THE RANCHING HERITAGE OF FREDERICK W. GODSAL

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

One of the more significant figures from the history of southwestern Alberta was that of pioneer rancher Frederick W. Godsal. For thirty-five years he operated one of the largest individual ranches in this area, an impressive cattle spread between the Middle and South Forks of the Oldman River. He also was very active in community endeavors and promoted cattle interests through his involvement in several ranching organizations, particularly the Western Stock Growers’ Association. Godsal also was an early behind the scenes proponent favouring the establishment of a Dominion Park at Waterton Lakes. An avid outdoorsman, he climbed several local mountain peaks during the 1910s and also advocated the use of local or historic place names for these features. A local history buff and a well-read person, he recorded some of his memories and contributed to one of Pincher Creek’s early libraries. Yet little has been seriously written about this early community-minded settler. Even in the historical column found in the Pincher Creek Echo, only his ranching endeavours, stock association work and his ascents up Victoria Peak and Castle and Crowsnest Mountains are referred to. This biographical sketch should highlight some of the interesting events associated with Godsal’s life.

WEALTHY AND CONNECTED FAMILY

Godsal first came to the Pincher Creek area back in 1882, but both he and his family had deep roots back in England. He was born on September 10th, 1853 in Iscoyd Park, Shropshire, England, the third son and fourth child of Phillip and Charlotte (Hill) Godsal. The family was wealthy and well connected. Both his maternal and paternal ancestry can be traced back at least seven generations and include members who were aides to the Royal Family as well as Colonial Governors. Their wealth and connections played a big role in establishing our pioneer’s ranching endeavors.

F. W. Godsal was said to have been educated at both Eton and Oxford, two prestigious old-country schools. As a young adult, he travelled much of the known world and even took a turn in operating a coffee plantation in Ceylon. But it was a visit to Ottawa and Rideau Hall, the official home of the Canadian Governor-General in 1882, that sealed Godsal’s future endeavors. The Monarch’s representative in Canada during the early 1880s was none other than the Marquis of Lorne whose wife, Princess Louise, was the daughter of Queen Victoria herself and after whom Lake Louise in Banff National Park was named. Godsal and the Governor General would have known each other back in England. Complimenting the situation was the Marquis of Lorne’s intense interest in the Canadian west and the ranching possibilities that abounded here. Earlier that season, he had traveled extensively throughout the prairie frontier and was favourably impressed.

The Marquis of Lorne’s enthusiasm rubbed off on Godsal, who in turn ventured into the Canadian west with an eye out for ranching possibilities. His trip was extensive. Accompanied by James Cochrane, the son of the famed ranching Senator, Godsal traveled via the American based Union Pacific and Utah Northern Railways from Chicago to Silver Bow, Montana as the national branch of the Canadian Pacific Railway had yet to be completed. Cochrane had warned Godsal of the lawlessness of the American west, and the rough, more than 175 mile trip by stage coach to Fort Macleod was forever etched in Godsal’s memory. It was a harrowing and memorable trip which became forever etched in the young Godsal memory. Once in Canada however, Godsal received royal treatment, touring the original Cochrane Ranch along the Bow River, visiting with the McDougall Family further upstream, and finally socializing with his friend Colonel James F. Macleod and his family at Fort Macleod. This NWMP family also had a Pincher Creek area ranch, the Kyleakin.

SOUTH FORK RANCHE AND THE CATTLE HERDS

Convinced of the ranching potential of the area, Frederick W. Godsal quickly acquired half of the Garnett Brothers’ ranch that dated back to 1879, one of the earliest ranches in the area. Godsal’s family may have provided political connections in securing the Dominion based lease. This cattle operation located between the South and Middle Forks stretched from just northwest of the settlement of Pincher Creek west to the eastern entrance of the Crowsnest Pass. The original ranch may have included portions of as many as thirty sections with some land clustered together and some scattered. When the C.P.R. arrived some fifteen years later, Godsal’s spread, while still impressive, had decreased to just over 4,400 acres or seven sections of land.

In spite of being flanked by both rivers, the ranch soon became known throughout the area as the South Fork Ranche. More than six miles of the river flowed by Godsal’s property, hence its name. Casual observers noted the ranch for its picturesque beauty of rolling hills and wooded, deep canyons. But it was the abundance of open pastureland and easy access to water which made it a rancher’s true paradise.

Godsal’s newly acquired ranching expertise was invaluable. A trip back east to Ontario allowed him to purchase pedigree bulls and soon his calf crop increased significantly. One spring the increase was close to one-hundred per cent, an astonishing figure given the industry average was at best a third that amount. With his attention to proper breeding, feed and care, his cattle herd was enlarged in numbers and strengthened in general health. Local folklore indicates that during the 1890s, the herd numbered over 3500 head. His herd, as reported in the Calgary Herald in late August 1897, was three-quarter bred Shorthorn.

Difficulties were experienced on the South Fork Ranche. Harsh winters, particularly those of 1882-83 and more notably 1886-87, were remembered for their cold temperatures and heavy snowfalls. The ever-anticipated Chinooks never materialized, and Godsal, like most of his contemporaries, faced severe cattle losses. Each spring he found many carcasses buried in the coulee snowdrifts where the herds sought shelter from the elements. Estimates indicate that this new rancher from England may have lost as much as forty per cent of his cattle, but he chose to persevere and his ranch flourished again.

