Pat Burns, Cattle King:
W. A. CRAICK
EDITOR’S NOTE.—In the West Pat Burns is a name to conjure icith. One can’t go anywhere West without encountering a Burns’ store. IDs organization is one of the seven wonders of the
wonderful West. Mr. Craick’s article tells how he built it up by giving a clear insight into the character of the man himself. Read this article—it contains a recipe for success.
THE Canadian West has cradled many interesting personalities, but as yet has had small chance to produce national celebrities.
If one counts out the few outstanding public men like the four Western premiers and the half dozen Federal ministers, past and present, there are not many individuals left whose names are known throughout the length and breadth of Canada. This is not to say that there do nolive west of the Great Lakes numerous men whose characters and achievements are not worthy of nation-wide appreciation. It is only a recognition of the fact that the fame of these men has not as yet penetrated to all parts of the Dominion.
Among the few Westerners of the present day whose names have gained some degree of national prominence one must perforce give precedence to Patrick Burns, of Calgary. About him there seems to have sprung up a certain halo of romance. He typifies, in the minds of many Easterners at least, the successful cowboy, the man who has risen to opulence in the pursuit of one of the most interesting occupations in Western experience. He is also, in the conception of others, a sort of Canadian Armour or Swift, who is repeating to-day in Western Canada, the story made familiar by the lives of the meat barons of Chicago. That he is an unusual and curiosityarousing person goes almost without saying. At the same time one cannot but confess that the real Patrick Burns and his life-story are not subjects of general knowledge and that a good deal of uncertain and mythical information is abroad about him.
Personally the cattle king is exceedingly reticent about himself, particularly if he feels that he is being pumped for information. He is ready enough to discuss business prospects, prices of livestock and the fine points of hogs and steers, but when it comes down to divulging personal experiences, he is as close as an oyster. There is one chapter of his life-story, however, which he cannot resist turning up and exposing as a sort of sample bit of his autobiography. It is one of the early chapters in the unwritten volume of his reminiscences and it relates to the period, now alas many years back on the scroll of time, when he and another lad, called Bill Mackenzie, attended school to-
gether in the little village of Kirkfield, up the Haliburton line from Lindsay.
As a matter of fact, Mackenzie was eight years the senior of Burns and eight years means a lot when one lad is six or seven and the other fifteen or sixteen. Those eight years of difference contained a whole world of boyish veneration. To little Pat, big sixteen-year-old Bill was a nine-days’ wonder. He was cock of the school, the leader in sport and mischief and withal a clever lad who aspired to the dignity of some day being a schoolmaster himself. It was not Pat’s way to be afraid of him. The Irish boy was a plucky little fellow and he would not hesitate to ally himself with two or three other youngsters to give the bigger chap a tussle, but it was all done in good humor and in no way interfered with the juvenile hero-worship.
It is certainly a commentary on the weakness of most human estimates that youth who bulks most pror. inently in the eyes of his school-fellows and is the big feature in the school-day world, so often fails in after life to justify the distinction. The hero of the class-room or the playground generally sinks into insignificance, whilst his humblest and most unconsidered worshiper shoots past him into the limelight of grown-up achievement. In the ordinary course of events, big Bill Mackenzie should have receded into the background. That he did not,
proves his abilities were exceptional. The veneration of Pat Burns was not to be interfered with and to-day the cattle king of Alberta, himself a notable success in life, continues to look up to the railway king with unabated admiration.
There must be no denying the strength of Mr. Burns’ personality and no decrying of his abilities. He would doubtless have made good eventually under any circumstances. Yet the faraway boyhood friendship established in the little village school at Kirkfield, when Sir William Mackenzie was the head of the highest form and Patrick Burns a member of the last juvenile class, was destined to play an important part in the after-life of the little Irish schoolboy. The day came when in the New West the two were brought into contact again and then it was that the railroad contractor was able to give an opportunity to the cattle dealer to show what was in him. An alliance was formed which still continues and it is common knowledge that the head of the Canadian Northern Railway holds an important interest in the big organization which Patrick Burns has built up.
