Kings of the Ranch

King Ranch, Alberta Photo by Karol Dabbs @ 2016
The King Ranch joined the Waldron Conservation Project in Alberta, the largest conservation easement in Canadian history. Photo by Karol Dabbs @ 2016

By Brian Brennan
April , 2016

King Ranch, Alberta Photo by Karol Dabbs @ 2016
King Ranch, Alberta Photo by Karol Dabbs @ 2016

This month a historic cattle ranch was added to a major conservation site in the foothills of the Canadian Rockies, drawing renewed media attention to the two eccentric brothers who originally owned the ranch. Although they saw the property appreciate in value to an estimated $6 million during the 60 years they lived and worked on it, Maurice and Harrold King always gave the outward impression they were barely keeping the wolf from the door.

They were squabbling bachelors who disagreed about almost everything yet couldn’t live without one another. Their home was a modest homesteader’s shack on this ranch that eventually spread to more than 2,000 hectares.

The best and most oft-repeated stories about the King brothers are the ones that have no basis in fact. It was said, for example, that they always kept a couple of mangy dogs on hand to lick the plates clean after they finished eating because they didn’t like to wash the dishes. They were also said to have a thing about mice. One popular story says the mischievous pair liked to shock visitors by serving drinking water from a pail with mice swimming in it. Another tall tale has them removing mice from traps, slicing up the carcasses, and serving them to guests as sandwich meat.

Fictional stories aside, it is known that the King brothers had little more than five dollars between them when they first settled on the ranch around 1925. Born in England, they were the sons of an alcoholic businessman named Augustus King who worked in the clothing industry. The brothers came to North America with their parents and two other siblings in 1900 and lived first in Spokane, Washington, where their father sought a better life. After six years the family moved north by train to Alberta and homesteaded near Claresholm, 85 miles south of Calgary.

Though a well-educated man, Augustus King didn’t believe in education for his children. “My dad taught me to work because he couldn’t see that book learning was much help in earning a living,” said Maurice. His father’s own “book learning” gave him the means to identify plants and attach to them their proper Latin names, but it didn’t give him what he needed to be a successful farmer in western Canada. Instead of starting small and expanding his holdings as he learned, Augustus bought as much land as he could afford and gradually lost it.

Although Harrold never went to school and Maurice dropped out of grade one after breaking his leg, they did acquire some education because their parents taught them to read. They became well versed in biblical scripture and taught themselves carpentry, farm equipment maintenance and all the skills they needed to survive as trappers and ranchers. Harrold also developed a remarkable talent as a self-taught taxidermist and, as a sideline, learned how to read music. Maurice became adept in matters of business and finance, which became increasingly important to them when the brothers started buying and selling land.

51HuoBRkcjLThe brothers lived at home until they were in their late 20s – mainly to look after their mother – following a tough, poverty-stricken childhood caused by their father’s alcoholism and general ineptness as a farmer. Whenever the boys managed to earn some money, by selling buffalo bones picked from their land or clearing rocks for other homesteaders, their father took the money and spent it on booze. This experience made them reticent in later years about revealing exactly what they owned or how much they were worth. “If they don’t know you have it,” said Maurice, “then they can’t take it away from you.”

The brothers wanted to move north and become trappers, but their ailing mother asked them to stay closer to home in case she needed them. So they walked a few miles over the hill, staked out a homestead claim, rigged up a tarpaulin tent as temporary shelter, and began fending for themselves. Their modest possessions included a couple of horses, a saddle, an old rifle, and some coyote traps. “We ranched, trapped – did just about everything to keep our bones covered,” said Maurice. Tough, resourceful, and fearless, they fed themselves from their root cellar and from the meat of wild animals and amazed their neighbours by roping hibernating bears for sport.

After a year of working and saving, the brothers had accumulated enough money to put a down payment on a quarter section (65 hectares) owned by a homesteader who was leaving the district. They built a four-room log cabin on the banks of a stream, and that remained their home for the next 60 years.

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The brothers lived frugally, saved their money, bought horses, cattle, and farm equipment, and gradually expanded their holdings. They even managed to add to their holdings during the Depression, when others were suffering and losing their ranches. By the mid-1940s, the brothers were relatively well off, and the tall tales about them abounded. It was said they hoarded their wealth in tomato juice cans buried around their property and in an old Wells Fargo money sack that they kept under the floorboards of their cabin. It was also said that they spent some of their hard-earned money on a new Model T, started it once, and then parked it permanently in the barn because neither brother liked the sound of the engine.

It wasn’t until December 1973, when Calgary Herald reporter Ken Hull paid them a visit, that some of the myths about the King brothers began to be dispelled.

No, they assured the reporter, they didn’t keep their money in tin cans or in sacks. They either kept it in the bank or invested it in land. But they wouldn’t say how much. “With inflation being the way it is, who can suggest anybody’s rich?” said Maurice, then a sprightly 76 though lame from the broken leg he had suffered as a child. “Maybe 40 years ago we would have been wealthy, but the way things are going now we’ll be paupers in ten more years.”

As for the story about the Model T, Maurice suggested mischievously that the reporter should check the barns before he left. “The only car I remember buying was a six-cylinder Whippet, and that disappeared long ago.”

