Alberta Ranching History at Bar U Ranch
Bar U Ranch National Historic Site at Longview Alberta, southwest of Calgary, commemorates the history of the ranching industry in Canada.
Located on 367 acres outside of Longview Alberta, Bar U Ranch is the only National Historic Site of Canada that commemorates the history of ranching. It contains a collection of historic ranch buildings that tell the story of Bar U from 1882 to 1950, and provides historical information about ranching in Alberta. Bar U Ranch was once one of a small group of corporate ranches in Western Canada.
I learned the background of ranching in the area from an interpreter at the Round-up Camp. A round-up camp consisted of a chuckwagon, a bed roll wagon and tents. Round-ups were held twice a year for gathering cattle to be branded in the spring and for selecting those to be shipped to market in fall. The first round-up at Bar U occurred in 1884, the last in 1922. After the 1920s, round-up camps were not often used. Cattle were driven shorter distances to branding corrals built on the ranch or to railheads at Cayley or Brooks.
First Nations people occupied the area around what is now Bar U for thousands of years. Herds of bison roamed the grasslands of western Canada and were their source of food and material. After 1869, whiskey traders moved into Canada and began trading “firewater” to the First Nations people with devastating results. The newly formed North-West Mounted Police arrived to maintain law and order. After Treaty No. 7 was negotiated between the Canadian government and First Nations of southern Alberta, the government offered land leases to easterners and British citizens in order to make and keep the land Canadian. Settlers were needed to stop the land from becoming American by default. Later the government offered ranchers the opportunity to purchase a portion of their leased land. And so ranching began in southern Alberta. Bar U Ranch was selected as a historic site by Parks Canada because it had a good selection of original buildings, although many were not in great condition and needed restoration work.
The Bar U Ranch itself has a history dating back to 1881, when Fred Stimson, an experienced Quebec stockman, and the wealthy Allan family of Montreal formed the North West Cattle Company. They were granted two leases of land covering a total of 147,000 acres in southern Alberta, 15,000 acres of which were purchased when the government changed its leasing policy in 1891. Fred Stimson became the resident manager at Bar U Ranch. He set the foundation and infrastructure for the ranch.
George Lane purchased Bar U Ranch in 1902. He had arrived from Montana in 1884 and became foreman of North West Cattle Company. Under his ownership, Bar U Ranch achieved international repute. George Lane established a Percheron horse breeding operation at Bar U and kept increasing its numbers until he had the largest herd of purebred Percherons in the world. Percherons are a breed of draft horses originally from France. George Lane is most remembered as one of the “Big Four” who underwrote the first Calgary Stampede. In 1919, Edward the Prince of Wales visited the Bar U Ranch and was so impressed by the area and the cowboy life, he purchased a neighbouring ranch and named it E.P. Ranch.
George Lane died in 1925. Pat Burns, owner of a successful food empire, purchased George Lane & Co. holdings in 1927. Pat Burns died in 1937 and the Bar U Ranch came under the management of his nephew John Burns and a team of long-term employees, who introduced modern technology to the ranch.
The ranch had three different owners between 1950 and 1991: J. Allen Baker, the Wambeke family, and Melvin Nelson. In 1991, Parks Canada purchased 367 acres of the original ranch headquarters.
The cookhouse was built in 1910 after the first cookhouse burned down. It was where orders of the day were given each morning and cowboys relaxed at night. The cook had a bedroom on the main floor and full time ranch hands and chore men slept upstairs in the dormitory. There were fresh baked cinnamon rolls to sample in the kitchen when I entered. At other times, there may be cookies.
A collection of artifacts along with written information in the back of the Saddle Horse barn explain details of ranching and ranching life, from clothes and saddles to ranching chores such as “mucking out” and “jingling the horses” to leisure activities. The barn was built in 1882-1883.
Horse-drawn wagons offer rides between the Visitor Centre and the heart of the ranch buildings. Or you can walk and check out some of the buildings along the way.
The Bar U Ranch is open daily 10 am to 5 pm from May 15 to September 30. Check their website for special events. The day I visited, there was a musical mounted ride performance by the Lord Strathcona’s Horse regiment. Riders carried flags from each of Canadian’s provinces and territories. They wore World War I uniforms in honour of the 75th anniversary of the Dieppe Raid, a battle in which many Canadians lost their lives. It was a hot day and the wool jackets were quickly removed after the ride. If you want to see a bit of the ride, view the two short videos below.
There is a restaurant on-site in the Visitor Centre prior to the area of paid admission. The restaurant serves traditional ranch food, such as homemade soups, chillies and burgers, as well as salads and sandwiches. We had lunch there and the food was very good.
Bar U Ranch is 100 kilometres southwest of Calgary on Highway 22 (known as the Cowboy Trail), just south of Longview, Alberta. It is open daily from 10 am to 5 pm mid-May to the end of September.
