Somebody Else's Money by Warren Elofson University of Calgary Press, Calgary, 2009 285 pp., illus., $29.95 paperback Full disclosure: I'm a Central Canadian with only a sketchy grasp of frontier history. Frankly, I don't know my Assiniboia from a hole in the ground, so if even I can appreciate an economic history of ranching in turn-of-the-twentieth-century Alberta, you can bet it's a book that will interest the general history reader. So it is with Somebody Else's Money by Warren Elofson, head of the history department at the University of Calgary. Through analysis of correspondence and other Walrond records, as well as personal papers, and both press and official reports, Elofson manages to identify and explain the many forces that shaped this ambitious enterprise, a 300,000-acre cattle-and-horse ranch in the foothills of the Rockies. His illuminating book will interest the serious student of Western Canadian history with its in-depth economic analysis, scholarship, and insights; but it will also please a casual reader, like me, who may skim the occasional overly academic page while still enjoying the narrative. For starters, there's the protagonist, Dr. Duncan McEachran, an abrasive but well-connected Scottish-born veterinarian and sometime chief veterinary inspector of Canada. He was the principal promoter of the ranch, its absentee manager, and in time became its president. Through a combination of resilience, conservative connections on both sides of the Atlantic, relentless public optimism, and self-interested calculation, McEachran managed to sidestep, ignore, occasionally overcome, and often misrepresent an almost biblical litany of setbacks over the course of a quarter-century. Most impressively, he always ensured that he was financially looked-after, making him the only person to make a fortune from the ranch. Even so, McEachran and his managers made many miscalculations and misjudgments: cattle were left to fend for themselves on the open range in winter with disastrous results; a foray into the horse business was a fiasco; a rigid commitment to pay dividends continually forced unwise short-term decision-making; and an almost farcical, decades-long delusion about the number of cattle actually owned by the Walrond repeatedly gave investors a false sense of security when alarm bells should have been ringing. Underlying all the errors was ignorance of the environment (plus ça change). The prairie was pitched to investors as a virtually limitless renewable resource. In fact, prairie grasses need considerable time to regenerate after grazing. For a nomadic species, such as buffalo, this presents no problem. But cattle tend to linger in familiar pastures near water, and these soon became weedy and downtrodden. Somebody Else's Money is most telling, though, for the big-picture economic lessons it teaches. For example, Elofson details at length the challenge imposed on ranchers generally, and the Walrond in particular, by the rise of a de facto monopoly in purchasing and marketing Western Canadian beef. Interestingly, he suggests that collusion in the beef industry may have thwarted ranchers every bit as much as the better-known monopolistic practices of the railway, milling, and elevator syndicates in the grain markets. Elofson concludes that "large-scale, open range ranching was inherently uneconomic on the northern Great Plains." This is a view he has expressed before, and Somebody Else's Money is an ambitious case study of his thesis. He demonstrates that, notwithstanding bad luck and bad decision-making, the Walrond Ranch and its counterparts elsewhere could not have been viable over the long term. Severe winters were not just bad luck; they were inevitable from time to time and predictably decimated herds - other than those intensively managed in a manner unaffordable for an operation the size of the Walrond. Rustling, disease, and predation were similarly impossible to control cost-effectively, with cattle scattered over hundreds of thousands of acres of open range. For almost twenty-five years, Duncan McEachran managed to delude himself and others into believing that the success of the Walrond was simply a matter of adjusting business practices and riding out bad luck. Repeated refinancing amounted to little more than an unintentional, slow-motion Ponzi scheme. Even as it finally became clear to all that the ranching business was a bust, hope shifted to real estate as the golden goose. But the rumoured railway line never materialized and most investors, including McEachran, were long dead when the assets were finally sold off in the 1940s. Today there are no Walronds in Alberta. Intensive family ranching is the norm. - Reviewed by Paul Jones, a retired publisher, a family historian, and a director of Canada's History society. Canada's History, Reviews Section, April-May 2010 http://www.canadashistory.ca/Books/Book-Reviews/Reviews/Somebody-Else-s-Money-(1).aspx (Paul Jones Canada's History, Reviews Section, April-May 2010 Apr 2010)
Warren Elofson is the head of the history department at the University of Calgary, where he has taught since 1986. He has written several books on British and western Canadian history, including Cowboys, Gentlemen and Cattle Thieves: Ranching on the Western Frontier (2000) and Frontier Cattle Ranching in the Land and Times of Charlie Russell (2004). Much of Dr. Elofson's expertise in western Canadian agriculture comes from many years of personal experience ranching and farming in Alberta.