top of page


by Farley Wuth, Curator,
Kootenai Brown Pioneer Village
Copyright, Pincher Creek & District Historical Society

A history of the ranching industry in southwestern Alberta would not be complete without a look at the “Bar A” Ranch, an old-time operation situated northeast of Cowley.


Geographically, the ranch was located on the flats along the south bank of the Oldman River, right at the point where the North Fork flows into it. Further upstream to the west, the river was referred to in the early days of this area as the Middle Fork (now the Crowsnest River). Today, much of the Bar A Ranch sits under the reservoir of the Three Rivers Dam.

From all early accounts, the ranch was situated in an eye-catching area. Pioneer visitors noted that from the ranch, there were grand vistas up both the Middle and North Forks as well as downstream along the Oldman itself. Up on the south bank, people were afforded a grand view of mountains in two directions and the Porcupine Hills to the northeast.


Originally, the Bar A Ranch would have been part of the much larger Frederick W. Godsal’s South Fork Ranch, a 20,000 acres spread, which dated back to 1883. This much larger cattle operation occupied much of the territory between the Middle and South Forks of the Oldman River. Godsal (1853 – 1935) was one of the first family ranchers in the Pincher Creek district, and was known for both his community work as well as an abiding interest in history. He sold out during the First World War, retiring to Victoria, B.C.


The ranch indeed was popular with sightseers and visitors. One such group from the ranching community of Pincher Creek motored out to the ranch the last week of September 1917 – perhaps a challenging journey itself given the primitive vehicles and roads of that frontier era. According to the press of the day, a highlight of the tour was the scenery noted at the ranch itself. Yet much of the attraction was the hospitality afforded by the ranch’s owners, Jim and Margaret Russell. They were known within the ranching district for their outgoing ways and friendly personalities. The carload of Pincher Creek visitors was treated to a mouth-watering ranch style dinner. It was bound to have pleased the entire group, hungry from their outing.

The Russells also were well known throughout southwestern Alberta for their Aberdeen Angus cattle, and over the years, had worked up a fine large herd. Their ranch, noted for its wild grasses accompanied by easy access to water, was ideal for raising cattle. The herd had been branded with the “Bar A” brand, a sample of which now is on display at the Kootenai Brown Pioneer Village. The cattle were marketed locally, and also to Lethbridge and Calgary markets via the Crowsnest branch of the Canadian Pacific Railway constructed a generation earlier. Cattle sales usually being brisk, particularly during the First War, and with the Russells’ adept agricultural management, the Bar A Ranch was an economic success.

Jim and Margaret Russell raised two brothers, the McKenzie boys. The youngsters attended the Tennessee School, located on the north side of the Oldman River and just east of the North Fork. Originally opened in April 1910, the one room frame country school operated until 1933, and then from 1945 through June 1951. During the dozen years in which the school was closed, students near the Russsells would have attended school in Cowley while some of the more northerly students may have attended the Tanner School, the next rural school located along the North Fork.

The Russells operated their Bar A Ranch for many years to come. Margaret Russell is buried here in Pincher Creek.

Much of the Bar A's past is embedded in local folklore – while we know some of the developments associated with this spread, we always are looking for more details. If anyone knows more of its history, please drop by or give us a call at the Kootenai Brown Pioneer Village.

bottom of page