It lasted only a few years, but for a short time in the early 1900s the business of catching live fox pups brought tremendous wealth to a few Grouard men willing and able to catch them.
Buyers from Eastern Canada and the United States came to Grouard to buy the pups and transport them back to fox farms in the east, where the pups were raised to adults, then bred for their valuable furs.
However, one important fact was overlooked by the buyers. Either they were misled by the men selling the pups that they were purebreds, or the buyers were simply foolish to believe they were purchasing only purebreds from the wild. When many of the foxes starting producing far less valuable red pelts, the demand for wild animals diminished greatly and foxes were caught only for furs.
A few men ran successful fox farms in the Grouard region but only the valuable black, silver fox or patched fox pelts were of any value. Eventually, even these pelts became virtually worthless and the farms closed.
The Grouard News published from 1912-15. They documented in detail many of the deals that occurred. They also re-published many news articles from the Edmonton Bulletin and Edmonton Capital newspapers, which also kept track of many of the deals occurring.
How valuable were the silver fox pelts? A fortune in today’s world. From 1911-12 a $1 bill would convert to $25 today. On Jan. 18, 1913 H. Robertson, a homesteader in the Athabasca district, arrived in Edmonton with a silver fox pelt valued at $1,000, or $25,000 in today’s money. Three silver foxes were trapped at Lac la Biche, the hunters receiving from $450 [$11,250] to $800 [$20,000] each for the pelts.
The demand for pelts promoted the trapping and selling of live fox pups for fox farms. One Grouard man profited greatly. The Grouard News reported in its Aug. 30, 1913 edition that, “$19,000 for one summer’s work is considered exceptionally good returns by the average homesteader and few come anywhere near that mark, but that is the amount which A.G. Desere has realized this year from the sale of foxes captured near his homestead in the Grouard district.”
Today, $19,000 translates into $475,000.
“Desere came into [Edmonton] last evening with six little Reynards, two blacks and four crosses, which he disposed of to M.W. Wharton, representing a Charlottetown, P.E.I. fox farm, for $3,190 [$79,750]. The foxes will be sent east this evening via the CNR.”
At the time, it was the third consignment of foxes which Desere sold in 1913. The first consignment of 18 foxes earned him $11,800 [$295,000], the second of 15 netted him $4,200 [$105,000] and the third consignment brought him $3,190 [$79,750], making a total of $19,190 [$479,750]. His expenses in bringing the foxes to Edmonton he estimated at about $200 [$5,000] so his profits for the year, aside from what he will clear on his homestead, were near the $19,000 mark [$475,000].
After the most recent sale, Desere said it is unlikely that many more foxes will be brought into the city this year as the majority have reached the stage where they have left their burrows and are very difficult to capture.
Desere wasn’t the only one to profit. The Grouard News reported in its Aug. 16, 1913 edition that Frank Anderson sold 24 foxes of mixed colours to Lee R. Ellis and F.J. Graham for $5,000 [$125,000]. Anderson personally caught the foxes and this week made the sale. The price and number is the largest yet recorded in this district, reported the News.
“The fox industry in Grouard is growing rapidly and the total number of foxes caught in this district and sold from this town will number more than 100.”
Capt. Ambrose, representing the Funday Fox Farm of St. John, N.B., made several trips to Grouard starting in 1913. On June 21, 1913, he paid a record price of $1,500 [$37,500 in 2016] for two silver fox pups only two months old from Mr. Lirondel.
“Two of the finest specimens of silver fox that have been seen in these parts,” reported the News.
The first shipment to New Brunswick was made on Friday last and comprised some 37 pups, going by the Hudson’s Bay boat, each litter in a separate pen.
Ambrose still had many hunters scouring the county in all directions in the search for the valuable animals.
“It took some little time to convince them that I was after fox pups and would pay a big price for them, however, they are now satisfied and I anticipate little difficulty in securing a great number in of,” said Capt. Ambrose.
Because big prices were being paid, the demand grew quickly. As early as July 19, 1913 the News reported that fox farming was becoming so popular and profitable that the source of supply is liable to be depleted. Trapping was occurring all over Western Canada.
“The wholesale capture of young foxes that is being practiced in the Yukon at present will, if allowed to continue, soon destroy the fox industry in the territory,” reported the Whitehorse, Y.T. Star, and re-published in the News. “All colours and grades are being taken regardless of value. Legislation is needed badly, otherwise there will be no foxes to take within a very few years.
“The fox industry in the Yukon is a big one, but it won’t last long if all the young ones are captured before they are two months old.”