A FEW OF GODSAL’S COMMUNITY ENDEAVOURS

Ever the quick learner in terms of ranching practices, Godsal became one of the earliest cattle round-up proponents. According to his recollections of 1925, the round-ups of the 1880s numbered three each year: a general one hosted in the spring, an autumn round-up designed for the branding of late arriving calves, and a beef round-up. The South Fork Ranche was an active participant in each one but quickly the system changed to annual district round-ups. These localized events were easier to administer as great geographic distances did not have to be covered. They also made the ranching community more closely knit.

Godsal’s concerns that the ranchers get a fair deal on their new spreads led him to be quite active in agricultural affairs. He believed in the lease system and that the ranching industry should be largely self-regulating. He was an active supporter of the old Pincher Creek Stock Association formed in the spring of 1882, and was instrumental in establishing the larger Alberta Stock Growers’ Association some four years later. In 1894 he served as the President of the short-lived Southern Alberta Stock Growers’ Association. With the formation of the Western Stock Growers’ Association, the well-respected stockman took an even more active role as he realized the political power of a strong, regional ranching organization. He was a founding member of the Association and for two terms in the late 1890s, served as its First Vice-President. There he worked on policy development, particularly on the issue of wolves, the use of brands, the role of the CPR as it related to the ranching industry, and political lobbying with Dominion authorities in Ottawa. His interest in the west and his way with people obviously worked in his favour.

An active mountaineer even into the mid 1910s when he already had surpassed sixty years of age, Godsal was a member of the Alpine Club of Canada. His ascents of Castle Mountain and Victoria Peak are to be featured in Volume Two of Prairie Grass to Mountain Pass.

F. W. Godsal was a member of the Southern Alberta Oldtimers Association and quite rightly considered himself a bit of a local history buff. In the mid 1920s, although already retired to Victoria, B.C., he returned for a visit to Alberta where he gave a riveting account of his overland trip to the Canadian Prairies and his early ranching chronicles to the Calgary Historical Society. This fascinating six page manuscript was, many years later, published in the Alberta Historical Review. Also interested in Pincher Creek’s community heritage, he contributed to the historical knowledge of St. John’s Church of England whose chronicles stretch back to the early 1880s. This was the Church which with Godsal was affiliated.

An advocate of an early library system for Pincher Creek, F. W. Godsal donated a sizeable contribution of books to it prior to his retirement out to the west coast.

RANCH IMPROVEMENTS

F. W. Godsal favoured the open range but also was concerned about mavericks and squatters. As far back as the 1880s, he introduced onto the South Fork Ranche the “Australian Fence” which became quite popular within parts of the ranching community. Subsequently it was legalized by the former Northwest Territories Government.

Godsal’s own ranch buildings, overlooking the South Fork to the east and within sight of his favourite Castle Mountain to the south, were impressive indeed. His dwelling was a large one, the original portion being a two-story ranch house with living quarters on the main floor and private quarters upstairs. Within a few years, an enclosed porch was added onto the front or east side, as was a kitchen on the north side of the structure. Archival photos of the structure’s interior indicate that it was quite luxurious with deep wood furnishings and a large staircase leading to the second level. The house was well appointed with heavy furniture and a large writing desk complete with a captain’s chair, from which Godsal likely conducted his business affairs. An extensive library also was housed there. There were large log barns and sheds located a short distance to the west of the house.

CHANGES AND LEGACY

Significant changes to Godsal’s ranch took place with the construction of the Crowsnest Branch of the Canadian Pacific Railway in 1897-98. The route cut through part of his lease, and the wooden South Fork Trestle was visible only a short distance north of the ranch buildings. Much to Godsal’s consternation, the railway brought in an assortment of noxious weeds which lessened the grazing value of his pastures. A constant worry was the many grass fires allegedly started by the railway’s use, an issue which Godsal raised in the many back issues of our Pincher Creek Echo. By the mid-1910s this veteran pioneer had seen many changes to the ranching landscape. Already in his early sixties and anxious for retirement, he chose to sell the remainder of his ranch. Some of the holdings were purchased by the Doukhobor Community.

F. W. Godsal’s family connections and wealth raised a possible question closely linked with Western Canada’s ranching history: was Godsal a Remittance man? Remittance men were the younger sons of wealthy British land owners whose estates were usually inherited by the elder son. The younger sons were sent to the colonies, often Canada, where they were expected to find productive careers. Quarterly cheques sent to these individuals had two or three purposes: to ensure that these fellows did not starve on the Canadian Prairies, to assist them in establishing themselves in productive careers, and perhaps most importantly to the families back home, to keep them out in the colonies where they would be the least embarrassment to the senior generations. In many cases, remittance men added colour to their families and new communities as they were perceived to have free spending ways. This feature actually was appreciated by many rural settlements often starved for hard cash.

The historical data indicates that Godsal was not a remittance man. Although he did come from a wealthy, well established background, was a younger son, and came west to establish himself on the Canadian Prairies, Godsal was an extremely hard working individual who built up his own ranch holdings through his own honest efforts. He expanded the South Fork Ranche and its cattle herds, ensured that the stock was well taken care of and effectively marketed. He went on to become an active member of the community. F. W. Godsal left a ranching legacy of which he could be justly proud.

This pioneer rancher passed away in Victoria, B.C. in October 1935. News of his death was picked up in the Pincher Creek Echo, Calgary Herald and the Canadian Alpine Journal.

THE RANCHING HERITAGE OF FREDERICK W. GODSAL