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HAPHAZARD HISTORY: Springfield Ranch stands test of time

The ranch itself remains a picturesque and impressive tract of land
A historical photograph of the Springfield Ranch. (Photo courtesy of Wendy Dixon)

Barry SALE

Special to the Tribune

One of the oldest and most historic ranches in the Cariboo is the Springfield Ranch, located on a sprawling bench of land on the east side of the Fraser River some 25 kilometres north of Williams Lake and five kilometres south of Soda Creek.

The land there was preempted in 1862 by a group of five miners who were returning to the coast from the goldfields, and who decided to do some land speculation. Only a few weeks previously, Peter Dunlevy had preempted what would become the Dunlevy Ranch to the north of Soda Creek, and the five returning miners must have believed that if Dunlevy, who had been very successful as a prospector and a businessman, saw value in investing in the grassy bench area alongside the Fraser, then they too would take a similar opportunity.

The group did not keep the land very long, flipping their five quarter sections for a tidy profit to Frederick Townsend of Quesnellemouth (now known as Quesnel). Townsend rented out the acreage to two young Englishmen, the Beck brothers, who began working the land and built a modest log dwelling place. They were also avid cricket players, and one of their projects was to develop a large, flat area into a cricket pitch, upon which they hosted some interesting matches. This field still exists today, located on the eastern side of the CN railway tracks which run through the area, and it is still known as “the cricket field.”

In 1865, Frederick Townsend sold the property, now consisting of about 1,000 deeded acres, to John Colin Calbraith (sometimes spelled Galbraith), who was a partner and associate of Gustavus B. Wright, the contractor who was constructing the Cariboo Wagon Road. Calbraith took on a different partner for his newly purchased ranching and farming operation, John Francis Hawkes worked hard to clear and expand the land holdings, building a comfortable log home, putting fields into hay and grain production, raising pigs, and planting large gardens. For several years, this ranch was in direct competition with Dunlevy’s operation to provide wheat, oats, hay, pork and root vegetables to the communities of the goldfields.

By 1866, the Calbraith and Hawkes house, which was known by all as “the Springs,” had become a popular stopping place for travellers. Although it was not on the Cariboo Wagon Road, it could be accessed by following the well-used H.B.C. Brigade trail up from Williams Lake and through what is now Wildwood. A branch trail went up and over Bull Mountain and led to the ranch. As the community of Soda Creek developed, a much shorter and well-used trail connected the ranch with that main terminus. Judge Begbie stayed at the Springs during his annual assize court visits. It is said that on one of these visits, he presented Hawkes with two white lilac plants from his garden in Victoria. To this day, descendants of theses two plants are still flourishing around the ranch buildings.

In the early 1870s, John Calbraith sold his interest in the ranch to Hawkes, who renamed the place the Springfield Ranch after his hometown. Hawkes was not only a rancher, he was also a local entrepreneur, becoming involved in many local enterprises, including the Protection Flour Mill at Soda Creek. He remained at the ranch for another 20 years or so, eventually selling out to a man named Herman Nichols, about whom not much is known. Nichols was residing in the old house - the Springs - in March 1897, when it was completely destroyed by fire. Shortly after that adversity he sold out to William Adams, a man who had made a fortune mining for gold on Lightning Creek, and who later became the provincial MLA for the Cariboo.

In 1900, Adams built a large, lavish mansion to replace the Springs as the main ranch house. He had one daughter, Katherine, who married a remittance man from England, John Hargreaves. When Adams retired around 1920, he sold the ranch to the young couple. Together, they managed a very efficient ranching operation, and with their high society connections, they also developed it into a guest ranch for the rich and famous, hosting some very extravagant social gatherings and offering exclusive ranch vacations and retreats.

The Pacific Great Eastern (PGE) Railway, which passed through the property close to the main house would make unscheduled stops to deliver or pick up the guests. One noteworthy visitor in the 1930s was Liberal prime minister W. L. Mackenzie King. When the Hargreaves’ dog barked at him, he was told not to worry, since the animal “was trained to attack only Conservatives.”

The mansion burned to the ground in the early 1940s. Almost immediately, a new, more modest home was constructed right behind where the big house had stood. This house, which can still be seen today right next to the road passing through the ranch, is no longer in use. It served as the main ranch house until the present owners took over.

Under the Hargreaves’ management, the Springfield Ranch grew in size to over 2,000 acres of deeded land. When John Hargreaves passed away in 1950, his son Rae inherited the place. Over the ensuing years, his son Rae inherited the place. Over the ensuing years, he faced several difficulties, including deteriorating infrastructure, irrigation problems, and declining cattle prices. In 1963, Rae sold the ranch to C.W. Hoffman of Oregon.

Hoffman and his partner/ranch manager Ron Patterson worked hard to implement the necessary improvements, and made the operation profitable once again. They continued to run the place for almost 20 years before Hoffman sold it in 1982 to Mike O’Keefe, a corporate lawyer from Vancouver. O’Keefe also had a partner, Dan White, a successful architect. They hired Cliff Dorion to be their ranch manager.

Dorion tells about building two new three level hexagonal shaped homes on the ranch land overlooking the Fraser River. There were no blueprints, only instructions conveyed over the phone by Dan White. Some of the construction had to be done twice when it proved to be unworkable the first time around. Once the landscaping was completed with a cat, the two houses soon gained the nickname of “the stump houses” because, from a distance, they looked like two large sumps sticking up in a cleared field.

In 2006, an Austrian businessman, Joerg Brandner, purchased the Springfield property. It has been managed since by Gordon Neil and his wife Wendy Dixon. Today, the ranch has 2,600 acres of deeded land, another 500 acres of grazing lease, and some 25,000 acres of Crown range land. The 1,850 acre Buckskin Ranch, located across the Fraser River and which had been previously purchased in the late 1990s has also been added to the Springfield holdings.

The main crops grown at present on the Springfield are hay, alfalfa, oats and silage. They support the substantial herd of Black Angus, Red Angus and Hereford cattle which is the backbone of the operation. The ranch itself remains a picturesque and impressive tract of land, one of which has operated continuously for around 160 years.

At the home site, one can still see the shop, the horse barn, the dairy barn, and a few small out-buildings, which are relics from the latter part of the 1800s. They are a testament to the long and successful history of this project and the lives of the families who lived there.

My thanks to Wendy Dixon, Cliff Dorion, and the writings of Branwen Patenaude for assistance in the preparation of this article.

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