iN PHOTOS: Absentee owners a hallmark of historic Coldstream Ranch | iNFOnews | Thompson-Okanagan's News Source
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iN PHOTOS: Absentee owners a hallmark of historic Coldstream Ranch

The Coldstream Ranch remains the largest cattle ranch in the Okanagan. This photo was taken in about 1910.
Image Credit: Submitted/Museum and Archives of Vernon

From a lord buying it sight unseen to a lady running it from England and never setting foot on the land, the massive Coldstream Ranch has spent most of its history being run by absentee owners.

And for much of its 160-year history it has been a bit of a white elephant for the owners.

“The results of our investments of B.C. have been very sad,” Lady Aberdeen is quoted, by Donna Yoshitake Wuest, as having written in her journal more than 100 years ago.

Wuest, who grew up on the Coldstream Ranch, has written the definitive history of the ranch called ‘Coldstream: The Ranch Where It All Began.’ Excerpts appear on the ranch’s website.

In 1914 the ranch went into receivership and things didn’t improve much as it weathered the war years and moved into the hard times of the 1930s.

“Due to the Depression and despite bumper crops and the harvesting of lumber, the ranch operated at a loss for most of the 1930s,” Wuest wrote. “In 1934, 4,700,000 boxes of apples were picked, the largest ever produced. But there was no market for this bumper crop which was either dumped into the orchards or into the lake.”

Orchards were a big part of the ranch's early days. This photo was taken in 1910.
Orchards were a big part of the ranch's early days. This photo was taken in 1910.
Image Credit: Submitted/Museum and Archives of Vernon

Whether it was truly a white elephant is a matter of perspective, Ted Osborn, who managed the ranch from 1974 to 2005, told iNFOnews.ca.

“It pretty well stayed, because they didn’t need money, in its entirety right up to the end of the 1970s,” he said, referring to the time when it was owned by British aristocrats. “They put in some money after they purchased it but after that it cash flowed (paid for) itself.”

The ranch, which once totalled more than 13,000 acres and is still the largest cattle ranch in the region with 2,000 head of cattle, had much humbler beginnings.

It was in 1863 when Charles Frederick Houghton travelled to the area, claiming 1,150 acres as a military land grant in 1864 that became the core of the Coldstream Ranch.

The land was along the banks of a creek he named Coldstream because of numerous cold water springs flowing into it.

“Houghton, however, was more interested in exploring than farming so, a few years later, he traded his land to the Vernon brothers for land in Okanagan Landing,” Wuest wrote. “He made small improvements to that parcel then sold the land 14 years later to Cornelius O’Keefe.”

The Vernon brothers, Forbes George and Charles Albert, greatly expanded the holdings, built a grist mill, corrals and farm buildings.

Forbes George Vernon, 1895.
Forbes George Vernon, 1895.
Image Credit: Submitted/Museum and Archives of Vernon

In 1883, Forbes bought out his brother and, by the time he sold the farm to Lord and Lady Aberdeen in 1891, it encompassed 13,261 acres.

The Aberdeens had already purchased the Guisachan property in Kelowna and Lord Aberdeen was appointed Governor General of Canada in 1893.

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They changed the name of Vernon Ranch to Coldstream Ranch. It came with 2,000 cattle, 19 work horses, 43 range horses, 70 hogs, 70 sheep, 50 head of poultry and “everything moveable” for 10,000 pounds down and 40,000 pounds to be paid over two years at 6% interest, Wuest wrote.

In 1892 they had 25,000 apple, pear and cherry trees planted along with hops to provide a cash crop while the fruit trees matured. It was the first Orchard in the Vernon area.

Hop fields in 1900.
Hop fields in 1900.
Image Credit: Submitted/Museum and Archives of Vernon

They sold some smaller lots to fruit farmers and built a jam factory and butcher shop.

In 1896 the first crop of 50 tons of apples was harvested, fetching $2,500.

“They didn’t have a lot of money so they brought in other shareholders and venture holders,” Osborn said.

In 1906, the Aberdeens formed Coldstream Estate Company. It issued 800 shares at 100 pounds each, bringing in enough money to build an irrigation system that was the precursor to the Vernon Irrigation District.

Waterway and water tower, 1920.
Waterway and water tower, 1920.
Image Credit: Submitted/Museum and Archives of Vernon

Still, the ranch lost money and in 1914 went into receivership.

W.A. Pitcairn of Kelowna was appointed manager and he brought in his assistant F.E.R. “Fluffy” Woolaston to run the ranch for the next four years. They sold off all the cattle, sheep and goats, but it still lost money, Wuest wrote.

She quoted Woolaston as writing: “A cattle ranch without any cattle is a rather hopeless proposition.”

That was also the start of the First World War that saw many of the men, mostly British immigrants, go home to serve.

