Ranching Roots


The History of the Mighty Moorhead Clan


Photo By Heather Beierbach

Sitting comfortably in Melvin and Laurie Moorhead’s ranch home, looking south towards the Cypress Hills, it’s easy to soak up the warmth and hospitality that built the West. The Moorheads were pioneers; their stories breathe history.

Hamilton Moorhead, Melvin’s great grandfather, was born in Clandeboye, Northern Ireland in 1859. Hamilton’s father was a tenant on the Dufferin Estates and his oldest son, John, came to Canada with the staff of the Earl of Dufferin (Canada’s Governor General 1872-78). Hamilton didn’t get on staff but worked at the Hays Farm on the Gatineau River for a year. John and Hamilton, (nicknamed “Dad” because of his quiet nature) joined the North West Mounted Police and were part of the first regiment marching west, arriving at Fort Walsh in 1875. Making the trek with them was Francis Dickens, nephew of Charles Dickens.

In 1886, Hamilton Moorhead built a log home and settled beside Piapot Creek, ten miles east and two south of Maple Creek, Saskatchewan. In 1892, he applied for and was awarded title to 36-10-25-W3, at which time he valued his fences at one hundred dollars and his house at forty dollars. Now, one hundred and nineteen years later, there are several Moorhead families ranching along Piapot Creek. They raise cattle, horses and sheep. They rodeo, most of them play musical instruments with keyboards and strings, many sing and most seemingly float as they polka around the dance floor.

HFinished_env1In 1894, Hamilton married Violet Saunders. Violet, in 1886, at the age of ten, had emigrated from Onger, Essex, England to Canada with two younger sisters and her widowed mother, Eliza. Eliza, engaged to Walter Peecock, got married the day after her arrival in Maple Creek, and soon her daughters began the task of milking twenty cows night and morning. For several years, Eliza supplied the CPR Hotel at Banff with butter, 100 to 150 pounds a week. Violet often played with native children and she was one of very few white people to witness the Sun Dance.

Hamilton and Violet had four children. A daughter died at birth, a son, Dick, who inherited his mother’s musical talent, died before age thirty. Dudley, whose descendants are still carrying on the ranching tradition, was born in 1900 and Charlie, now age ninety-one, lives with his wife in Winnipeg, still plays the violin and goes regularly to seniors’ dances. He fought in the Second World War and was with the United Nations during the Korean conflict.

LastDay_env1To stock the ranch, Hamilton and business partner, Ed Fearon, bought horses in the United States, and on one occasion were arrested for stealing. Although later declared innocent, it is believed Hamilton spent a night in a Regina jail cell next to Louis Riel. In 1898, Fearon and Hamilton attempted to take cattle and sheep to the Yukon. The Klondike gold rush was on and beef was rumoured to be selling for a buck a pound. Unfortunately, the scows upset on the turbulent Skagway River and they lost the animals.

From 1903 until 1909, they ran about six thousand sheep. Hamilton also butchered twice a week to supply beef for the hotels of Maple Creek and the NWMP barracks.

In 1914, Hamilton used a team and scraper with a 2×4 and a level to make irrigation ditches. He sold hay, baled with a horse-run square baler. Two teams circled while one man forked hay into the baler and two men fastened the wire ties on each hundred-pound bale. The hay was hauled to the CPR train station at nearby Cardell and shipped. That irrigation system is still used today.

Carcass_env3Hamilton added pasture lands to his holdings and the town site for Eastend was purchased from him in 1912 or 1913. He died in 1933 and his second son, Dudley, carried on with the ranch. Violet, blind for the last ten years of her life, mastered Braille and died at age ninety.

Dudley married Addie Smith in 1919, a teacher who’d come west with her parents and settled in Swift Current. With Addie on the piano and Dudley on the violin there was toe-tappin’ music for dances and Christmas concerts. These were often held at the Moorhead School that operated from 1924 until 1962. People travelled by team, stayed warm under blankets and cow robes and sometimes danced until almost daylight.

Dudley and Addie raised six sons and two daughters. All of their children took up ranching with the exception of one son, Don, who lied about his age, got into the armed forces and was killed at the Normandy Landing in 1944. Moorhead Creek, which flows into Piapot Creek, was named in memory of Don.

It has been said of Dudley, “Cattle and horses were his living and his hobby.” His saddle, custom-made by Chas. Shipley, Kansas City, has Dudley’s initials carved in the back of the cantle. It is a high-backed saddle with large swells, “a real bear trap,” Melvin says, “they used for breaking broncs.” Some of Dudley’s teams were half Thoroughbred, half draft horses as he used a couple of Thoroughbred stallions from the NWMP to cross with his mares. He ran horses on the track, (chuckwagon, chariot and distance races), locally as well as at Swift Current and Regina. Jack, Dudley’s son was an outrider. Since 1978, every spring, Jack shaves off half his beard and for several weeks his face is half beard, half cleanly shaven. His beard, once thick, brown and bushy, is now pure white and it certainly got Stuart Mclean’s attention when he arrived in Maple Creek to research his book, Welcome Home: Travels in Small Town Canada.

At rodeos, the Moorheads have ridden bucking stock, entered timed events, Roman raced and acted as pickup men. Since Maple Creek’s first ranch rodeo in 1988, the Moorheads have entered a family team almost every year. In 1992 they won the event, one of the years when they had three generations of Moorheads as part of their five-member team.

Winners_env3Lloyd, Dudley’s eldest son, joined the armed forces in 1942 and married Marie Furgeson that same year. Marie’s father assisted many area ranchers with his veterinary skills. Lloyd and Marie lost one daughter in 1943 and raised two sons, Melvin and Richard. Lloyd was actively involved in the community and worked at the Maple Creek Auction Ring for several years. He was part of the Moorhead orchestra, sometimes strumming his guitar both Friday and Saturday nights for dances. Melvin said they didn’t have tractors until the late sixties and his Dad paid the land taxes with proceeds from beaver pelts.

In 1963, in response to an ad, Melvin had three hounds delivered by train from Estevan. “Luckily,” he says, “they turned out to be good hounds.” While hunting, he sometimes drove his team fifty miles in a day and his top selling coyote pelt brought $320.

Melvin married Laurie Hobbs in 1974. Laurie’s great grandfather was Frank White of Eastend whose ranch was recently recognized as a century ranch. Laurie and Melvin raised two daughters and one son. Heidi obtained a degree in agriculture and ranches with her husband, John Beierbach, on the south slope of the Cypress Hills. Shauna is attending college and her original western paintings, framed in barnwood, add a rustic feel to the north kitchen wall. Clay, with the bar over H Moorhead horse brand stamped on his chinks, is the fifth generation of Moorheads to live on 36-10-25 where Hamilton put down roots.

It’s safe to predict that as long as there’s grass, creeks and hills, as long as there’s grazing cattle, there will be Moorheads ranching in the Cypress Hills, riding the pastures and caring for their livestock.

Doris Bircham’s writing has appeared in several magazines, anthologies and textbooks. Her work has also been aired on CBC radio and featured in Cowboy Poetry: Words to Live By – a video by Mediatalk Productions. Additionally, Doris has been an organizer and performer at the Maple Creek Cowboy Poetry Gathering & Western Art Show for several years.