When the Montana cattle industry began to thrive in the aftermath of the American civil war, and the extension of railways to the western states, many cattle barons began to extend their activity north of the 49th Parallel. Sensitive to the encroachment of American influence in western Canada, the Dominion government took several measures to ensure the “Canadianization” of this region. A Department of the Interior was formed to oversee developments on the central prairies, a North-west Mounted Police force was formed to establish law and order, and a Dominion Lands Act was passed to see to the orderly disposition of Crown lands to British subjects, or those who would agree to become British subjects. Plans were also put in place to extend a transcontinental railway through the region.
Another measure taken by the government to ensure the loyalty of the region to Canada was to encourage a ranching industry in the western foothills, with capital to be provided by eastern Canadian and British entrepreneurs. For such Canadian or British cattle companies, vast tracts of land would be set aside as grazing leases. By the early 1880’s, much of the southern foothills of what was to become Alberta was therefore given over to a few major cattle companies, including the Cochrane, Winder, Walrond, Northwest, Quorn, Stewart and Stinson Ranches. Their success depended to a great extent on the arrival of the CPR, which reached the site of Fort Calgary in 1883.
Another major ranching operation was founded in 1882 by Alexander Staveley Hill, a Conservative Member of the British House of Commons, backed by Lord Lathan. This was the Oxley Ranch, which came to base its operation on two vast tracts in the districts of present day Champion and Staveley, north of Fort Macleod. This ranch flourished throughout most of the 1880’s and 1890’s, and, during much of this time, its success appears to have been due to the efficient management of John Roderick Craig. An added benefit was the extension of the Calgary & Edmonton Railway from Calgary to Fort Macleod in 1892, which eliminated the necessity of making long cattle drives to Calgary.
By the end of the decade however, changes were in the air. In order to provide a greater population base in western Canada, the new Liberal government of Sir Wilfrid Laurier began to curtail the predominance of many of the large ranches by not renewing the grazing leases on much of the range land. The idea was to encourage smaller independent farms and ranches, which would specialize in mixed farming. During the early 20th century, many of the large ranches went out of business, while others saw their scope of operation severely curtailed, including the Oxley Ranch.
During its heyday, the western portion of the Oxley Ranch had based its operation from headquarters on NE14 TP13 R28 W4. On this site today there is a log house which was, no doubt, part of the Oxley Ranch operation at some point, and possibly the home of its manager, John Craig. It is located next to a trail that extended from Fort Macleod to Calgary, but which went out of use after the C & E Railway to the east saw the center of activity also shift, when railway communities like Claresholm and Staveley emerged. Near the house is a wood frame barn on a large concrete foundation built into a hillside which could also have been part of the Oxley Ranch. The buildings are also spoken of as having been part of a North-west Mounted Police detachment, which existed in the district in the late 1880’s, but was moved to Claresholm shortly after the railway came through.
The Oxley Ranch buildings provide structural evidence of one of the biggest ranching operations in the southern Alberta foothills, prior to 1900. They tell of both social and commercial activities of the ranch, and of the southern Alberta cattle industry in general during this time. The buildings are also important in being close to the original cattle trail between Fort Macleod and Calgary, which was the major thoroughfare between these two centers prior to the coming of the railway in 1892. In November 2006, they were designated a Provincial Historic Resource.
Written by: David Leonard, Historian
Visit the Alberta Register of Historic Places to learn more about the heritage value of the Leavings at Willow Creek (Oxley Ranch), near Claresholm. In order for a site to be designated a Provincial Historic Resource, it must possess province-wide significance. To properly assess the historic importance of a resource, a historian crafts a context document that situates a resource within its time and place and compares it to similar resources in other parts of the province. This allows staff to determine the importance of a resource to a particular theme, time, and place. Above, is some of the historical information used in the evaluation of the Leavings at Willow Creek.