ELIZABETH BAILEY PRICE
He grew up with the West—laborer, homesteader, rancher, cattle buyer, meat packer—and now his seventy-fifth birthday finds him one of the West’s dominant business figures
THE biggest birthday cake ever made in Canada will be served in Calgary, Alberta, in July. This will be in honor of the seventy-fifth birthday of Patrick Burns, the man who brought into being the great livestock and packing industry of the prairies, and one of the most imposing financial successes in the Dominion. All Western Canada will join in the celebration of this great occasion.
There will be present more prominent citizens, leading legislators and agriculturists, heads of great industrial enterprises, than have ever gathered at a similar event in the West. Among the birthday guests will be, it is hoped, the newly appointed Governor-General of Canada, the Prime Minister of Canada, several Lieutenant-Governors and Provincial Premiers, the heads of the two great Canadian transcontinental railways, and many well-known artists, authors and journalists from both the Dominion and United States.
The public birthday party is to take place the evening of July 6, the opening day of the famous Calgary Exhibition and Stampede, this entire annual event being dedicated to him. In the long light evening, before the grandstand, the huge three-tier birthday cake, with its base eight feet square, will to illuminated with seventy-five wax candles. It will then be cut into twenty-three thousand pieces and each attending will receive one.
The rise of Patrick Bums, penniless farm boy, to a multimillionaire's status—he is probably the dominant individual business figure in Western Canada—is a part of the history of the West. The prairie plains of Canada gave him the opportunities for the finding, but he paid back in large measure, for in the upbuilding of his own success he was helping to make a country.
With less than average advantages and only meagre schooling he started out at a very early age, a poor boy, to earn his own living. No honest work was too humble. If
he needed a job he took the first one handy, whether digging potatoes, blasting rocks or “riding herd.” If he hadn’t the price of a railroad ticket or the money to outfit a Red River cart, he walked.
He surmounted every difficulty, and has become a tremendous constructive force in the development of the West. The story of his life and accomplishments is an inspiration to every youth in Canada today.
A Manitoba Homesteader
"DORN in Oshawa, Ontario, in 1856, a son of Michael and Bridget Gibson Bums, both of Irish birth, he was one of a large family. When he was an infant his parents moved to a farm near Kirkfield, the village now famous because it was the home town of five millionaires. Mr. Burns describes it as a place, in his day, that boasted a tavern, a general store, a post-office and a town pump, which was the meeting place for gossip and visiting.
In the village at the same time there lived William Mackenzie, destined to be the “Sir William” of the wellknowm Mackenzie and Mann firm of railroad builders. The Mackenzie farm was near the Burns farm and it was a second home to young “Pat.” He called on the way back and forth from school. The youths exchanged farm work, for in those days there was very little ready money and lator was not hired but exchanged.
The story is told that at potato digging time in Kirkfield, Mackenzie, who was seven years older than young Burns, was in charge of a field. The “picking” always feil to the younger toys, and so young Pat was allotted this particular job. This was the beginning of a business association that later laid the foundation of the great meat trafficking industry, which practically encircled the globe, winning financial and marketing victories, nationally, imperially and internationally.
In 1878, when he was twenty-three years of age the “Go West young man, go West,” propaganda was at its height. Lured by the advertised opportunities of the free Manitoba farm lands, Pat Burns and his brother John joined a homestead excursion for that province. When they arrived at Winnipeg, they learned that the best and most available land was at “Tanner’s Crossing” (near the present town of Minnedosa) where the government had set up a small land office. They didn't have any money to purchase a travelling
outfit, so with a group of other young men they walked the 160 miles from Winnipeg to the Crossing. Speaking of this experience today, Mr. Burns says, “We were all young and happy-go-lucky and we weren’t afraid of work. There weren’t any roads, only Indian trails. We carried our blankets and grub on our backs, cooked and slept in the open.” They filed on their homesteads and walked back to Winnipeg to look for jobs.