Grizzled and unkempt and wearing worn-out pants held up with binder twine, the aging brothers were creatures of long-established habit. They kept a month’s supply of food sitting on their table at all times, admitted to a fondness for chocolates and salted peanuts, and never drank alcohol, only water or green tea. “I tasted spirits when I was 17, and haven’t got the foul taste out of my mouth yet,” said Maurice.

Though they had the means to provide themselves with such modern amenities as indoor plumbing and electricity, the brothers chose to live primitively. Reporter Hull observed that they lived “about 23 miles north of Lundbreck and about 75 years behind the rest of the world.” A telephone and a battery-operated radio were their only concessions to modern living. For entertainment, they listened to the radio or read from the stacks of old National Geographic and Saturday Evening Post magazines that they kept piled atop a cupboard. They didn’t own a bathtub but did have a wash basin. They cooked their meals on a wood-burning stove that doubled during the day as a furnace. “We don’t waste,” said Harrold. “We let the stove burn out during the night and light it in the morning. Sometimes, the temperature falls well below freezing in here, but after 47 years you get used to it.”

Among their many eccentricities was their refusal to open any mail that looked like it might come from the government. Maurice showed Hull two unopened letters with 1932 postmarks. “Actually, there were three that arrived together,” he said. “The first one told me the government was seizing a section of land for back taxes, and I figured the others would be saying about the same thing.” He didn’t like paying taxes and resented seeing his tax money put toward supporting people on welfare.

The brothers were clearly inseparable, wrote Hull, but their relationship was difficult to fathom because they rarely addressed one another directly – each referred to the other in the third person as “the boss” – and they didn’t seem to particularly enjoy one another’s company. “No, we don’t get along,” insisted Maurice. “Never have and never will. Can’t remember two things in our life that we ever agreed upon.” They did seem to agree, however, that they needed one another. At one point, Maurice had left the ranch and bought himself a home in nearby Claresholm because he wanted some comfort, a television set, and electricity. But he sold the place and returned home when his brother refused to leave the homestead. “The boss didn’t say much when I returned,” said Maurice. “He just looked sort of happy.”

Each had once contemplated marriage, but the relationships didn’t work out. “Seems the gal I wanted didn’t want me,” said Harrold. “And those that wanted me – well, I’m just ornery enough that I didn’t want them.” Maurice said that he too had once been involved with a woman who didn’t want to marry him. “After that, I just never felt myself fit to take in a woman.”

While their neighbours viewed the brothers as being reclusive, partly because they lived in a remote area, the Kings were in fact quite sociable. Mary-Jo Burles, a local schoolteacher who was frequently a guest at their table, found them always ready to entertain visitors and engage in conversation about politics or religion or sex. “I often thought their attitudes a bit naïve but always genuine – they had no guile,” she wrote in First and Second Kings, a book of anecdotal reminiscences about the brothers.

As the brothers aged into their 90s and were no longer able to look after themselves, they accepted an invitation to move into the home of their hired hands, Russ and Eva Hoffman, who lived on the ranch in a house that was considerably more comfortable than the King cabin. “They reminded me of two old alley cats who had come in out of the cold and couldn’t quite believe their luck,” wrote Burles. Eva cooked for them and also nursed them through their final illnesses before they moved to the hospital in Claresholm.

Harrold, the younger brother, died in June 1995 at age 96. Maurice died a year later, just shy of his 99th birthday. At that point, the estate owed about $2 million in capital gains taxes. Maurice’s will dictated that his beneficiaries should include his two nieces, two nephews, and the Hoffmans.

In November 1997 the heirs sold the King ranch at an auction that made headlines across Canada. Area ranchers bid on the property hoping they could maintain it as rangeland, while big-city land developers sought to turn the ranch into a subdivision of recreation properties for urban dwellers. After four hours of bidding, the ranchers won. In all, the land sale fetched $6.325 million for the King heirs. The largest portion of the spread, 1,700 hectares including the land occupied by the old King brothers’ cabin, sold for $5.725 million to a cattle rancher named Bill Bateman. The other, 450-hectare portion, sold for $600,000 to Calgary rancher Dave McNalley. It fetched a lower price per hectare because it was on the eastern side of the property and didn’t have a view of the Rocky Mountains. Both buyers said they respected the wish of the King brothers that the land be kept for grazing purposes. “I take my hat off to the guys who settled this land and the way that they worked it,” said Bateman. “That’s why I wanted to see it remain as a ranch.” He eventually replaced the brothers’ cabin with a modern bungalow and added other improvements to the property, including barns, fencing and corrals.

In 2014, Bateman’s family sold its portion of the King ranch for $11.25 million to a grazing co-operative of cattle ranchers. Waldron Grazing Co-operative was already in talks with the Nature Conservancy of Canada to protect an adjoining 12,000-hectare ranch from future development, and some members of the 72-member co-op hoped to eventually add the King property to that conservation site.

That addition has now taken place. The agreement signed this week means that the fescue grasslands of the King property will never be cultivated, subdivided or used for the construction of country homes. “It’s good for the cattle, the wildlife, our water and the people who drive down the Cowboy Trail to enjoy the raw beauty of the area,” says Larry Simpson, associate regional vice-president for the Nature Conservancy.

Copyright © 2016 Brian Brennan

 * All money in Canadian currency


Further reading:

First and Second Kings by Mary-Jo Burles (Cabin Creek, 2000)

Scoundrels and Scallywags: Characters from Alberta’s Past by Brian Brennan

*This story was updated from a 2014 report



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