SHOWED ABILITY EARLY.
Though he got his schooling in Kirkfield and lived in the neighborhood until he had grown to manhood, his native place was not this noted village, but the town of Oshawa on the lake front. His parents were Irish settlers and he was born on July 13, 1857, just escaping by one day the fate of arriving in the world on the Glorious Twelfth. While he was yet quite small the family moved inland to Kirkfield, near which his father bought a farm and started in to cultivate the soil and raise a few cattle. As Pat grew up, he took more and more interest in the farm work, at first doubtless by compulsion and afterwards out of sheer natural fondness for caring for the livestock. He early evinced an aptitude for judging the good points of cattle and is said to have nade some very advantageous deals for his father in the market at Lindsay while he was still a mere lad.
Then came the call of the West. He had just reached his twenty-second birthday when the spirit seized him to try his fortune in that new land far beyond the Great Lakes, about which wonderful
stories of fertility were already being told. Land was to be had out there for the asking and besides the romantic element had not yet been snuffed out by the advent of railways and other civilizing forces. The Indians still roamed the prairies, buffalo were plentiful and traders and trappers continued to flourish in undisturbed possession of an immense territory. Perchance he might still find as absorbing adventures in real life as were to be read about in books, though for that matter young Pat neither then nor now laid much store in works of literature, good, bad or indifferent.
To make a long story short and curtail a wearisome journey into brief space, the new settler from Ontario penetrated west as far as Minnedosa, where he took up a homestead. As to the success or failure of his operations on his prairie farm, little information is available, but what is known is that he was soon engaged in a somewhat more lucrative occupation. In the early eighties population was coming into Manitoba in fairly good volume and every spring quite a number of prospective settlers would arrive in Portage la Prairie and start out from that town to take up land on the plains beyond.
PROVIDED THE FIRST TRANSPORTATION.
Young Burns conceived the notion of performing two services for the newcomers. One was to haul their belongings from the Portage to their destination and the other was to provide them with animal-power to break up the land. For this purpose he would go down into Minnesota in the winter when oxen were to be had comparatively cheap and buy as many teams as he could manage. These he would bring up to the Portage in the early spring and then await the arrival of the settlers. Whether he also furnished wagons on which to load the household goods of these people or not, is uncertain but at any rate he provided the motive power and himself convoyed the resulting caravan. When he had got the settlers to the end of their journey, he was accustomed to sell them the oxen and possibly the carts and pocket the proceeds of the transaction. Then he would return to Minn edosa and his hörnest e a d and farm for the summer, repeating the performance the following spring.
It is said, of course, that Mr.
Burns began it all with a single pair of oxen, which he acquired in very poor condition from a neighboring homesteader and fattened u p until they
were worth double the money. When he sold these, he made his first journey back to Minnesota simply to replace them and the hauling up of settlers’ effects was just a chance incident. It proved, however, to be so remunerative in the long run that he repeated it again and again until he had built up quite a respectable capital. Of those days he often delights to speak to his friends, relating how he carried his grub and a frying pan under one of the carts and camped out each night beside the trail. He was sturdy and strong and loved the open life.
MEETS WITH “BILL” AGAIN.
Then William Mackenzie entered again into his sphere of existence. Mr. Burns had lost track of him after he had left the Kirkfield neighborhood. In the interval, as every one knows, Mr. Mackenzie had passed through the occupations of dominie, country merchant, lumber dealer and small contractor and had now become associated with Messrs. Ross, Holt and Mann in some pretty big undertakings in the way of railroad construction. The quartette had recently been awarded the contract for the building of the road from Regina to Prince Albert and were in the market to purchase meat for their construction camps. At this juncture Mackenzie came across his old school-day acquaintance and, noting his capacity, offered him the job. Mr. Burns agreed to the proposal and thus began the work that was in time destined to bring him wealth and renown—the buying and slaughtering of cattle and the sale of meat. As yet he was to confine his efforts to supplying the railroad; later on what seemed at the time an unlucky circumstance would enable him to extend his field and establish his present business.
