Annual rancher’s dinner still continues to connect

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Ahead of the Heard

Much has changed in the ranching community over the past 100 years. In the early days there were indeed cattle barons and well-established ranching families that controlled countless thousands of acres of range land and cattle in central and southern Alberta. Nowadays the old cattle barons have changed from being actual ranchers to being big-time cattle feedlot barons who buy, sell, and move countless thousands of cattle worth millions at the punch of a computer key. It seems the modern cattle business has also lost much of the old romance.

But through all the changes many of the old ranching families are still around raising cattle, managing their ancestral range lands and trying to make a living just like always. It’s certainly not as easy as it used to be, what with changing markets, exasperating regulations and busybody government policy. It remains ironic that ranches with land values in the millions still see some family members having to work off the ranch to make a living. But I digress.

Through all the changes and generations there is an event that brings out the southern Alberta cattle business establishment and long time ranching families. The long-time event is steeped in tradition and history, it’s the annual Old Time Range Men’s dinner held at the Palliser Hotel in Calgary. This year’s event was the 80th edition of the dinner which was originally hosted by the Canadian Pacific Railway. Hugh Lynch-Staunton, who’s family are longtime dinner attendees, said, “ It was started as a sort of customer appreciation event by the CPR.”

Back in the early days of ranching in what is now Alberta, the CPR every year transported livestock and horses by the hundreds of thousands on rail cars to markets in eastern Canada and the USA. Cattle were also shipped by rail from the foothills to summer pastures in other areas. The old Calgary Stockyards was a major marketing and railway shipping point. South of Calgary at Cayley, the CPR maintained extensive yards that annually received thousands of head of cattle and sheep that were trailed in from the large ranches along the foothills. Transporting livestock was a major source of income for the CPR and the annual dinner was their appreciation for all the business ranchers provided. However, by the 1960’s trucks had taken over most livestock transportation, and railways all across North America were out of that business by 1970.

The demise of their livestock transportation business caused the CPR to cease sponsorship of the annual dinner. However, because it had become such a traditional annual event its operation has been run by an organizing committee ever since. This year’s committee was composed of Harvey Buckley (chairman), Dr. Brian Edge, Roy Clark, Jason Edworthy and John Douglas.

Part of the event is to honour individuals that have through dedication, resilience, or other service contributed to the wellbeing of the cattle ranching business. This year’s honourees were Sherm Ewing, Ken McKnight and Ed Mattheis. Event chairman Buckley said in noting their contribution, “These are the range men that our industry is all about.”

The annual event attracted over 250 participants, including many members of families that have ranched in Alberta for over 100 years.. The dinner has traditionally been an all-male event since its beginnings.Wives, widows and other female family members hold a separate dinner event at the same time in the Palliser Hotel. As one would expect the all-female event tends to be better organized.

Attendees at the dinner included three generation family members, which bodes well for the future of the ranching community at least on the surface. I expect that even well-established ranching families are under pressure just to stand still and the future may not be all that secure. But in retrospect that may well have been the same situation for many of their ancestors.

They too suffered market and weather disasters in the 1930s and disease disasters in the 1950s (foot and mouth, brucellosis). History tends to repeat itself with each generation.

Through it all the Old Time Range Men’s dinner was one of the few annual events that connected ranchers with each other. It still does today and I am sure it will continue in the years to come.

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