This was the beginning of the great railroad construction era in the West. The Canadian Pacific Railway was being built from the head of the Great Lakes to Winnipeg. Until 1885, as soon as spring opened, the mammoth road building drive was pushed at maximum speed over the prairies and mountains, until the eastern and western lines met at Craigellachie, where the last spike was driven in November, 1885. This was the time when any young healthy man could get a job “on the road.” So Patrick Burns got one, and for a year, 1878-79, he was blasting rocks in the Ingolf and Cross Lake district for the munificent pay of $24 a month and his board in a construction camp.
With the money he had saved from his “road job,” he purchased a yoke of oxen, found out from the trading companies in Winnipeg about certain supplies to to freighted from Winnipeg across country to Tanner's Crossing, got this work at the current wage of the day and set out for his destination, tont on proving up his homestead. His pioneer neighbors gathered together in a “building toe,” as was the custom of the early days of the West, and helped him put up his small cabin home.
Grasping an Opportunity
FROM then on he began "dabbling” in the cattle business.
This consisted of buying and selling small lots of cattle commensurate with available capital. Homestead duties required only six continuous months of residence for each of three years. In the other six months he made Winnipeg his headquarters. During this period of his life he accomplished nothing spectacular, for getting a start was a long uphill road. Many a time he didn’t have the price of a tod.
and often had to borrow money to finance his deals. One of the men who backed him was the late David McGregor, father of the present J. D. McGregor, Lieutenant-Governor of Manitoba (who will be at the birthday party), and he did this without any security. In accordance with his name for "square dealing,” then in the making, Patrick Burns, on the completion of this deal, hurried back to Winnipeg, his first act being to pay back the money to Mr. McGregor.
Up and down the country he went, buying and shipping cattle. At that time, he says, any place that he hung his hat was his home. He was always on the job, walking many miles a day. Often he did his own cattle driving, yipping and whooping them through clouds of prairie dust to the nearest siding, where they were loaded into slatted cars and shipped to the stockyards at Winnipeg.
He purchased some hogs too, and learned that there was a greater demand for these in the East. He decided to ship them, and applied to the freight department of the newly constructed Canadian Pacific Railway at Winnipeg for rates to cover the shipment of a few cars to Ottawa. The company told him they had no facilities for feeding and watering hogs, but if he would take the chance, they would supply an extra car for barrels of water and bags of feed. After negotiating about the rate, since it was the first transaction of its kind for the railway, the company proposed to bill through five cars, and if he lost money on the deal it would rebate him up to the total amount of the freight. Three weeks later, he called into the company’s office to say he did not require any rebate. To Patrick Burns, consequently, goes the distinction of shipping the first Western livestock to the Eastern markets.
In those days, when bosses worked with their men and all called each other by their first names, real and lasting friendships grew' out of the commonplaces and common problems of the work in hand. Patrick Burns had a faculty for making and keeping lifelong friends. Speaking of the recent death of Alexander Mackenzie, brother of Sir William, he said sadly. "He is the last of the Mackenzies, a man over ninety.” Today, one of his greatest pleasures is to meet his pioneer friends and talk over "the old days of the West.”
In 1886, Donald Mann, who had been one of the Canadian Pacific Railway contractors in the West in 1880, joined forces with William Mackenzie, the boyhood friend of Patrick Burns, and the famous railroad building firm of Mackenzie and Mann was launched.
And this is when Patrick Burns showed his amazing vision. Today we say it is grasping an opportunity. He had worked in a construction camp. He saw the need of huge and constant supplies, especially of fresh meat to nourish the life blood of the man power that worked so hard in the building of a railroad. He, too, was a buyer of cattle.
He had always kept in touch with his old friend. It was logical that he should apply to him for the contracts to supply meat to the construction camps.
It was reasonable, too, that he should be successful in getting them.
THE first contracts took him to the East, where Mackenzie and Mann were building the short line of the Canadian Pacific Railway in the State of Maine in 1887. This w'as followed by the contracts for the camps of the Qu’Appelle,
Long Lake and Saskatchewan Railway, 1888 and 1889.
