The history of Douglas Lake Ranch spans a period of some 125 years dating back to the mid-1880’s. In fact, Douglas Lake Ranch itself traces its name back to 1872 when John Douglas Sr. homesteaded his first 320 acres (130 hectares) along its shore. In 1884, John Douglas Sr. sold this property to Charles Beak, who, along with Joseph Greaves, Charles Thomson and William Ward, founded Douglas Lake Cattle Company on June 30, 1886; a date which coincided with the first transcontinental train trip of the Canadian Pacific Railway.
alkali ranch history
bc's oldest cattle ranch
The Valley of the Waving Bunchgrass or Paradise Valley are but two of the early names given by those early wanderers and settlers to the pretty valley that lies fifty kilometers southwest of Williams Lake, B.C. on the Dog Creek Road. It is the home of B.C.’s oldest cattle ranch. Alkali Lake Ranch can trace its origin back to the mid-1800s. It is now, and always has been, privately owned and operated.
One such man who stayed was Herman Otto Bowe. He established a stopping house in what he called Paradise Valley and word soon spread about the quality of his establishment. It was so often described ‘as the place near the lake with the patch of alkali visible on the hillside’ that it is no wonder that it came to be called the Alkali Lake Ranch.
Bowe took a partner, John Koster and together they increased the cattle herd and the land base. They married sisters – local First Nations women from Esket (Alkali Lake) – and raised families. Later their sons, Henry Koster and Johnny Bowe operated the ranch. Young Koster is credited with acquiring the titles for many acres of ranchland that the elder pair had held without deed. In 1909, they sold out to Englishman, Charles Namby Wynn Johnson.
Wynn Johnson significantly increased the land base buying out various neighbors and brought in some new blood, in the form of an American cowboss. Jim Turner had apprenticed under the famous Joe Coutlee of Douglas Lake Ranch, he was well into middle age when he came to Alkali and had considerable ‘cow sense’ and experience. The old way of doing things was tossed aside by Jim.
Wynn Johnson, who was the grandfather of Chunky Woodward – owned the ranch throughout some of our country’s ugliest periods of history, the First World War and the following depression. He managed to survive those years but the struggle took its toll. In 1939, he sold to the von Riedemann family who fled Austria just prior to the war. Wynn Johnson and Mario Riedemann met each other in a Vancouver gentlemen’s club, Wynn Johnson convinced Mario to try ranching (Mario had been a sugar beet producer and a dairy owner in Austria). He brought his wife Elizabeth and four children: Karl, Myra, Sophie and Martin to Alkali Lake. Wynn Johnson agreed to stay on as an advisor – it was a good thing that he did.
In 1977, after the estate was settled, the Mervyn family from Kelowna would become the new owners. Doug, his wife Marie and the youngest two children, Lisa and Tim moved to Alkali. They were newcomers to the business (Doug had always dreamed of cattle ranching) and Bill Twan stayed a few months to help them settle in before he retired and moved to Williams Lake.
Bill’s son, Bronc remained on the ranch – first as the cowboss, then as the manager, a position of resident manager he still holds. Bronc was raised on the ranch, he knew every inch of the place; all 37,000 deeded acres and the 125,000 or so acres that the ranch’s range permit encompasses and there was’t much about the overall operation that he didn't’t know.
Together Doug and Bronc made sweeping changes – modernization comes with each new generation of operators. The cowherd was the first thing to change – it was mainly Hereford in 1977 and Doug and Bronc introduced more cross breeding immediately. The hay operation was switched to primarily silage, first in pits, then into bags. The bags hold up to 400 hundred tons each – 2,500 square bales feed the horse herd and a few round bales are made for extra horse feed and for use in the heifer calving yard and sick pen.
Today the ranch is home to approximately 1,550 – 1,600 mother cows, one third of which are straight-bred Herefords, the other two thirds are crossbreds. Known for their ability to graze late into fall and winter while still maintaining their body condition, the Hereford breed is the base and lifeblood of the Alkali Lake Ranch cowherd.
Alkali is a cowboy outfit, with all of the cattle work done on horseback. The deeded country is semi-desert with cactus, sagebrush and bunchgrass and the cowboys ride all sorts of different terrain. Dogs are definitely man’s best friend and helper here; some days the job would never get accomplished without the help of a good cattle dog. The majority of the dogs are border collies. The river country is steep (shale side hills and sand dunes) and the summer range is forested and inaccessible by vehicle. Cowboys are a necessity. The ranch maintains a horse herd of approximately 70 head; they keep a stallion (Zan Parr Bar bred) and run up to a dozen brood mares. The ranch employs from 4 – 15 people depending on the time of year; they run a bunkhouse with a cook.
Alkali Lake Ranch was awarded the B.C. Cattlemen’s Environmental Stewardship award several years ago for improvements to the feedlot that included fencing the cattle off from the creek, building ditches for runoff, and installing waterers for the cattle. Being environmentally aware is a responsibility this ranch is happy to shoulder.
Alkali Lake was privately sold to Douglas Lake Ranch, bringing these two historical ranches together April 2008.
Charles Beak was a cattle rancher who had already amassed some 22,000 acres (8,900 hectares) in the Nicola Valley, whereas Greaves, Thomson and Ward were members of a cattle syndicate that purchased cattle with a view to obtaining the Canadian Pacific Railway beef contract. In 1892 Charles Beak sold his interest to the remaining shareholders. Greaves and Thomson both remained until 1910 when Ward purchased their interest. By this time, the Ranch had grown to over 110,000 deeded acres (44,000 hectares), establishing it as the pre-eminent ranch in Canada.
The Ranch remained under the ownership and management of successive members of the Ward family until 1940. Throughout this period, the Douglas Lake Ranch’s fortunes rose and fell repeatedly. From the highs of World War I to the depths of the Great Depression there were turbulent times. Revenues rose and fell whereas the costs of ranching continued to rise by early 1900’s standards. Additionally, ranching was changing as horsepower began to be replaced by combustion power. The Ward family sold to Colonel Victor Spencer and William Studdert in 1950. However, during the period to April 1951, Frank Ross (later to become Lieutenant-Governor of the Province of British Columbia) joined Spencer and Studdert as a third owner. Studdert subsequently sold to Spencer and Ross. By then, the deeded acres had increased to over 145,000 acres (58,000 hectares).
In 1959, Spencer and Ross sold Douglas Lake Ranch to Charles (Chunky) Woodward and John West. West’s ownership continued until his death in 1968 at which time Woodward became the sole owner. In April 1990 Chunky passed away and left the ranch to his children, John, Kip, Wynn and Robyn. July 1998 the Woddward family sold to Bernard J. Ebbers, a Canadian born resident of Jackson, Mississippi, who then sold the ranch in 2004. Our present owner E. Stanley Kroenke is a Missouri and Colorado based businessman with a commercial real estate and sports based business. He also has other ranches in Montana and Wyoming.
Life at the Ranch fosters teamwork between management and some 75 full and part time employees. This has created a strong culture and considerable employee loyalty, The employees value their way of life far more than the financial rewards. In fact, Douglas Lake has a history of employees who have spent their entire working
careers at the Ranch and seldom found the need to leave its boundaries.
At present the ranch is managed by Mr. Joe W. Gardner who received his Masters Degree in Agriculture from the University of British Columbia and has managed Douglas Lake Ranch since 1979 and more recently Alkali Lake Ranch too, since its purchase by Douglas Lake Cattle Company.