Stratton sales barn celebrating 50 years

Jack Elliott

2009 marks the 50th season the Rainy River Cattlemen’s Association has held cattle sales at its yard in Stratton.
The first sale was held Oct. 1, 1960 when 975 head were sold to 29 buyers from Manitoba, southern Ontario, and Minnesota as well as local producers.
The first lot of 19 Hereford steers, weighing 767 pounds, went to Robert Carleton of Good Thunder, Mn. for $16.60/cwt.
The next sale is Saturday, Oct. 3, 2009.
The inspiration, realization, and longevity of this operation is an amazing saga of vision, co-operation, and a “can be done” attitude that has served the district’s agricultural community for half-a-century—and continues strong to this day.
The details of the genesis of the Stratton cattle sale, as it is commonly known, are a bit fuzzy as memories fade and many of the movers and shakers have passed from our community, but the recollections of some of the remaining are worth repeating.
These are some of the recollections of but a few:
Dick Heard came to Emo as the ag rep in 1956. His familiarity with the feeder sales in Manitoulin, and discussion with local producers like Bill Irvine, Elder Jack, and Russell Fisher, as well as encouragement from Harold Scotchmer, who headed the Beef Bull Improvement Club for Ag Canada, set the wheels turning.
Was there a better way to improve the marketing of cattle within the district?
Scotchmer was instrumental in getting a group together to attend a large feeder sale at Ste. Rose, Man. and from there the idea snowballed.
The Rainy River Cattlemen’s Association was formed to run the sale, with Stratton designated as the location, noted Heard. Money had to be raised to fund the sale through loans, memberships, and mainly “in kind” donations.
“A bunch of us had to sign a bond for a thousand dollars each to finance the start-up of the operation,” recalled Lawrence Desserre of Fort Frances, who then farmed north of Pinewood.
“A thousand bucks was a lot of money back then. That was scary,” he admitted.
“It was a day in February when Carson McQuaker met us at our pulpwood strips up in Dewart and we had to go down and meet the MNR at the swamp where the poles were to be cut,” said Gerald Brown, now of Fort Frances.
“They gave us the go-ahead and Raymond Brown and I used our little cats to skid the logs out to the landing,” he noted.
Brown still has his original $5 lifetime membership receipt issued to him by Keith Neilson. He farmed north of Stratton and patronized the Stratton sale until he retired in 1987.
Alvin Alexander of Emo, formerly of Stratton, recalled volunteers cut and packed out the black spruce poles—used in the initial construction of the pens—from that swamp a few miles north and east of his farm.
Cedar posts were cut in another swamp north of the McNabb farm.
“I know I’m missing many of them, but there was Frank Advent, Gerald Brown, Carson McQuaker, myself, and others,” Alexander recalled as he stoked up his old pipe at the Emo Fair last month.
“They got hauled down to Stratton, where Gib Gustafson from Pinewood set up his portable sawmill and we slabbed off the butts to make rails,” he added, drawing mightily on the old briar.
“My brother, Alphonse, trucked some of those poles to town,” said Desserre.
Heard recalled they got the scale from an old grain elevator out west that was being dismantled, and had a fellow come in to help them set it up.
The initial sales ring and yard were completed using almost totally volunteered labour and materials.
“Frank Advent was a tower of strength in organizing the work parties,” Heard remarked.
Sorting and weighing cattle initially was a tough job. Each animal was identified with a tag glued on its back.
“Buster Brown put the glue on the tags and I slapped them on the animals’ back,” Desserre remembered. “I think I got every toe trampled and broken that first year.”
Since then, the Stratton sale has operated every year with sales up to 3,900 head, putting millions of dollars into the local economy.
Nor has the event been without its drama and humour. At an early sale, the auctioneer “forgot” about the sale and had to be tracked down and rescued from an all-night party.
A float plane was hired and dropped him on the Rainy River a few hours late, but the sale still was completed.
George Arnold, the acting ag rep at the time, aged a few years that day, remembered Heard.
The last 50 years have seen many changes at the Stratton sale. Technology unimagined at its inception is now commonplace, and the impact on the district cattle industry is undeniable.
Perhaps the greatest impact has been the transparency introduced. Cattle pricing became visible to the whole community, and the premium quality cattle such as the then Charolais exotics introduced to the district by Russell Fisher, commanded over scruffy, horned, plain stock, has led to dramatic improvements in district herds.
The shrink factor cattle suffered when shipped to distant markets was recognized as a major benefit accrued from a local sale.
Put perhaps the greatest lasting benefit is the demonstrated sense of community achieved when a group of dedicated individuals all strive and move forward together.
This Saturday (Sept. 19), in honour of the 50th season of the Stratton sales yard, the RRCA will be offering tours of the facility starting at 1 p.m.
The public is invited to come and view some of the latest technology now used in marketing and handling cattle.
A barbecue will follow at 2 p.m., with added attractions of a silent auction and a “Guess the Weight” contest.
Come and see the current results wrought by those visionaries of 50 years past!