His business grew amazingly.
His work became his play. Even his health was secondary to it.
A former associate tells that at a period of convalescence in a Banff hospital he heard of a herd of cattle for sale at Macleod and that a representative from an important competitive firm from \\ innipeg was coming to buy them. He immediately left the hospital, bought the cattle, and in turn sold them very advantageously to the buyer of the Winnipeg firm.
His pioneer friends reiterate that he never tired of w'ork; that he was always driving forward and sweeping on to bigger goals, carried mainly by the high courage and faith in his own convictions.
His remarkable foresight paved the way to his success. Quick decisions were imperative and that has been the business genius of Patrick Bums. With a minimum of
reasoning and apparently the barest of analysis, he could detect the wisdom of an action. Sometimes his associates were inclín«! to question what might have appeared to be a hasty and impulsive judgment, but time proved his sagacity w'as amazing in its soundness.
Illustrative of this faculty, a manager of a real estate firm at the Coast tells of a deal with Mr. Bums on a piece of land adjoining some of the real estate firm’s holdings. His company w'as exceedingly anxious to make a trade, believing Mr. Bums' land to be a much better holding, and consequently approached him re an exchange and cash bonus. Mr. Burns accepted the offer immediately, without argument, and expressed no opinion until the deal was completed. Then he stated that he would not trade back evenly not if he were offered a cash bonus of so many dollars (naming the amount, which was a substantial sum). “We thought we knew local conditions, and felt we had made an advantageous deal,” said this real estate manager, "but time proved that Mr. Burns’ judgment was correct and our original land was the more valuable of the two locations.”
After the completion of the Mackenzie and Mann meat contracts in the East and Middle West in the late ’eighties, the construction camps were moved to Alberta, the new job being the building of the Calgary and Edmonton branch of the Canadian Pacific Railway. And the meat contracts followed. A small shack in Calgary was secured for an office. This is still standing today and is located on Ninth Avenue opposite the Palliser Hotel. George Webster, famous as Calgary’s cowboy mayor and now a member of the Alberta Legislature, was the office manager; a nephew, John Burns, now general manager of Bums and Co., Ltd., was the junior clerk.
The first sod of this branch line was turned in 1890. And it was this year that Patrick Burns built a small slaughterhouse east of the Elbow River, on the present site of the Canadian National roundhouse. The office in connection with this was a railroad box car, this being convenient because it could be loaded on a flatcar and moved to various centres of activities.
The building of the "North line” was followed by the "South line,” or the Calgary and Macleod branch, which connected with the Crows Nest line, and the camp equipment was transferred to the new scene of activities as quickly as possible.
At this time Calgary was a rapidly growing cow towm of five thousand inhabitants. The ranching industry in the surrounding country was at its height, and great herds of cattle and horses blackened the open ranges and foothills, even as the buffalo had done fifteen years before.
When the branch lines of the railway were finished, it was characteristic of Patrick Burns to look for new ventures.
He was in a cattle country, and was a buyer of cattle. British Columbia wras now connected with the prairies both by the main line and the Crows Nest branch of the Canadian Pacific Railway. It was logical to make use of the facilities and connections he had established as a contractor to go into the business of wholesale distributing of livestock among the retail butcher shops of British Columbia. He opened up an office in Nelson, with F. M. Black, the recent manager of the British Fruit Growers’ Association, in charge.
In 1892 the slaughterhouse was destroyed by fire. This did not interfere much with the regular business, for Patrick Bums immediately purchased the property of the Canada Land and Ranch Company in East Calgary and erected a larger building with the latest abattoir equipment.
The business prospered. In the intervening years ‘the home consumption and Western markets grew rapidly, for settlers wrere pouring in. Other markets, too, opened up. In 1897 and ’98, through the Vancouver office, in charge of his brother Dominic, shipments of cattle were made to the Yukon, after Patrick Bums, himself, had visited it and surveyed its market possibilities.