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How utterly cool. I would love visiting the ranch and learning about this history. It would fun taking a bunch of pictures too.
Susan, it was interesting learning the history. And I love taking photos of old buildings!
This sounds like a really unique attraction. I don’t think I’ve ever come across a place devoted to the history of ranching. Makes for a good story.
Ken, it’s the first time I’ve been somewhere dedicated to ranching history.
I love those places where I can experience at least via my imagination and their information, the old West. Loved this look at ranching. There’s a museum that focuses on it near my hometown in Washington State love the old equipment and cabins.
Jackie, these places do spark the imagination, don’t they?
Very interesting to know that Canada has its own Wild West history, which as a not-very-informed American I never thought about. Thanks for the enlightenment–and the beautiful photography.
Pamela, I’m glad you enjoyed the post. There are both similarities and differences between the American and Canadian old west history. I also enjoy learn about the history of a place.
Nice to see the “other Wild West”, and to learn more about Alberta family attractions. Looks like a great side trip from Calgary!
Anita, it would make a great side trip from Calgary. There are some interesting towns along the Cowboy Trail as well.
thx for this post, Donna. I’m sure we would enjoy a tour of the Bar U Ranch, and learning about the history of ranching.
Doreen, I think you would enjoy it. I didn’t discover any chocolate connection, but maybe you would!
I remember visiting Dude Ranches in Texas as a kid. Would be interesting to learn about the history of ranching in Alberta. Thanks for sharing on #TheWeeklyPostcard.
Anisa & Katherine, thanks for stopping by. Bar U Ranch provides a good look into Canadian ranching history.
Very detailed history of the Bar U Ranch. I wonder where the name came from and if it has any meaning. It sounds kind of strange to me. I have some good friends in Calgary and I might go visit this ranch if I’ll make it there again. Alberta is so beautiful! #TheWeeklyPostcard
Anda, your question prompted me to look up how Bar U got its name. It was named after the shape of its cattle brand.
Seems like this year is the year to visit Canada. I am sure Calgary and the areas around it are full of treasures. I enjoy places like the one you are showing in here. Hope to visit one day. #TheWeeklyPostcard
Thanks Ruth. I hope you do get to visit one day.
What a cool place! (Canada as a whole just seems like such a cool place.. in more than one sense of the word!) I’ve visited ranches in the US but never one quite as old-school. Thanks for this interesting insight to life on a ranch 100 years ago!
I’m glad you found this interesting Michelle.Visiting a current ranch after going through the Bar U “museum” ranch would have made for an interesting comparison of then and now.
So nice to find living history. I visited the ranching museum in Texas last year and would love to see the Canada version.
Charles, and I would like to visit the Texas museum and compare the two histories.
I am relatively new to Texas and fascinated with the ranching industry. I really enjoyed reading about the Canadian history. Very interesting!
Thanks Marilyn. I found this history interesting too. I grew up in grain growing country – ranching is a bit different.
Sounds like a fun day! Plus, fresh made cinnamon rolls? Yummy…although, I can’t imagine the ranch hands getting such a treat. 😉 Thanks for sharing on #TheWeeklyPostcard!
RobRob, the cinnamon roll was an unexpected treat. I don’t know if the ranch hands had them, but I think they were generally fed well. The cook was an important part of the ranch.
What an interesting glimpse into history! That’s cool that while there was a musical mounted ride! That would have been awesome to see! Thanks for linking up with #TheWeeklyPostcard!
Thanks. The musical ride certainly was an added treat.
My parents were born in DeWinton and Cayley and were quite familiar with the Bar U and E P Ranches. We used to go fishing there each summer.
What part did J. D. Still and Leona May (Corneilson) Still have in the history of the Bar U and surrounding area?
I believe my grandmother, Pheobe Houlden, of Cayley, might have named my mother Lillian May Houlden after her friend Leona May Still.
The Stills are mentioned in a Heritage Ranching Family Award presented by the Friends of the Bar U Historic Ranch Association on 31 January, 2009.
Any information you can share will be most appreciated.
Ronald H. Brinton, grandson of Robert Henry Houlden of Cayley.
Hi Ronald, You must have some interesting memories of Bar U. Have you been back to visit more recently? I’m afraid I can’t help you with your query about the Stills. My experience with Bar U is as an interested tourist. Perhaps someone at the Friends of the Bar U Historic Ranch Association can help. See http://www.friendsofthebaru.com/contacts_links.htm
Thanks for your reply.
I will contact them directly.
I enjoyed reading some of the history on ranching in Canada. I came across your site because I just heard a story from my grandfather about how my great grandfather traveled by train from Windsor to work at Bar Heart Ranch in Alberta for a couple summers during the depression to earn a living. I was able to get a glimpse of what he might have been doing during that time and I think that’s pretty neat! Thank you!