it is impossible to imagine the tremendous activity that made the property such an important regional resource under the direction of that very successful business man. Doering had been one of the first of Vancouver’s brewers. He made his fortune in that small coastal city while it was still logging its perimeters and even some of its interior. When he decided to retire, and bought the Hat Creek Ranch, it is obvious, that Doering didn’t see himself as just another country gentleman. The German born brewer simply turned his energies into making the Ranch as economically viable as he had made his brewery.

Careful examination of the Hat Creek House registers uncovered enough industry to fill a village of considerable size. And indeed, the Ranch must have had no mean impact on the economic health of the South Cariboo area as a whole.

Feed crops such as oats, barley and wheat as well as hay were grown at Hat Creek, as well as vegetables and fruit. Records indicate that live boars, sows, horses and cattle were sold to neighboring ranchers. Dressed meat such as pork and beef, turkeys and chickens, were also sold to merchants in neighboring villages.

Chinese were employed as meat processors, cooks and irrigators, while general handymen and carpenters and mill workers were Caucasian, some of them immigrants from Germany.

A sawmill built just north of the ranch house produced lumber that was sold to build farm buildings such as barns and various outbuildings. A portable sawmill was probably taken into the surrounding hills to reduce the amount of time and labour it took to haul the logs.

The scope of the livestock would have required the full time labor of cowboys to herd and drive them to market, as well as the watering and feeding of stage coach and freight wagon horses in the barns at Hat Creek.

Some thoroughbred horses were also maintained at the Ranch, and they would have required special attention by experienced staff.

The building that sits in the middle of the Hat Creek valley known as the McCosh House, situated about a mile from Hat Creek House, was built by Doc English, way back in the 1870s. Doc was a Cariboo icon and race horses were the love of his life. But he ranched, too, not only in the South Cariboo, but north around the Williams Lake area. Doc was one of those personalities who carried everything from nails to bone china up the Cariboo Road from Ashcroft to Barkerville. What little we know of him is largely anecdotal, and not what you could call prime source material.

Cooks and laborers were paid about $30 per month. Their purchases from the Hat Creek store for such items as tobacco, gum boots, pails and the basics like sugar, tea, coffee, flour and such could be subtracted from their salaries. The Ranch foreman received about $75 per month.

The laborers came from a wide variety of places – the east coast, Germany, and China. They came as single men, most of them.

The Hat Creek House bar always carried a plentiful supply of liquor. And that required a bartender. Hudson Bay liquor was the dominant supplier, and the Bay also supplied many of the items the store carried. The most popular liquor sold was scotch whiskey, rum, rye whiskey, beer, and gin. During the turn of the century, a 26 oz. bottle of gin sold for $1 and whiskey sold for $1.25 a bottle.

One Hotel manager named George Blair, claimed that he drank gallons of cold tea while tending bar, and this was thought to be booze by his patrons, and greatly stimulated the consumption of the bar’s commodities.

Hat Creek House store also sold bacon by the flitch and the bacon was undoubtedly smoked on the ranch. Eggs were sold in large quantities to local merchants in Clinton and in Ashcroft. In fact, the Ranch must have been the main supplier of such goods in the years between 1900 and 1916. When you consider that the washing, and candling of eggs would have required a laborer in itself, you can imagine the other laboring duties at Hat Creek Ranch mentioned could only have created a beehive of production in several spheres.

The Chinese were engaged as irrigators from early spring to late fall. These skilled workers dug ditches, maintained them through the seasons, and made sure that the flow of water from the Bonaparte River was steady and predictable. This method of irrigation was widespread throughout the Cariboo for many years.

The Ranch appears to have done a fair amount of business supplying the road building and maintenance camps with foodstuffs and other goods. The Ranch also pastured the horses used by the government crews.

Seed potatoes and beans were sold from the store. Potatoes that were probably grown locally were purchased by the ton in many cases.

The years between 1900 to 1920 seems to have been an extremely productive and lucrative time for Hat Creek Ranch, providing employment both part-time, seasonal and full time to a good number of local folk.