A BLESSING IN DISGUISE.
The way in which Patrick Burns was transformed from being simply a purveyor of meat for railroad camps into a general dealer on a large scale is quite interesting and goes to prove that often what looks like a misfortune is a blessing in disguise. After Mackenzie and his partners had got through with the Prince Albert line they turned their attention to
the road that was to connect Fort Macleod, Calgary and Edmonton. Their meat supply had been so satisfactorily maintained that they took with them to headquarters in Calgary, the man who had been responsible for its continuance. This was in the year 1890 and ever since that date, Patrick Burns has made Calgary his home. He at once proceeded to attend to the requirements of his contract and according to custom bought up the requisite number of animals for spring delivery. The following year all went well. Construction was pushed forward and in the fall, the cattle dealer again made his purchase on a bigger scale than ever, buying a lot of cows on the Cypress Ranch. When the spring of 1892 came, however, and Mr. Burns was ready to take over the animals, he was dismayed to learn that, owing to financial difficulties, there would be no building done that season and the navvies would be laid off.
What was to be done? There were the cows, but where was his market? In the emergency the natural resource of Pat Burns showed itself. He would not be stuck but would boldly invade a new field. Taking the first train for Vancouver, he crossed the Rockies and sounded conditions on the coast. For a wonder all the indications were favorable. He put up his cows for sale and soon disposed of the entire herd at a most satisfactory figure. The experience opened his eyes and broadened his horizon. Theneeforward-he was determined to hold the connection which had been thus unexpectedly opened for
From the spring of 1892 dates the establishment of the business of P. Burns & Company on its present lines and in the twenty odd years which have since elapsed, its expansion has been enormous. There are few towns of any consequence in Alberta and British Columbia which do not boast a Burns meat shop. They are as ubiquitous as the chartered banks and indeed are operated under as perfect a system. Even the new settlements along the line of the Grand Trunk Pacific, like Fort George and Hazelton, are blessed with his establishments, it being the policy of Mr. Burns to follow up railroad construction very closely. In the Yukon, on Vancouver Island, in the Crow’s Nest, the name of P. Burns & Company i s a household word and in the cities it is no less prominent. Including his wholes a 1 e warehouses, M r. Burns now controls eighty separ a t e shops. These with the packing plants in Calgary, Edmonton and Vancouver com-
price one of the biggest organizations of the kind in the world.
As his business expanded and his deals grew to larger and larger proportions, the necessity for acquiring grazing lands to accommodate his cattle made itself fe’t and Mr. Burns was long-headed enough to perceive that the sooner he bought and fenced in his land the better. Settlement was playing havoc with the old ranchmen and crowding them out of existence and in proportion as the homesteads were taken up, so would values of unoccupied land soar. Accordingly, from time to time during the nineties the cattle dealer bought great tracts, purchasing a choice spot here, another there, and so on, until he now owns hundreds of thousands of acres in the province of Alberta. The famous Home Ranch, twelve miles south of Calgary, is his, as is also the Mackie Ranch of 150,000 acres on the Milk River. He is the owner of the Quirk Ranch at Okotoks and the Imperial Ranch on the Red Deer River. Besides this he has made handsome profits out of the land he acquired in Calgary in the early days.
What manner of man then is this who has succeeded in making himself one of the richest citizens of Western Canada? A natural assumption would be that he was the sort of person one usually associates with power and wealth—the typical money magnate. No matter what his antecedents or earlier mode of life, it would be quite to be expected that he would be clothed about with special privilege, would live in grand style and would assume an air of superiority to those about him. That this idea of Patrick Burns is all wrong, is surely a tribute to the genuineness of the man. To all intents and purposes he is the same person who used to assist the settlers of thirty years ago to cart their belongings into the Minnedosa district. The coming of prosperity has not appreciably turned his head or made him other than the genial, open-hearted fellow he was in those days.
