The story of Southern Alberta is inextricably linked with animals grazing … first, the mighty herds of bison, then … and now … the cattle that produce the world famous Alberta Beef that Albertans are justifiably proud of.
What many people don’t realize however is that our early pioneer/settler history also included vast flocks of sheep. This was a time when everything … carpets, clothing … were made from wool, so sheep travelled west when the settlers did. One of the earliest families in the Midnapore area, the Shaws, travelled west with the intention of setting up a woolen mill. There are photographs in the Glenbow Archives that show big flocks of sheep on the hills above Calgary where Crescent Heights are now; thanks to Alan Zakrison for supplying the image that I was too lazy to track down!
Local rancher George McElroy decided to try his hand at the sheep ranching business. He pastured his flock in the Rosebud Creek area east of Carstairs and is recorded as being the first white man to see the area. There is a butte in the area known as McElroy’s butte.
George also built a sod house and sheep shed, and employed a shepherd. The business must have prospered, because there are photographs of flocks numbering over 2,000 sheep. George spent three years in Alberta before he could afford to buy his first cow.
George gave up the sheep business after a heavy growth of speargrass wiped out his entire herd. He later wrote that he had been in Alberta for eight years and had nothing to show for it. George recalled with gratitude that it was a loan from a friend at the Southern Alberta Pioneers that gave him the help he needed to start again, this time turning to cattle ranching.
These days, we have a huge range of options when it comes to fabric and clothing but sheep are still important.
At Custom Woolen Mills in the Carstairs area, you can witness the history of wool because the woolen mill works five days a week!
The mill has been running since the 1970s but the equipment is much older than that. The newest machine on the place is from 1927!
Accidents … you typically don’t have to worry about fires at a woolen mill. Wool is a fire retardant and if it catches on fire it will extinguish itself immediately.
The Spinning Jenny was a machine that triggered the industrial revolution with machines mimicking handspinning. Unfortunately, the textile industry was … and still is … often unethical with regards to human rights and the environment. The textile industry in the 1900s relied on child labourers. Lewis Hine wrote an expose letting the public know about the unsafe and abusive environments children were working in. You can find his photo journalism online.
This carding machine has been in business since 1910! And it still works Monday to Friday, 9 to 5.