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Hay is for horses

In order to understand hay farming in the Yukon it’s useful to recall what your mother said when you yelled “Hey!” to get her attention. “Hay,” she would retort, “is for horses.”

Miche Genest

Special to the News

In order to understand hay farming in the Yukon it’s useful to recall what your mother said when you yelled “Hey!” to get her attention. “Hay,” she would retort, “is for horses.” In the Yukon, the story of hay production starts with horses.

During the human stampede over the Chilkoot and White passes into the Yukon interior, some horses were badly mistreated by people desperate to get themselves and their goods to the goldfields in the Klondike. It is estimated that between 2,000 and 3,000 horses died on the Chilkoot Trail alone, from malnutrition, overwork, and accidents.

Dead Horse Gulch on the White Pass is littered with the bones of horses that plunged to their death during the gold rush and later, the building of the White Pass and Yukon Route (WP&YR) railway from Skagway to Whitehorse. The packhorses that accompanied the dozens of cattle drives between 1897 and 1906 didn’t fare much better. “Cattle were money on the hoof, and every effort was made to care for them and deliver them to market in good condition,” writes historian — and News columnist — Michael Gates in Dalton’s Gold Rush Trail. “But it seemed as though those who were using horses as pack animals saw no other value in them. They worked the poor creatures to death and then moved on.”

But once off the madness of the trail, horses acquired value. By 1899, horses were replacing dogs as the working animal of the North. “Horses, horses everywhere, with drays and wagons,” wrote Jeremiah Lynch in his memoir, Three Years in the Klondike. “It was easy to see the dog was doomed.”

A horse could haul a ton of cargo, the equivalent of 20 dogs pulling three sleds. Lynch tells us that thousands of horses were imported into Dawson in 1899, and 1,200 were employed working the winter roads between Dawson and the goldfields, hauling goods and men. But, as historian Sally Robinson writes, while dogs could eat dried salmon, horses needed oats and hay. Suddenly, there was a market for hay.

Imported hay was expensive — in the winter of 1897-1898 it sold for $400 a ton in Dawson, and some owners fed their animals flour and packing straw. But by September of 1898 local wild hay was selling for $250 a ton. Cutters could obtain permits to cut wild hay by paying a royalty of $1 per ton.

Gold seekers turned haymakers jumped on the opportunity. In October, 1899, a local newspaper reported “Dawson is doing her haymaking, or rather, is bringing home her harvest from the hayfields.” The “hayfields” were meadows of wild grasses situated on the Yukon River above Fort Selkirk, in the valleys and hills in the Klondike River drainage, and downriver from Dawson in the Yukon Flats.

Dawson’s vacant lots were already piled high with imported hay bundles, and that October the haymakers’ loaded rafts lined the riverbank for half a mile. Men compressed the hay into bales by stomping it into a hay press, then tying it into 150-pound bundles. The going price for wild hay was 12 cents a pound, but there was one lot of cultivated hay selling for 15 cents a pound, from Chris Sonnickson, a miner at Forty Mile in the late 1880s who was perhaps the first person in the Yukon to cultivate hay. That year, the local press reported the total harvest at 350 tons, and there were enough horses in town to consume ten times that amount.

By the end of 1898-1899, several farms were established in the Klondike and Yukon River drainages close to Dawson, and many of them experimented with different varieties of feed crops. Demand for fodder crops remained high in the decade immediately after the Gold Rush. In 1904, Menard and Genier, who started the Pelly Farm in 1901 (it’s now the Pelly River Ranch), offered delivery of first class oats to roadhouses along the WP&YR winter road, established in 1902. In 1905 the farm had 25 acres under cultivation in oats and potatoes. The next owners of the farm boarded government horses in the winter of 1915, feeding them on the hay from their own fields.

In 1911 Yukon-grown timothy and clover hay brought the same price as imported hay, about $80 to $100 a ton. Mixed farms continued to grow hay, green feed such as oats, and vegetables to satisfy local demand. Sally Robinson calls this era the “golden age” of Yukon agriculture, when some farmers could make a living at their trade. It was a brief golden age — by 1916, increased mechanization and a shrinking population reduced the demand for fodder (and other) crops, and many small farms were abandoned.

In the early 1920s, Yukon hay crops included timothy, western rye, oats and the always-dependable Brome grass. Pelly Farm was the largest farm growing hay. As the need for horsepower declined, the owners started growing cattle and selling beef, but for many years they continued to board horses for prospectors and Canadian government surveyors. Horses and hay production helped keep farms afloat through many lean years.

This article is part of a series commissioned by the Yukon Agricultural Association and funded by Growing Forward 2, an initiative of the governments of Canada and Yukon.