The Bulletin reported in its Aug. 9, 1913 edition that 750 live foxes, valued at more than $600,000, were trapped or dug out of their dens in the fur districts north of Edmonton since the beginning of the season. Of these, the highest price paid for a pair of black foxes was $30,000 [$750,000]. The animals were bought by C.J. Fleming of St. John, N.B., from a half-breed Indian trapper at Lac la Biche.
The exportation of live foxes was so active in northern Alberta that Benjamin Lawton, chief game guardian, was requested by the Alberta government to recommend a closed season, the same as there is for other fur-bearing animals. This new law would prohibit the capture of foxes during the breeding season.
Grouard’s representative in Edmonton was quick to respond. J.L. Cote prepared a bill prohibiting persons to approach within 25 feet or any pen or enclosure in which live foxes or any other fur-bearing animals were confined, without consent of the owner. Dogs that “give tongue or terrify” the animals confined were to be destroyed.
The act was similar to Quebec statute made necessary for the protection of those engaged in the business of breeding foxes and other fur-bearing animals.
“It will probably pass without opposition as the fox breeding industry is fast developing in Alberta and the breeders are asking for this protection,” reported the News.
On Nov. 15, 1913 the law was passed, in effect from the current season to 1917, protecting foxes between April 1 and Nov. 1 each year. Other stringent regulations were passed regarding the shipment of live foxes for their protection.
“The decrease of foxes in the north has been serious, as in the spring and early summer young animals are easy to capture.”
This, coupled with the fact the animals were not producing valuable furs when taken back east for breeding, started the collapse of the industry, although it would take several years for that to occur.
Still, the industry continued but not as profitable. A fox farm was operating at Shaw’s Point by Oliver Travers, who had five animals on April 4, 1914. Travers stated to the News he expected quite an increase in the next few weeks and that it was his intention to go exclusively into the fox farming industry.
“I have an ideal location for the establishment of a fox farm on a large scale and propose to add to those I already have,” said Travers.
It was the second fox farm to be established in the district. Frank Mearon of High Prairie had in the neighbourhood of 12 animals and refused a small fortune for one pair in 1913. Mearon also added several pair to his farm during the past year.
Still, foxes left the district despite the fact the demand in England was dropping for the furs. Reports of fox sales in London, England for March of 1914 contained important lessons for the fox rancher.
“A very large proportion of the pelts offered were of the pure black variety, and owing to a falling off in the demand of this class, prices were very low,” reported the News on July 11, 1914.
The explanation given was black skins may be very successfully imitated by dyeing, while the silver black variety does not lend itself to imitation.
However, big deals were still being made. On July 18, 1914 Grouard’s A.E. Hofnes arrived in town at the Northern Hotel with 26 beautiful black and silver foxes valued at about $25,000 [$625,000]. He planned on opening a branch of his fox company in Edmonton.
On Dec. 5, 1914 N. Edwards and Bennett, representing American fox buyers in Boston and New York, were at Grouard buying silver foxes for their firms. They purchased four silver blacks from Ambler & Wagstaff. Foxes were plentiful in the district that fall and many fine crosses, which a year ago would have brought all the way from $100 to $300, were going begging for buyers.
On Feb. 15, 1915 Ambrose was back in Grouard, reporting that fur markets were very quiet.
On Aug. 26, 1915 William H. Kane, of Brooklyn, N.Y., the largest fox ranching and exporting company in the United States, was in Edmonton looking over the local fox market. Kane purchased 19 ranch-raised pups brought in from Lesser Slave Lake.
“Considering the present conditions of the market, the price paid was a good one. Owing to the new law regarding dog fox pups taken from the wild, which went into effect in April, none of these animals may be exported under any conditions. Ranch-raised pups may be exported by the paying of a fee of $15, and yesterday Mr. Kane enriched the local treasury to the extent of several hundred dollars,” reported the Bulletin.
Kane was very frank in his assessment of the industry.
“The old axiom about honesty being the best policy is particularly true of the fox business. One of the great troubles with fox men in the last few years has been misrepresentation in regard to selling pups. This is [particularly] true of Prince Edward Island. Buyers from that province came out to the northwest and stocked up with wild pups. These they took back and later sold as ranch-bred animals. Now, a ranch-bred animal, proper, carries with it a guarantee of heredity, that is, its progeny will be silver black, which is obtained by a process of breeding through several generations. The progeny from two wild black or silver fox pups taken from the wild, may be silver black. That is why our ranch-bred foxes, even today, with conditions as they are, command a price of $1,000.”
In late 1915 the industry had all but collapsed locally, when the News reported the following in its Nov. 11 edition: “Nat Hynman has killed off his live foxes, numbering 85. He has the finest bunch of silvers ever seen at one time in town. There are 45 in the bunch, 40 cross and several red.”