The fertile history of Pelly River Ranch

When I met Dick Bradley for the first time this week, I asked him if he felt like a real pioneer and he said humbly that he didn't think so, but in fact, he is.

“We never got rich, but we sure have a good life being poor”

– Marjorie Bradley

When I met Dick Bradley for the first time this week, I asked him if he felt like a real pioneer and he said humbly that he didn’t think so, but in fact, he is. According to the Western Producer, in the year 2000, the Yukon Agriculture Branch presented the Bradley family with the “Farmer of the Century Award” for their nearly 50 years of agricultural work at the Pelly River Ranch, 10 kilometres up the Pelly River from its confluence with the Yukon.

Nestled on a large level plain beside the Pelly River, the Pelly River Ranch is a prime location for agricultural production despite being isolated from its customers. With four feet of topsoil and one of the warmest climates in the territory, it has a lot going for it.

The history of the ranch goes back more than a century. In 1901, Edward Menard applied for title to nearly nine hectares of land 10 kilometres up the Pelly River from Fort Selkirk, near the government wagon road that ran from Dawson City to Whitehorse.

In partnership with someone named Grenier, the two men operated the farm until 1914. Records show that Menard was a telegraph operator at Fort Selkirk, and in the 1915/16 Polk’s directory, he was listed as stableman there for the White Pass and Yukon Route.

In 1915, they sold the farm to Frank Chapman and Pete Olson, who did most of the breaking and clearing for farming, and wintered horses and shorthorn cattle. In 1919, the Dawson Daily News proclaimed the birth of a local beef industry when Chapman and Olson shipped 1,000 kilograms of dressed beef to Dawson City, where it sold for 88 cents a kilo (40 cents a pound). “It is believed that the time is not far distant when Yukon will be supplying a large portion of the beef needed here, and thus keep the money home…” proclaimed the News, but it never happened.

Olsen died (and is reported to be buried at Fort Selkirk), and Chapman returned to the United States. In 1927, the farm was purchased by George and May Fairclough. I haven’t yet located where he came from, but his wife May was a member of the Van Bibber family, who lived a short distance up the Pelly River. Fairclough is reported to have run a sawmill here, but did not farm.

Thirteen years later, Fairclough sold the property to J.C. “Burt” Wilkinson, who lived there with his family for the next 13 years. During that time, they grew grain crops, raised pigs and cows and trapped in the winter. They then sold the farm and moved to Pelly Crossing for a couple of years, before relocating to British Columbia.

The farm, which now consisted of 136 hectares, was purchased for $4,000 by four recent agricultural graduates in 1953. John Stelfox, Buck Goodwin and Hugh Bradley were all students of the University of Alberta, while Dick Bradley had studied at the Olds School of Agriculture. Hugh had learned of the farm when he met Jared Wilkinson while working at the experimental farm at Haines Junction in 1952 and 1953.

Dick arrived at the newly acquired property April 17, 1954 and immediately set about preparing the land for planting, while his brother Hugh received his science degree. Hugh, after an 18 day trip from Alberta, arrived June 4 with their initial herd of four Hereford cows and a bull. In the beginning, they had no cash, and no income to speak of. Stelfox and Goodwin helped with the farming while remaining in Alberta most of the year, and eventually left the partnership, leaving the work, and the farm, to Hugh and Dick.

Within a few years, the farm was a going concern, with a herd that grew to 50 head, pigs, chickens, as well as grain and hay crops. They wintered horses for the government and operated a weather recording station, trapped in the winter and fished in the summer.

Sometime they suffered crop damage from like root maggots and turnip beetles. One year they lost half their oat crop to cut worms. Predators were also a regular problem.

In the early days, they had no electricity; light was provided by kerosene and white gas. Mail was irregular, and they experienced periods of isolation. Winters could reach 60 below. Access to the farm was from Minto by driving over the old wagon road that paralleled the Yukon River, which required crossing the Pelly River by boat to reach the farm on the other side. In 1967, with financial support from the government, they built a better road from the Klondike Highway to the ranch along the north side of the Pelly River.

Dick even had a mail order bride. If that is an exaggeration, it is not far from the mark. He corresponded with his future wife, Marjorie, for years before they got to meet face to face. Marjorie was from southern Ontario, and was not unfamiliar with farm life.

One source I referred to stated that they were married the day after she arrived in the Yukon. When I asked, Dick clarified that it may not have been the following day, but it wasn’t very long after her arrival. Marjorie became the family historian, writing and talking about the ranch, its history and their lifestyle.

They remained married until she died in 2003.

Their summer garden produced beans, peas, carrots, onions, garlic, carrots, swiss chard, herbs and sunflowers, while the winter garden contained parsnips, potatoes, cauliflower, broccoli, beets and carrots, which were canned for consumption during the winter months.

They sold their produce in Pelly Crossing, Stewart Crossing, Mayo and Whitehorse, but it was difficult competing with the big retailers. Over the years, they have built up a loyal clientele. They maintain a regular herd of 50, selling off the surplus animals. This year, for example, they sold off 20-25 young stock.

Dick retired from the farm about eight years ago, but his great nephew Dale continues the family tradition. Things have changed considerably since the brothers started farming 60 years ago. Transportation is easier; they have more equipment than they used to have, and communications are better, with access to telephone and Internet.

By continuing to operate the ranch, Dale and his wife have fallen into a pattern that seems to have become the norm for farming families these days. While he maintains the homestead, she works in Whitehorse and commutes to the ranch on weekends.

While Dick looked thoughtfully at a beautifully crafted tapestry portrait of the Pelly River Ranch that hangs on the wall of his Whitehorse home, I tried to imagine the flood of memories that must assail him. An evening of conversation with him, and my research on the topic haven’t captured the complete and remarkable story of the Bradley family and the Pelly River Ranch.

Michael Gates is a Yukon historian and sometimes adventurer based in Whitehorse. His latest book, Dalton’s Gold Rush Trail, is available in Yukon stores. You can contact him at msgates@northwestel.net

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