The orchards, therefore, were not properly irrigated, pruned or thinned and the whole irrigation system fell into disrepair.

“In 1919 the company was put up for sale with a Japanese syndicate wanting to purchase the land for immigrants,” Wuest wrote. “The local people were vocally opposed so Buchanan let it be known that the ranch would remain in the hands of Canadians so offered the ranch for sale to the provincial and federal governments. Both governments refused."

Small parcels of land, however, were sold to Ukrainian immigrants.

In 1920 Sir James Buchanan, one of the Coldstream Estate Company shareholders, bought out the Aberdeens and the rest of the shareholders and became sole owner of the ranch.

Ranch House, 1906
Ranch House, 1906
Image Credit: Submitted/Museum and Archives of Vernon

Buchanan was a liquor baron in England who developed the Buchanan Blend of Scotch whiskey, commonly known as black and white whiskey.

It’s not clear if he actually travelled to his ranch. He gifted it to his daughter Catherine McDonald-Buchanan in 1924.

“She spent her entire life in England,” Osborn said. “The closest she got to the ranch was Vancouver.”

During the Second World War, 8,500 acres of the ranch was used for military training.

Canadian Battle Drill School Training Centre was set up there from 1942-46.

“The Canadian Battle Drill Schools were unique, the first of its kind in North America,” states a Vernon Museum and Archives article. “It was used for advanced infantry training where real-world situations brought home from the European front were applied in life-saving training exercises. Hand picked NCOs and Officers were trained in a number of areas, including a purpose-built village to prepare them for fighting in urban areas.”

Canadian Battle Drill School, 1944.
Canadian Battle Drill School, 1944.
Image Credit: Submitted/Museum and Archives of Vernon

The school was actually started in June 1942 in Courtenay before moving to Coldstream in July of that year.

During the war, labour was short but Japanese internees who had been moved to the Slocan Valley were brought to Coldstream to work in the orchards.

In 1948, McDonald-Buchanan gave up her sole ownership of the ranch, created Coldstream Ranch Limited and sold shares, although the McDonald-Buchanan trustees retained control.

In 1953, Osborn’s father, Bill, took over as manager of the ranch and tried his hand at growing crops like asparagus and, later, potatoes.

Ranch Manager Ted Osborn 1989.
Ranch Manager Ted Osborn 1989.
Image Credit: Submitted/Museum and Archives of Vernon

But 10 years earlier the Grand Coulee Dam had been completed in Washington State, supplying irrigation water from the Columbia River to 670,000 acres of farmland.

“Suddenly you had a tremendous area producing potatoes and alfalfa and so on,” Osborn said. “There was no market developed but British Columbia was just to the north so they flooded it with potatoes and alfalfa and so on and it decimated B.C. agriculture for many years."

Ted took over as ranch manager from his father in 1974 at a time when McDonald-Buchanan was negotiating to sell 2,274 acres to the province for what is now Kalamalka Lake Park.

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In 1994 ,Keith Balcaen, a timber, roadbuilding and cattle entrepreneur, bought the ranch.

Manager's House, 1994.
Manager's House, 1994.
Image Credit: Submitted/Museum and Archives of Vernon

“They (the McDonald-Buchanans) decided in 1990 to sell their investments in Canada, of which the ranch was one, and take the money back to England and divide it up among the 37 shareholders,” Osborn said.

While managing the ranch Osborn, who had grown up on it, worked to find ways to make it viable.

In the early 2000s, when it came time to replant apple trees, he determined that the ranch would get better returns from cattle ranching than fruit growing so the trees were taken out.

Some of the land has been sold off, including 667 acres in 2017 to Quebec-based Vegpro International, which invested $60 million into the land and a packing plant. It bills itself as the largest vegetable grower in Canada, with a focus on lettuce.

Other sales included 150 acres to West Kelowna’s Bylands Nurseries, 90 acres for a cherry orchard for Jealous Fruits out of Kelowna and Sandher Fruit Packers have 120 acres of apples.

Undated arial view of Coldstream Ranch.
Undated arial view of Coldstream Ranch.
Image Credit: Submitted/Museum and Archives of Vernon

“If hadn’t been for the MacDonald-Buchanans not having to pull money out of the property, it would not have stayed in its entirety,” Osborn said. “That has allowed the property to stay large enough to attract other high value businesses.”

Despite those sales, Coldstream Ranch still spans 10,000 to 11,000 acres, although all the lands aren’t contiguous.

They run about 2,000 head of cattle but no longer “finish” them at the ranch, sending them to Alberta or Washington State.

The new owner, Balcaen, is from the McBride area of B.C. and has an interest in logging and being more hands-on at the ranch, Osborn said.


To contact a reporter for this story, email Rob Munro or call 250-808-0143 or email the editor. You can also submit photos, videos or news tips to the newsroom and be entered to win a monthly prize draw.

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