This blog is about a grand old house in the Bittern Lake area of Alberta which is approximately 60 km southeast of the Edmonton International Airport. Images of the house have been posted on Instagram and Facebook for years but recently I saw it for myself. The look of the house is reason enough for any photographer of old rural ruins and structures to run to his or her car yelling, “start the car, start the car!” In other words, this old house oozes with character. As a bonus the history of the house is fairly well documented and quite interesting. Being built in 1897 the house is also older than your typical homestead in Alberta. Have a look at it below to see how the house and several other out buildings looked in 1907. The veranda changes the appearance considerably but if you look closely you’ll see that the windows and doors are all in the right places just as you see it today. The black and white image hides the fact that this house was built out of logs, not lumber. In modern times nobody would hide the logs of a log house as that is now an expensive luxury. The surrounding out buildings and fencing were removed in 1946.
A list of major actions affecting the ranch
- June 27, 1893; The land where the Bittern Lake Ranch is situated was surveyed and shortly thereafter an aristocrat, William Anthony Stoughton, arrived from England to homestead.
- 1897; Stoughton built, or had others build for him, his “big house” on the ranch.
- July 21, 1899; Stoughton proved up his homestead and received title to it.
- 1902; Stoughton rented the house and land to the Francis Chambers family from Ontario. This allowed Stoughton to return to England, but he would return during the summers.
- Between 1893 and 1907; William Stoughton accumulated four sections (2,400 acres) of land.
- 1907; William Stoughton traded the Bittern Lake Ranch to the Ochsner’s for their brewery business. Stoughton sold the brewery “after a while” and returned to England and Australia where he had other interests. He died in the late 1940s or early 1950s. This ends his story in Canada insofar as the house and ranch are concerned. However I’ve received some additional information in December 2021 about Mr Stoughton that I’ll provide below.
- 1894; Robert and Alice Ochsner arrived in Alberta from Ontario and immediately started the Strathcona Brewing and Malting Company Limited and operated it until 1907. Ochsner was concerned about prohibition arriving in Alberta so he traded his brewery business to William Stoughton for the Bittern Lake Ranch.
- 1915; Robert Ochsner died in a Camrose hospital. He is buried in Mount Pleasant Cemetery in Edmonton. The Ochsner’s oldest daughter Elsie, married Cecil P. Wilson who took over management of the ranch which was now comprised of about 3,000 acres.
- In approximately 1920 the ranch was broken up and sold in lots from ¼ to 1 section resulting in 12 separate farms. Elizabeth Ochsner moved to Richmond, California and died in 1952. She is buried in Berkley, California.
- 1946; Harold Doel bought the ranch and was the last person to live in the ranch house. He demolished most of the other buildings and used the wood to build a new farmstead.
“Stoughton was a real English aristocrat. (He) always wore a tweed coat, riding breeches, leather leggings and high leather boots, (and he) usually carried a riding whip and wore a hat like the old policemen used to wear.”Treasured Memories Gwynne and District, page 174
Nicholas Mande recently commented and provided additional information about William Stoughton. I’ve have no means to verify the information but I also have no reason to doubt it. This helps to elaborate upon the little known life of the man who had the Bittern Lake Ranch House built. If you’ve read some of my posts about Saskatchewan, you’ll know that aristocrats were not at all uncommon on the prairies. However typically people with British peerages left the United Kingdom because they were not the first born and therefore had limited options in Britain. Based on the comment below, William Stoughton did in fact inherit the estate. It remains a unknown to me as to why he chose to come to Canada.
I live at Owlpen in Gloucestershire, England, where William Stoughton (born 1861) was buried in 1936. He was in fact the last heir to the estate, which had descended in his blood line for nearly 1,000 years (recorded since about 1120), but he died without issue, and the family trustees had sold the estate in 1924/5. He had inherited from his uncle, William Anthony. The Stoughtons were an Anglo-Irish family of landowners, whose estates were in County KerryNicholas Mander – See December 2021 comments at end of this post.
Prohibition in Alberta? Fun fact, there really was prohibition here in Alberta. It lasted from 1916 to 1923. That might explain why people looked so melancholy in typical black & white images from the early century. Robert and Alice Ochsner were quite astute business people to sell or trade the Strathcona Brewing and Malting Company Limited in 1907, well before prohibition started. They were quite successful in operating the brewery before it was sold. In 1902 the Ochsner’s “made major renovations to the plant which included construction of additional buildings as well as the introduction of automatic bottling equipment having a capacity of 50,000 bottles a day”. The trade of the brewery for the Bittern Lake Ranch ended Stoughton’s involvement in the ranch and ushered in the Ochsner era. I don’t know if William Anthony Stoughton sold his interest in the brewery before or after 1916 and the enactment of prohibition.
Adolph (also spelled “Adolf”) Busenius was born in Russia in 1888 and arrived in Canada with his parents in 1900. His father, Ludwig, donated land for a school so in appreciation for the land, the Busenius School was named after him. Adolph Busenius worked at various ranches in the area, including the Bittern Lake Ranch, to earn extra money so that he could improve his homestead and start a family. Adolph Busenius died in 1963 at the age of 75.
Working on the Bittern Lake Ranch took a certain kind of person, whether a man or a woman. Below is an advertisement for “A Good Strong Girl” and a sign found at the ranch site. Hired help generally received $2.00 per day.
The aristocrat who built this house is long gone; the Ochsner’s descendants have moved on with their lives. The ranch hands in their leather leggings have hung up their spurs for the last time. It’s quiet now. There’s just the sound of the prairie wind and maybe, if you listen very carefully, the click of a photographer’s camera trying to capture the past.
- Treasured Memories Gwynne and District, Gwynne Historical Society, 1977.
- The Bittern ‘N Sweet, The Bittern Lake-Sifton History Book Association, 1983.
- The City of Strathcona 1891-1912, A University of Alberta Masters Thesis by John Frederick Gilpin, Master of Arts – History, 1978.
- Also see my recent blog on the Haselwood Mill as much, if not all of the grains from the Bittern Lake Ranch were processed at the Haselwood Mill.
- All colour photographs are by Glen Bowe.