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Thursday, 02 June 2011 11:56

Bar U Ranch, a step back into Alberta’s ranching history

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By Susan Quinlan
Southwest Alberta
Although most southern Albertans have likely taken note of the large sign posted alongside Highway 2 north of Cayley, announcing the turn off to the Bar U Ranch, many have likely thought, I really need to check that place out someday.

Well, if someday arrives after May 22 and before the end of September, the Bar U will be ready to extend its hospitality, taking you back in time to see how a cattle ranch was run more than a century ago.

“There’s something for everyone at the ranch. From history buffs, families and kids to seniors and tour groups — we offer a broad range of activities including roping, wagon rides, interpretive talks

and cowboy coffee served around the campfire,” said Deb Pigeon who manages the Bar U with husband Steve.  

With a travelling time of about an hour and a half from both Lethbridge and Calgary, Pigeon added a trip to the ranch is also an affordable way for a family to enjoy an outing.

The story of the Bar-U begins back in 1881 when, with backing from Montreal investors, stockman Fred Stimson leased 147,000 acres of land and formed the North West Cattle Company.

The ranch took hold and grew to become the first, most successful, most enduring large-scale cattle ranching operation in Canada, said Pigeon.

In later years it would also become renowned as a centre for breeding excellence in cattle and purebred Percheron horses, and as well during its evolution, would supply stock to the Calgary Stampede.

Fast forward to 2011 and what you have is an opportunity for visitors to glimpse how the Bar U operated well over a century ago.

“The passion of our staff is portrayed in the presentation of the authentic experiences offered at the ranch, because each interpreter comes from a ranching or agricultural background.

Agriculture is the backbone of society and it’s important to educate the public about today’s practices and preserve the history of yesterday.”

To begin a visit, Deb suggested the first stop should be at the Visitor Orientation Centre which houses a reception area, a rangeland exhibit, a theatre featuring the site’s award-winning history video, The Mighty Bar U, along with a gift shop and cafe.

“This year, we have renovated the Visitor Orientation Centre and will have brand new interpretive media throughout.”

Continue on by either walking or taking the horse-drawn wagon down to ranch headquarters, to tour

the historic buildings. There are also scheduled interpretive programs to take in, in addition to an old-time haying demonstration, a blacksmith and saddle maker working on projects as well.

Visitors may also choose to try their hands at roping, or take in a tale or two as a storyteller recalls anecdotes about the poets, politicians, outlaws and artists who made the legendary Bar U one of the most successful cattle ranches of its time.

As to special events, Pigeon said the Bar U hosts many throughout the season including a Chuckwagon Cook-Off where visitors can sample competitors’ versions of beef stew and biscuits, a Percheron Horse Show, a cowboy poetry event during Roundup Camp and even a romping game of polo.

“Cowboy polo is unique to the Bar U and it showcases two styles of horsemanship, Western and English, in an exciting match between the two. British influences in the west inspired the game as a major social event in southern Alberta.”

There’s also a trail ride scheduled and the annual Old Time Ranch Rodeo.

“This is our most popular spectator event of the season. This event focuses on today’s working cowboys that are part of our local community and our Friends (of the Bar U) Association is very instrumental in producing this event. The Bar U is about community and we present that to visitors from all over the world.”

In September, the Bar U Ranch Chore Horse Competition will be held.

“Draft horses were a large part of daily life at the Bar U and this event highlights local teamsters and the work horses of today. Heavy horses have a special appeal to visitors and this is a great event for the whole family.”

Various other activities are also scheduled during the upcoming season. To learn more visit the Friends of the Bar U website at or phone 403-395-3330 or 403-395-3879.

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