The conservation of Circle L Ranch

Written by: Fraser Shaw, Heritage Conservation Advisor

If you’ve ever driven down the beautiful Cowboy Trail, chances are you’ve driven by at least a few historic ranches. Some of these ranches, like Bar U and E.P., have been operating for over a hundred years.

Another of those ranches is the Circle L Ranch, started by a storekeeper from Salt Lake City in the late 1800s. The site recently underwent a restoration project to help ensure historic small-scale ranching in remained intact and accessible. The ranch is a Provincial Historic Resource and an excellent example of an early family-run ranch in southern Alberta.

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Circa 1890 view of Circle L Ranch, looking north. The Spring House is faintly visible among the small log buildings at the centre of the photograph. Source: Lucas family.

Established in 1896 by Charles Lyndon in the Porcupine Hills west of Claresholm, Circle L (or Lucasia) Ranch features log and wood frame buildings and landscape features clustered around a spring. The spring provided a crucial, reliable year-round water supply. One of the earliest buildings is the small log “Spring House” that straddles the spring-fed stream. A wood trough leads water through the building and helps chill the interior, even in summer, for the storage of perishable foods. Small items are kept in a wood cupboard while game is hung from hooks on the roof purlins.

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The Spring House in 2014, before conservation of the log structure. Used to store perishable foods, the building straddles the spring-fed creek. The wet site contributed to extensive rot of the lower logs and twisting of the structure. Source: Historic Resources Management Branch.

Over many years, rot of the lower logs at vulnerable spots like window openings caused the building to settle and twist, eventually making the door unusable. In 2014, owners Judy Lucas and her late husband Wayne embarked on an extensive program to conserve the centrepiece of their home and historic site. All logs were identified with tags and the building was disassembled so that rotted material could be extracted and replaced with matching new timber in the protection of an adjacent Quonset. Logs were reassembled in the original sequence and the structure was returned to the original site on a new foundation of discreetly placed screw piles. The piles were introduced to keep the logs out of the stream bed, to prevent decay of the timber, and to secure the building from torrential floods from the hills above. The log repairs were carried out with traditional materials and skills, from the sourcing and tooling of local timber to filling of the gaps with “daubing” of lime, horsehair from the ranch, and clay-rich mud from a nearby creek.

Logs with extensive lower rot were tagged for identification and the structure was carefully disassembly for repairs in a nearby Quonset. Source: JJD Contracting Ltd.
Logs with extensive lower rot were tagged for identification and the structure was carefully disassembly for repairs in a nearby Quonset. Source: JJD Contracting Ltd.
Similar to when the structure was originally built, Lodgepole pine logs were harvested from the surrounding Porcupine Hills. The logs were allowed to dry or season for one year before use. Source: Historic Resources Management Branch.
Similar to when the structure was originally built, Lodgepole pine logs were harvested from the surrounding Porcupine Hills. The logs were allowed to dry or season for one year before use. Source: Historic Resources Management Branch.
Reassembly of the Spring House using tags to retain the original log sequence, with seasoned new timber scribed, cut and tooled to match the historic construction of squared logs with half-dovetail joints. Although each joint is uniquely fitted to the adjacent logs, elements from the disassembled structure relaxed and made reassembly with the original logs more challenging. Source: JJD Contracting Ltd.
Reassembly of the Spring House using tags to retain the original log sequence, with seasoned new timber scribed, cut and tooled to match the historic construction of squared logs with half-dovetail joints. Although each joint is uniquely fitted to the adjacent logs, elements from the disassembled structure relaxed and made reassembly with the original logs more challenging. Source: JJD Contracting Ltd.
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Sample of historic, probably original, daubing used to fill large gaps between the logs and keep out the elements. The material was analyzed by dissolving in a mild acid—the so-called acid digestion method—which identified lime, sand, clay and strands of horsehair “temper”. Source: Historic Resources Management Branch.
Mock-ups of daubing are tested for appearance, shrinkage and strength using various mixtures of lime hydrate with sand and clay from creeks and embankments at the ranch. The bottles at the upper right corner allow sediments to settle out to determine proportions of silt, clay, sand and organic matter and determine sand grading and colour. Sand is an important determinant of appearance in daubing and mortars. Traditional daubing is authentic, time-tested, and has physical properties that help draw moisture from the timber and contribute to long-term conservation of the logs. Source: Historic Resources Management Branch.
Mock-ups of daubing are tested for appearance, shrinkage and strength using various mixtures of lime hydrate with sand and clay from creeks and embankments at the ranch. The bottles at the upper right corner allow sediments to settle out to determine proportions of silt, clay, sand and organic matter and determine sand grading and colour. Sand is an important determinant of appearance in daubing and mortars. Traditional daubing is authentic, time-tested, and has physical properties that help draw moisture from the timber and contribute to long-term conservation of the logs. Source: Historic Resources Management Branch.
The Spring House upon completion of the conservation work in July 2019, with the horse watering trough reconstructed from fragments of the earlier element. Well-concealed screw pile supports keep the timbers just out of the creek bed and secure the structure in the event of torrential floods from the hills. Source: Historic Resources Management Branch.
The Spring House upon completion of the conservation work in July 2019, with the horse watering trough reconstructed from fragments of the earlier element. Well-concealed screw pile supports keep the timbers just out of the creek bed and secure the structure in the event of torrential floods from the hills. Source: Historic Resources Management Branch.

The conservation project was completed in July 2019 thanks to the commitment of the Lucas family, grant assistance from the Alberta Historical Resources Foundation, and the careful work and expertise of Joe Madarasz, Jim Chinnick and the team at JJD Contracting. The Spring House straddles the spring-fed stream and is used today as it was originally by its builder, Charles Lyndon.

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