In 1898 came the big surplus of hogs in Alberta. Again he saw opportunity knocking at his door. He added a small meat storage plant to his abattoir and bought up all the hogs around. These were killed, and fresh and cured meats were shipped both east and west.
The business expanded so rapidly that in 1906 it was necessary to replace the old buildings with new ones, n\uch larger and with every modern equipment for turning out or storing all kinds of fresh and cured meats.
rTvHE fact that one retail store in British Columbia became insolvent and hopelessly indebted to him. decided him on the scheme of enlarging the scope of his business and ensuring a market for the products of his packing plant, by gradually acquiring a chain of retail meat shops in all the principal towns and cities in Eastern British Columbia. About this time he was joined by W. J. Blake Wilson, a present prominent business man of Vancouver, who was his partner for years and is today vice-president of Bums and Co., Ltd.
From this point progress was fast. In 1907 a large and modem packing house was built on tidewater in Vancouver.
In 1909 the business was incorporated under a Dominion charter, assuming the name of P. Burns and Co., Ltd. In 1912 he built another large packing house in Edmonton. In 1918, in order to take care of the growing business in Northern Saskatchewan, he bought a packing plant at Prince Albert; and to serve Southern Saskatchewan he purchased the Armour Packing Plant at Regina.
About this time, Alberta began to come to the fore in the poultry and dairying industry. Again seeing opportunity, Mr. Burns expanded the business by establishing creameries at Calgary, Vancouver, Regina, Edmonton, Saskatoon; Macklin (Sask.), and Rimbey, Radway Centre, Holden, Pincher Creek, Lethbridge and Sangudo (Alberta); and cheese factories at Round Hill, New Norway. Bawlf, Metiskow, (Alberta), and Indian Head and Moose Jaw (Sask.). Previous to this, all cheese consumed in Alberta had been imported. Now the Western farmers had one more market for their products.
One step led to another, and the creameries and cheese factories were followed by the opening up of wholesale distributing houses at Lethbridge, Montreal, Moose Jaw, Victoria, Nelson, Vernon and Prince Albert, for the distribution of the company’s products. The retail stores had increased to over a hundred.
In 1913, just as they were finishing a new addition to the old plant, fire again took toll of the Calgary branch of the business, this time wiping out the greater part of the plant, which had been erected in 1898 and 1906. Before the fire was out Mr. Bums had given the orders for rebuilding. Temporary quarters >yere set up, and there was very little confusion or delay in carrying on the business. The next year they moved into their fine new buildings of the present day.
During the Great War Mr. Bums put his resources at the
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service of the government, and helped especially to cope with the food problem. In the early stages France required some 30,000 head of live cattle. He undertook and carried out this commission.
In 1920 a further step was taken in the development of the West, and wholesale fruit houses were located at Calgary, Edmonton, Saskatoon, Regina, Moose Jaw and Prince Albert, the principal object being to further the interprovincial trade by broadening the market on the prairies for B. C. fruit.
In 1926 he completed his packing plant chain in the Western provinces by purchasing the Gallagher Holman plant at Winnipeg, which he enlarged and improved greatly.
With such a national expansion, it was natural that the business should expand into the international field. In 1926 Mr. Burns bought the Barton and Co. packing plant in Seattle. He also established connections overseas; offices in Liverpool and London, England, and Yokohama, Japan.
In 1928 he sold out the P. Burns Co., Ltd., to the Dominion Securities of Toronto, a transaction involving $15,000,000. The company then took the name of Burns and Co., Ltd.
During all this time Mr. Burns also took a keen interest in ranching, and in the intervening years was buying up a number of properties, which makes him today the owner of some of the best known ranches of the West. These include the “Bow Valley,” that adjoins the City of Calgary, purchased in 1900 from the late W. R. Hull; the Bar U, once owned by the late George Lane, and Willow Creek, these surrounding the “E. P.,” the property of His Royal Highness the Prince of Wales; the “Rio Alta,” the old Ings place; the “44,” west of Claresholm; and the “76” in Saskatchewan.
