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Wednesday, 03 August 2011 14:55

Naming of creek honours pioneer family west of Nanton

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By Susan Quinlan
With a nod to contributions made by the province’s pioneers, Alberta’s Geographical Names Program supports those wanting to pay homage to those that built this province.

That’s exactly what Clay Chattaway of the Bar S Ranch intended, when he proposed the naming of Skrine Creek in honour of Walter and Agnes “Nesta” Skrine, first owners of the ranch which the Chattaway family now calls home.

“I wanted to make Albertans aware of the Skrines, who were part of a group of influential ranchers back in that day,” said Chattaway.

Walter Skrine was influential in the early days of the cattle industry, said Chattaway, organizing round ups and the local stock association.

“He’s on all the records; in the early minutes.”

Meanwhile, Skrine’s wife, Nesta, was a published Irish author and poet who wrote under the pseudonym of Moira O’Neill and subsequently penned several poems while living on the Bar S Ranch, inspired by the vista, said Chattaway, so both contributed to Alberta’s heritage.

Although not related “by any shape or means at all,” the lives of the Skrines and Chattaways became intertwined over the decades.

That all started when Chattaway’s mother, Maxine, a member of the High River Pioneers' and Old Timers Association, assisted with the compilation of a local history book and suggested inclusion of some of Nesta Skrine’s poems.

Leaves from the Medicine Tree: a history of the area influenced by the tree, and biographies of pioneers and oldtimers who came under its spell prior to 1900 subsequently included background about the Skrine’s and a couple of Nesta’s poems, as Maxine secured copyright permission when she contacted the Skrine’s oldest daughter, Susan.

“Agnes (Nesta) would have been the equivalent of our modern day Poet Laureate, recognized as the foremost leading poet of her day ... When she went to Ireland, she’d pine over the foothills of Alberta and when she came to Alberta, she’d pine over Ireland.”

This was back in about 1976 and the friendship then began. Some of Skrine’s descendants subsequently visited the Bar S Ranch 17 times, said Chattaway, and the Chattaway’s have as well visited Ireland.

The friendship further developed when George Chattaway, Clay’s father, wanted to purchase some Irish Connemara ponies. Billie Skrine, wife of one of Walter and Nesta’s children and an expert about the breed, helped out with that endeavour.

“We got to know them pretty well.”

As to Chattaway proposing the naming of Skrine Creek to the Alberta Geographical Names Program, he said it was simply the right thing to do.

“I thought it was appropriate that the first guy get recognized who was seriously trying to make a go of ranching in the area.”

Walter Skrine immigrated to Canada back in 1883, said Chattaway, during the era when government was trying to create an economic presence in the West.

“They built the railroad and started the leasehold business, leasing thousands of acres.”

However, not all grazing leases were held by large corporations, said Chattaway.

“There were 10 or 12 big corporate style leaseholds and by 1886 about 43 leases were held by smaller individual owners.”

Chattaway said Walter Skrine was one of them, running about 700 cattle on 16,000 acres.

Alberta’s Geographical Names Program has had many incarnations, said Ronald Kelland, historic places research officer and Geographical Names Program co-ordinator for Alberta Culture and Community Spirit.

The proposal to name Skrine Creek was submitted by Clay Chattaway and supported by both the Willow Creek and Ranchlands Municipal Districts, surrounding landowners and descendants of the Skrine family living in Ireland, said added Kelland.

“For this one, there was a wealth of information substantiating Walter Skrine’s contribution.”

Skrine Creek rises in the Municipal District of Ranchland and flows north into the Municipal District of Willow Creek into Mosquito Creek, approximately 24 kilometres west-southwest of Nanton.

The Skrines welcomed the arrival of farmers and assisted many homesteaders to become established in the area, said Kelland, but moved back to Ireland in 1902 after selling the Bar S Ranch to a neighbour.

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