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A. E. Cross: Rancher and Jolly Brewer 1861-1932

It is a hot July day in 1885, and a serious-faced young man is riding the trail to Calgary after an evening of drinking “Montana Red Eye” with a friend in the Fort Macleod Hotel. He’s hungover, but the beauty of the Rocky Mountain foothills to the west makes up for his temporary discomfort as he camps and spends a lonely night on the prairie.

The next day, forty miles south of Calgary, population 400, he finds a creek surrounded by open prairie and there he makes a decision that will change the course of his life and of the Canadian West. At his first opportunity he pays $10 to file a homestead claim on this quarter section.

The young man is A.E. Cross, and during his remarkable life his natural sense of the rangeland environment and his business intuition will combine to form one of Canada’s greatest ranching stories.

His homestead on Mosquito Creek will become the foundation of the famous a7 Ranche, just west of Nanton, Alberta.

Ernest Cross came to Calgary in 1884, the year after the arrival of the CPR. He was 23 years-old, and had studied in England and Montreal to be a veterinarian. His first job was on the Cochrane Ranche, where he was employed as a bookkeeper, veterinarian and ranch hand.

Despite his upbringing in a socially prominent Montreal family, Ernest Cross never considered ranch work a chore, and in the early years of building up his ranch, he pitched hay and rode through prairie blizzards with the same fortitude and determination as his ranch hands.

Ernest spent the terrible winter of 1886-87 in his little homestead shack on Mosquito Creek, alternating between sleeping, moving cattle and thawing his frozen clothes by the stove.

By 1919, the a7 Ranche covered 25,000 acres of owned and leased land, making it the largest in Alberta. Cross’s agricultural practices proved so effective and his arguments so persuasive that other ranchers followed his lead, and he became a ranching icon as a founding member of the Western Stock Growers’ Association, The Calgary Board of Trade and The Ranchman’s Club.

Ernest Cross had an innate cattleman’s sense of the land and fought against the breaking of the shortgrass prairie for farming. In the mid 1920’s, after the soil had begun to drift from broken land, he commented that, if the ranchers had been listened to, the prairies could have avoided “a lot of the country more or less destroyed by being ploughed up, the surface blown away and bountifully sowed with injurious weeds where the country was originally covered with the finest quality of grasses which cannot be replaced.” (See Max Foran’s very informative book, Trails and Trials.)

The legacy of the a7 Ranche continues today. Ernest’s grandson, John Cross, operates the a7 and he has Ernest’s innovative personality and sense of the fragility of the rangeland. Just as his grandfather opposed the breaking up of the prairie sod, his grandson has strong views on the effects of oil and gas exploration and residential pressure on Western Canadian rangelands.

“My grandfather left a strong ethic for land stewardship, to keep the land healthy and productive,” John says, “and that certainly has had a definite effect on the ranching community today.”

John manages the a7 with an environmentalist’s philosophy many find perplexing and others find imaginative and astute. “I’m in the grass business,” he explains.

“The cows harvest the grass the same as a combine harvests grain.”

In stewarding the land, John restricts the amount of fossil fuels used on the ranch. He’s calculated (using his own father’s years of ranching experience) that on average there are only 20 days per year when snow makes it impossible for the cattle to forage, and a maximum of 90 days in a row. Rather than burn up a lot of fuel harvesting hay crops, he ploughs the snow off the fields when necessary. “I don’t put up any hay.” Sounds like an idea his grandfather would have found intriguing!

Ernest Cross became immortalised in rodeo history as one the “Big Four” when approached by Guy Weadick, the promoter of Calgary’s first Stampede. Cross obligingly put up a $25,000 guarantee in 1912, and was joined by fellow business associates and friends George Lane, Patrick Burns and Archie Maclean. Forced by a riding injury to temporarily consider other opportunities, Ernest Cross started Calgary’s first brewery, the Calgary Brewing and Malting Company, which, when it opened in 1892, was one of Calgary’s largest industries. This venture earned him the nickname “The Jolly Jolly Brewer.”

To sell his beer, he purchased hotels in most of the foothills and prairie towns, assuring himself of a market. The brewery’s ‘buffalo head’ trademark became a familiar symbol across the west.

In 1899 Ernest married Helen (Nell) Rothney Macleod, the daughter of another western Canadian icon, the North-West Mounted Police (NWMP) Commissioner James F. Macleod. That same year Cross won a seat as a Conservative in the North-West Territories legislature and began working for Alberta’s provincial status, which was achieved in 1905.

Following the oil and gas discoveries at Turner Valley, Cross formed a syndicate to establish Calgary Petroleum Products in 1912, and became a director of Canadian Western Natural Gas.

Alfred Ernest Cross died in 1932.

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