Hay Days at Fort Walsh

RCMP October, 1942 posse

Hay Days at Fort Walsh p 203-205

By George Shepherd

Hay has played an important part in early Canadian history. For this commodity was essential when the Mounted Police introduced law and order to the land that is today loved by all who live there – the western plains.

In the autumn of 1874 the North West Mounted Police completed their epic march across the western plains. Fort Macleod was founded in the heart of the Blackfoot realm to enforce the law and curb the activities of liquor traders who for several years had been demoralizing the Indians. Many of the illicit traffickers moved to the Cypress Hills about 160 miles to the east and continued operations there. The building of Fort Walsh in that vicinity in the spring of 1875, under the direction of Inspr James Morrow Walsh, resulted. The trading firms of I. G. Baker and Co. and T. C. Power and Bro. of Fort Benton, on the Missouri, soon established branches there. The new settlement promised to become an important centre of frontier trade.

By the summer of 1876 Fort Walsh had settled down to the business at hand. Inspector Walsh realized that a large supply of good hay for his horses was imperative. The previous year the police had gathered a small quantity that, through careful rationing, had been just sufficient to see them through the winter. The inspector therefore arranged with the Baker Co. for the purchase of approximately five hundred tons to be delivered in good condition to the police corrals at Fort Walsh.

In those days it was customary for the Baker and Power bull teams to make trips from Fort Benton on the Missouri to Fort Walsh with supplies; on the July trip the Baker outfits brought haying equipment with them.

Bull teams were a regular feature of the early West. Each team consisted of from twenty to twenty-four oxen yoked together in pairs with a heavy wooden yoke; each yoke was hitched to a bull chain which extended back to the wagon where it was attached to a heavy hook. Behind the lead wagon were two lighter ones short-coupled one behind the other. The lead wagon was of heavy construction and built to carry a load of five tons; the second and third wagons carried three and two tons respectively. A bull team was handled by a man known as a bull whacker who spoke two languages – English and Profane with a marked inclination toward the latter.

Under average conditions the pulling capacity of an ox was estimated at one thousand pounds; consequently each bull team was relied on to haul ten tons of freight, and pull the wagons free even when they became mired to the axles. Often when bogged down at river crossings or mud-holes the wagons were uncoupled by means of a handy trip device and yanked out one at a time.

An I. G. Baker bull train consisting of ten such outfits, on one journey transported one hundred tons of freight – supplies for the police and goods for the Fort Walsh stores. When lined up one behind the other on the trail the bull teams presented an imposing sight.

The wagons were made suitable for conveying the hay by removing the standard box-like bodies and substituting large basket racks that were constructed from Cypress Hills pine. It was decided that the haying operations should be carried out at the west end of Davis Lake, now known as Cypress Lake. This location is the site of the well-known Wylie ranch, about twenty-five miles south-east of the Fort. At that point in 1876 the blue joint grass was almost waist high and into it went the Baker teams and mowers. In due time the hay was delivered. This was one of the first attempts at agricultural pursuits south and west of Fort Qu’Appelle.

The heavy hay wagons left deep ruts and these are plainly visible to this day. Besides being used as a hay trail, this road was also the first leg of the journey to the Wood Mountain post. Winding down over the Cypress Hills benches from Fort Walsh, past the hay flat and along the south side of Cypress Lake this trail was the scene of many hasty and arduous patrols by Inspector Walsh and his men when the Sioux, who were then under the chieftainship of the famed Sitting Bull, were none-too-welcome residents in Canada from 1876-1881.

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In 1893 a page in the history of the Force was turned definitely with the building of the main line of the Canadian Pacific Railway to Maple Creek. Fort Walsh was abandoned and a barracks established approximately one mile south-west of Maple Creek. At the same time outlying detachments were established south of the Cypress at Ten Mile and Farwell and a summer camp was located adjacent to the hay flat. It is of interest to note that these three old-time police sites are now all occupied by ranching outfits that rank as second to none in the ranching fraternity. For almost fifty years Lindner Bros have been established at Ten Mile, Wylie’s on the hay flat, and ‘Billy’ Caton at Farwell. Among the many Mounted Policemen who knew these detachments in the days of the open range might be mentioned Inspr C. Constantine, and Inspr F. J. Fitzgerald who perished on the Dawson-McPherson patrol in February 1911.

In May 1884 the hay flat echoed to the tramp of horses’ feet as a posse of Mounted Police rode over it in hot pursuit of Indians who had fatally wounded a rancher named Pollock, on Fish Creek about fourteen miles south of Maple Creek. The police patrol crossed the hay flat, travelling on down to the Old Man On His Back Plateau, thence west to Wild Horse Lake where the Indian trail was lost.

In 1884 the flat was chosen as the site for a ranch by Michael Oxarat (Oxheart). Oxarat was a Basque, having come in from Oregon via the Sun River in Montana. His was the first ranch to be located south of the Cypress Hills. The first grazing lease granted in the province was issued to Oxarat on Sept. 29, 1885, and it covered eleven thousand acres.

Oxarat brought with him from Sun River over three hundred head of high-quality horses, mostly of Morgan breeding, many of which made fine remounts for the Mounted Police. Among those who broke horses for Oxarat were Gabe and Paul Lavielle, sons of Louis Lavielle, Inspector Walsh’s favourite and most trusted scout. ‘Old Gabe,’ now over seventy-five years of age, is still going strong and lives near the ranch.

Many of the early police came to know the fleur-de-lys brand on the Oxarat horses. Being situated in a strategic position, the ranch was a ready port of call for police patrols. Hospitality was the keynote of the place and still is. In 1896 Michael Oxarat’s health failed; he and his wife left for France, but Michael died while journeying eastward on the train.

In 1897 the Oxarat ranch was taken over by the late ‘Joe’ Wylie, as dominant and colourful a figure as ever came to the range country. As one of the Maple Creek cattle barons, J. D. Wylie served his province and the cattle industry with unfailing zeal in the legislative assembly during the early years of the present century. Under his vigorous management the ranch prospered, and today it is one of the show places of the Cypress Hills. Modern buildings with all conveniences now stand where Oxarat erected his low buildings almost sixty years ago, and a thousand head of ‘Whitefaces’ (Herefords) can now be seen where once the Baker men drove buffalo off the hay piles.

All three Wylie boys joined the colours during the war of 1914-18. The two present-day owners, Monty and ‘Babe’ (Frank), exceed, if anything, the standards of hospitality set by Oxarat.

Still another page of history of this colourful meadow was turned when in 1938 heavy caterpillar tractors chugged over it excavating the main intake ditch in connection with the Cypress Lake project under the direction of the Prairie Farm Rehabilitation Act. This project is the key plan in the water conservation program for south-western Saskatchewan.

Times goes on, changes are introduced, but the old hay meadow so closely intertwined with the history of the Mounted Police has an allure that grows mellower with age, even under the assault of modern alterations.

It’s the heart of the old West.

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