#652 Mather’s ranch tales
Ranch Tales: Stories from the Frontier
by Ken Mather
Victoria: Heritage House, 2019
$19.95 / 9781772031881
Reviewed by Warren Elofson
Ken Mather’s Ranch Tales is a readable and interesting account of ranching in what is now British Columbia from the establishment of the Alkali Lake Ranch in 1861 to the twentieth century. Mather provides vivid depictions of life during the ranching frontier and the cowboys, ranchers, drovers, and traders who made an impression on the industry during this period. He gives due credit to Indigenous and mixed-race participants too, including Paul, Ken-e-ho, Antoine Allen, and Joseph George.
Ranch Tales has chapters on a rich variety of subjects including “The Ranching Frontier,” “Cowboy Culture,” “Top Hands,” “Famous Ranches,” “Ranch Women,” and even the little-known subject of “Chinese Participation in the Ranching Industry.” Each chapter is presented with a sketch by the talented country and western artist, Rob Dinwoodie of Vernon.
Mather looks closely at details such as the evolution of the saddle, cowboy boot, chaps, bull whip, quirt, chuckwagon, and the stock horse or cowpony. He provides lots of interesting facts. For instance, because so many of the early cowpunchers were Indigenous or of mixed-blood origin, it was only natural that Chinook become the most commonly spoken language of the ranches of the interior … until well after 1900” (p. 47).
There are gaps in Mather’s story. He is not interested in how the ranchers pooled their resources to protect the herds from winter weather or from predators of both the two and four-legged type. Nor does he examine seasonal breeding practices or the mistakes many ranchers made such as ploughing up the fescue and wheat grasses that nature had provided and replacing them with less suitable old-world varieties such as timothy and brome grass.
It should also be noted that Mather provides no documentation — neither footnotes nor bibliography nor even an index.
This is, however, largely a factual rather than analytical account of the history of ranching in British Columbia. It will be of more interest to the general than the academic reader. Its value is in entertainment, in Mather’s descriptions of country and western culture, and in the lives of the colourful characters who appeared in a society and period of history we still find captivating.
Warren Elofson is a professor of history at the University of Calgary. He teaches both modern British history and western North American frontier history. He has written several books on the ranching frontiers of western Canada, the western United States ,and northern Australia. His latest is Rocking P Ranch and the Second Cattle Frontier in Western Canada (University of Calgary Press, 2019), which he coauthored with Clay Chattaway, one of western Canada’s biggest and best-known cattle ranchers.
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