In addition to his concentration on the packing and ranching industries, Mr. Burns has always had a diversity of business interests, the majority of these connected with the practical development of Western Canada. These include real estate, coal leases on Sheep Creek, sixty miles west of Calgary; oil interests in Turner Valley and in connection with his ranch properties, on which there are several wells being drilled. These are administered today under his supervision by the “P. Bums Agencies.”
All his wealth and power has not changed him. He is the same cheery, unassuming, friendly “Pat Burns” of the old West. He is most modest regarding his accomplishments. On being asked to what mostly did he attribute his success, he replied, “To the good business men who have been associated with me.”
Views on Financial Stringency
T-TIS chief prejudices are ostentation and
-*• publicity. Many times he has declined nomination for the Federal Parliament, once rejected the offer of a senatorship, and has refused knighthood. He shuns pomp of all kinds, as his old-timer friends would say, like a man flying from a rattlesnake, and he is as shy of reporters as one of his own unbroken bronchos is of a halter. It was only because he was persuaded that his birthday celebration might be of some advantage in bringing his beloved West to the foreground that he consented to any form of honor being done him.
He has never faltered in his confidence in
the West. Characteristic of this and his Irish background, in disheartening times he has always an encouraging word, especially in the present financial stress. In a recent interview he said: “The West has been through worse times than these, and has weathered them. You cannot keep the West back. The only difference between the bad times now and the other years is that the West alone suffered, and now the whole world is in a slump.”
From the beginning he saw the vision of the Western plains becoming a great mixed farming area. He has never ceased to advocate the wisdom of diversified farming. He has done everything possible to popularize the raising of stock among grain growers, and takes a keen interest in the numerous boys’ and girls’ clubs.
Although, in the beginning, he built his business on the narrowest of profit margins, and it was imperative for him to practise the strictest economy, yet no more generous or charitable man ever lived. His help to the fatherless, to the crippled, to the poor, and to every good cause will always remain obscure. For these good deeds he has had conferred upon him by the Pope the distinction of Knight Commander of the Order of St. Gregory the Great. He is also a patron of music, and has given material encouragement to several ambitious students in their chosen work.
Although seventy-five years of age, Mr. Burns is a remarkably well-preserved man. This is due, probably, to the fact that he has always been abstemious both in food and drink, and has lived an out-of-door life. His daily round is a model of energy and regularity. Up every morning at seven he puts in a full time “non-union” day that ranges from eight to fourteen hours, and usually retires at ten p.m.
He has a powerful physique; is of Napoleonic build, short of stature. His round head is inclined to baldness, which is offset by a close-cropped thick grey mustache. His face has the balanced shape of the man of excellent business judgment. There isn’t a wrinkle in it, and he still possesses the high clear color of younger days. His eyes are light brown in color, discerning, and haven’t yet lost their “Irish twinkle.” He has a wealth of vitality, and younger men find it difficult to keep up his energetic pace, particularly in walking. The fact that he will ride horseback in the Calgary Stampede parade is no mean test of his prowess at this accomplishment.
This parade, which is a colorful pageant, showing the history of the West, will be held on the morning of his birthday. In the early evening he will be a guest of honor at a banquet tendered to him by his friends at the Palliser Hotel, when he will be presented with an oil portrait of himself, done by the well-known Canadian portrait painter of Toronto, Kenneth A. Forbes.
After this, all will adjourn to the grandstand at the Calgary Exhibition grounds. Here Rt. Hon. R. B. Bennett, Prime Minister of Canada, will extend public felicitations. The guest of honor will then cut the brilliantly lighted birthday cake. At the close of the grandstand performance, members of the various service clubs of Calgary will pass out, to all present, old and young, boxes of birthday cake, these to be taken home and slept upon, their owners perchance to dream of the attainment of coveted pinnacles of honor and success.