Planes, Reins & Hall of Fame Broncs
Photo by Gary Houston
Bill Gilchrist and the Whitemud Ranch have Canadian roots that reach all the way to the east coast. Captain William F. Gilchrist, Bill’s grandfather, sailed out of Nova Scotia beyond the Orient on trading missions until 1900 when he turned his back to the sea, packed up his wife and family and set a course to the prairies. Originally, the family homesteaded around Consul, Sask. Captain Gilchrist’s sons; Ruben (Rube), Chester (Chay), Alexander (Sandy), Jack and Joe went into partnership and from this humble beginning grew a brothers ranching empire.
A lifetime ago, Bill and his father, Rube, were working the Hatfield Ranch in the Waterton, Alta., area but Bill was young and full of energy and not quite ready to spend every day toiling at ranch chores. In the late ‘40s, he was rodeoing in the U.S. with Ken Brower and upon returning home, his father commented, “You’d better choose rodeoing or ranching and I don’t care which!”
“I left home with $200 and came back with $20, so as far as making a living goes it seemed best to bet on ranching,” Bill commented with a chuckle.
In 1950, Bill and his Dad sold their holdings at Waterton. The Whitemud Ranch in the Cypress Hills south of Maple Creek had been part of the Gilchrist Brothers holdings. When the brothers were winding up their affairs, the ranch was first sold to outside interests then became available again two years later. Bill and his father bought the Whitemud and put it back in the Gilchrist name. In 1955, Bill married Helen Dowkes.
The working name of the ranch became the Cypress Cattle Co. Ltd. The name, Whitemud, still nostalgically rolls off Bill’s tongue as he recalls the good times.
In the ‘60s, Bill took flying lessons and purchased a 1960 Super Cub. With the help of wartime pilot, Ben Mitchell, he and the plane both survived the checkout flights and the Cub still lives at the ranch. “We used it a lot,” Bill said, “for checking cows and looking for strays.”
Bill and Helen’s son, Joe, also has a pilot’s licence and flew the Cub a few times, but Bill says, “I don’t think he’s too interested in flying it.”
While the ranch provided a good life for the couple and their three children, rodeo remained a big part of Bill’s life. In the late ‘60s, he partnered up with Lawrence Lundberg and Bob Black in the Cowtown Rodeo Co. Bill said, “We bred quite a few good bucking horses and bulls.” The Gilchrists tried Charolais bulls as herd sires for a short time and sometimes, when they needed bulls over at the Murraydale Stampede, “We’d load up 10 of ours and take them over and they’d buck,” Helen laughed as she related the story.
Cowtown Rodeo Co., stock performed at such places as the Canadian Finals in Edmonton and the Calgary Stampede. They brought pro rodeo action to Maple Creek and ventured all the way to Verdun, Que.
A stud raised by Gilchrists, Fiddler Del Five, sired the Canadian Rodeo Hall of Fame and two-time World Champion Bareback Horse, High Chaparral.
History was made when the three business partners dispersed their rodeo stock by auction. According to the July, 1977 issue of The Saskatchewan Stockgrower; “The highest price ever recorded for a bucking horse is believed to have been established at the Maple Creek Auction Ring. The horse, Lost River, was sold by auctioneer Harry Vold to Steiner Rodeo Co., Austin, Texas for $7500.”
In 1969, Bill, Helen and rodeo buddy, Connie (Conrad) and Marj Cox from Montana drove down to Oklahoma City for the National Finals Rodeo. The two men decided it would be a good idea to buy some tickets for the next year’s performance and go with a larger group. So in 1970, they bought tickets for 100 people to attend four performances and put their wives in charge of the adventure.
Cypress Cattle Co. Brands
The Q brand and the VI brand are still active. The Q brand, left jaw, is used on some of the Gilchrist horses and VI brand, right hip, is their active cattle brand. The Sunrise brand is still owned by Cypress Cattle Co. and for the sake of nostalgia is prominent on the highway gate but is not in active use.
Helen said, “That was a lot of work, but we had fun doing it!” They contacted their friend, travel agent Dan McDougald, to help them charter a plane and book rooms. Dan wanted to go too, but the women did such a good job organizing the trip that the 100-seat plane was sold out and there was no room for Dan. To this day, that same tour (now to Las Vegas) is still organized by Dan’s wife.
Bill and Helen’s eldest daughter, Penny, has put her agricultural background to work; she and her husband, Tony Marshall, operate an organic farm near High River, Alta. Their innovative marketing abilities were recently the subject of an article in Harrowsmith. Pam Slettede, Bill and Helen’s youngest daughter, also found work in Alberta where she is trained as a Teacher’s Aide and resides at Claresholm.
Back on the ranch, their son, Joe, with wife, Brenda and their two sons Tyler and Adam, run the Gilchrist outfit. Their daughter, Jody, is employed at Elnora, Alta. Tyler graduated from Olds College while Adam is attending Missouri Valley College in Marshall, Miss., where he is majoring in business and marketing.
The rodeo virus has also infected the next two generations. Joe tried his hand in the bareback event and his sons, Tyler and Adam, successfully compete in bronc riding. (Adam qualified for the 2008 CFR in Novice Saddle Bronc.)
Life isn’t without its challenges; droughts, floods, fires, diseases and broken bones. But as you visit over a coffee you don’t hear a word about the tough times. The conversation is about the fun they had on and off the ranch and how proud they are of their children and grandchildren. Even when they were discussing the date their ranch home burned down, Helen said, “We were married in 1955 and burned out in 1965 – but we all got out OK so that was a good thing!” Then she smiled and said, “There I was standing in my night gown without my glasses!”
While Bill enjoyed the history and activities of stockmen and cowboys of the earlier years, he always had an eye on the future. They trailed about 400 steers to market in Maple Creek (about 30 miles) until the mid-50s. One day was spent gathering to the north field, the following day the herd was moved as far as McDougald’s where it was held overnight before trailing the final seven miles into town. Only four riders were deployed for this task. Bill said, “It doesn’t take a bunch of riders to handle only a few hundred steers!” However, when it became feasible to truck the cattle, they let the old way go.
As the next generation took on more of the ranch duties, Helen pursued her artistic talent and painted watercolours for some years but now finds her favourite medium is acrylics. An artistic talent in Bill also surfaced and he started turning out finely crafted deer antler chandeliers as well as silver jewelry.
This past Christmas, their whole family was home to celebrate the season. Bill and Helen seized the opportunity and recruited the young, strong backs to move their belongings from the ranch – their home of more than half a century – to their new home in Maple Creek.
And the Gilchrist brand goes on. There’s good grass this spring, the irrigation flats will produce ample feed, brook trout are swimming in the creek andonce again, that trophy mule deer survived the winter. It’s a good life.