A Peek At the History of The OH Ranch
On January 29, 1880, the first cattle brand was registered in what is now Alberta, by none other than Sam Steele, who is arguably Canada’s most famous member of the North West Mounted Police (NWMP), and his partner Percy Neale in historic Fort Macleod. The brand they chose was “71”.
Over the years there have been countless brands registered and sold by Alberta ranchers. One of the most historic brands belongs to the OH Ranch, now owned and operated by the Calgary Stampede Foundation to continue their preservation of its environmental and cultural heritage values.
The historic roots of the OH Ranch and brand date back to 1881 but the brand was not registered until 1883, meaning the founders were ranching illegally for a couple of years. The OH stands for the first two initials of Orville Hawkins Smith, one of two ranchers who registered the brand. Buffalo hunter Lafayette French was Smith’s partner. Only two years later Frederick Ings from Prince Edward Island bought all 300 head of OH cattle. Then when his brother James joined him in 1883, they renamed the ranch to The Rio Alto (Spanish for ‘high river’) as a tribute to the time the brothers spent in Spain.
The NWMP established a station on the ranch, which was in operation until 1900. The original cabin burned in 1961 but a recreation was erected.
The ranch was sold to a New York company during WW1 and exchanged hands again in 1918 when it was purchased by “The Cattle King”, Senator Patrick Burns. Burns controlled enough land at one time that you could ride on horseback from Calgary to the U.S. border without leaving his property!
The Burns Estate sold the property in 1950 to Bill Ardern and C.W. “Kink” Roenish. They changed the name of the ranch to the OH Ranch and hired renowned cowman Bert Sheppard to manage it. In 1957, Sheppard and Ardern’s son-in-law A.D. Kingsford became full partners.
The OH was sold to Daryl “Doc” Seaman, one of Alberta’s most generous philanthropists, in 1987. The Department of National Defence was planning to buy it for use as an artillery range. In 2008 a portion of the ranch, originally grazing leases, was set aside as the OH Ranch Heritage Rangelands. The very next year a conservation easement was placed on the ranch’s private land.
Seaman owned the ranch until his death in 2009. Doc’s many contributions included minor hockey support, help to build the Olympic Saddledome, and donated $117 million to the Calgary upon his passing – one of the largest civic donations in Canadian history. Doc also co-owned the Calgary Flames.
Bill Siebens, a Calgary oil tycoon, purchased the historic OH Ranch and brand from Doc’s estate and a short time later he also donated the brand and the almost 8,000-acre southern portion of the ranch to the Calgary Stampede Foundation. At the time this gift was valued at $11 million.
There are many stories associated with the OH Ranch but none perhaps as interesting as the time Harry Longabaugh, aka “The Sundance Kid”, the infamous train robber partner of Butch Cassidy (real name Robert Leroy Parker). Harry saved the life of Fred Ings during a bad snow storm in 1890. “The Sundance Kid” spent 2 years working at the nearby Bar U Ranch south of Longview. Longabaugh and Cassidy were reported killed in a shootout in November 1908 in Bolivia.
By Rob Lennard