While the Burns residence in Calgary is a pretty palatial mansion, it does not follow that its owner lives up to the style of his house. As a matter of fact his mode of existence is remarkably simple. Strange to say, despite the rough and ready associations of many years and the contact with pretty tough specimens of mankind, he neither smokes, drinks nor plays for money. He is as clean-living as the most straight-laced Puritan and prides himself on his resistance to the
temptations that always beset a man in his position..
At the head office of his company, which adjoins the big Calgary abattoir, this unassuming millionaire moves about from department to department with a freedom and an absence of officialism that is refreshing. There is nothing of the swell about his dress nor a shade of punctiliousness about his manner. He receives and converses with a reporter from one of the city papers in just as courteous a way as he would were his visitor one of the most important men in the country. And his geniality is not assumed for the purpose, but is quite as genuine as his smile or his laugh.
He is evidently not a man gifted with any fondness for detail. The filling in he leaves to others. His forte has been quickfire action and in moving about and dealing with men he has found greater opportunities than in attending to the minutiae of the office and counting room. Having a thorough knowledge of cattle, acquired in early life, he has devoted himself to the practical end of the business, superintending the buying, examining the animals and systematizing their handling. Doubtless in the restlessness of his nature lies one reason for his success. He has never wearied himself by too constant application to one thing, but has varied his outlook constantly.
When all is said and done, however, Pat Burns’ interests are all centered in the one thing—the management of the widespread organization which he has established. He would be the last one to lay claim to any other distinction. He admits his lack of education and makes no bones about his complete ignorance of literature and art. He says he has never read a book since his school-days and hasn’t any desire as yet to fill the void. If he takes pride in anything it is that his name is above reproach and stands for a big achievement in the world of business.
At the same time he does not scoff at the advantages to be derived from education, but fully appreciates its value. There is a story that when he was in Toronto a few years ago, he was inveigled into attending a dinner, which the students from Western Canada enrolled at the University, had got up. President Falconer was there and Mr. Burns was naturally an honored guest. Though he rarely, if ever, speaks in public, the cattle king was called
on to make a few remarks during the evening. He began abruptly by saying, “You boys don’t know what you’ve got here,” and went on to dilate in his own way on the advantages they enjoyed. It was a telling little speech and, coming from the source it did, was doubly effective.
A short time ago he was taken by the Hon. Duncan Marshall, Alberta’s Minister of Agriculture, along with some other prominent men, to inspect the new agricultural high school at Olds. After he had seen the boys and girls at work and the scholars were assembled in the big hall on the top floor, he was asked among others to speak. He did not say much but he showed his appreciation of what the school aimed to accomplish by offering a very generous scholarship for the best student. The offer came as a great surprise, but showed that he had his eyes open to the utility of the institution.
Such a man is naturally generous in his dealings. Mr. Burns is what might be regarded as an “easy mark,” whenever money for any public cause has to be raised in Calgary and so far as his personal benefactions are concerned, they are very extensive. He is not easily imposed on, however, and dispenses his charity with a careful hand. Dealing squarely with others, he believes in receiving the same treatment himself.
He is not interested in politics or at least not to the extent of taking any active part in them. He gives a mild sort of support to the provincial Government, and it is said might have had a senatorship during the Liberal regime at Ottawa, had he desired it. But he has been content to stick to the one business in the management of which very few men are in a position to give him any pointers.
Gifted with a strong physique, which he has not abused by indulgence of any sort; working hard and constantly from early to late, but without excessive application to any one task; sleeping like a top all night; never dissipating his energies in a lot of different directions, he has had much in his favor from the physical standpoint. Couple with this a good deal of shrewd common sense; an ability to deal with men and to deal in animals; a habit of running no bills, always paying spot cash, and never defrauding the men from whom he bought or the people to whom he sold, and one has a few of the characteristics and practices that have made him the man he is.
A Portrayer of Mysteries
In the September number of MacLean’s an article will appear dealing with the work of a Canadian artist who has struck a new note in art. His work is weird, fantastic, in many respects, wonderful. It aims to place before us in symbolic form the emotions of the soul, the vices of mankind, the secrets of the Beyond. The article will be illustrated well and should prove of interest.