Merritt Herald December 28, 1928
Most Merrittonians would likely be surprised to hear that Fox farming was once a booming industry in the Nicola Valley. Here’s what we’ve discovered so far!
Prior to the early 20th century, the demand for furs was usually met through trapping, however, two pioneer fur farmers began the practice of raising fox pups for their pelts in Prince Edward Island – an industry that was growing within years. The best silver foxes were raised in the Maritimes, and by 1920, these foxes had made their arrival in the interior of BC, where the industry of fox farming was just beginning.
Fox farming began as early as 1919 in the Nicola Valley at the Miller Fox Farm, owned by Issac Miller, with just a few pairs of silver foxes (vulpes vulpes). Previously a fox inspector, Miller started his own fox farm, which soon grew to over 300 foxes kept in 68 wire-enclosed pens. In 1925, his fox, “Prince” won the best adult male fox at the Vancouver Fox Show. Prince was valued at $1000 in 1929. Miller also claimed the trophy for best silver fox, male or female.
In 1929, the value of the fox farming industry in the Nicola Valley, was said to be in the hundreds of thousands of dollars, with up to 1200 foxes in the area. Merritt accounted for the largest fox farming industry this side of Winnipeg. Pelts were shipped to Europe on a regular basis and fox pairs were sold across the country. Breeding fox pairs were usually purchased from the top breeders in PEI, and transported with great care (and expense) to the Nicola Valley.
Merritt Herald, November, 8, 1929
Fox farming, as a large scale enterprise, required a great deal of funding and oversight. Construction of fox pens, included wire enclosures that ran below the surface to keep foxes from borrowing out of the pens. Fencing and enclosures at the Miller Fox Farm alone, were estimated to be worth $6000. Additionally, some farms had watch towers and other outbuildings.
Merritt Herald advertisement for local fox biscuits
At the Miller Fox Farm, three men were employed full time just to feed, water and take care of the foxes. The foxes and their pups enjoyed a varied diet of bread, milk, hearts, horse meat, tripe and fox biscuits (which Kellogg began to produce in the 1920’s as well as a local vendor). Fox inspectors were also assigned to inspect foxes and their habitats. Men were employed to ensure safe delivery of breeding fox pairs. I’m also assuming that extra hands were hired during slaughter and pelting. Once ready for market, the pelts were mostly sold to European buyers, fetching top dollars overseas.
Fox pups were usually born in litters up to nine pups in the spring, and weaned by June. By December, winter fur development is at its prime.
There were at least nine established fox farms in the area, although, there were likely many more.
J.J. Gillis owned Merritt Silver Fox Ranch and Gillis Fox Farm. Although he did not operate the farms himself, he was active in the fox farming industry, serving as the BC Director on the Canadian National Silver Fox Breeders Association in 1932 and 1933.
Here is a list of the farms I’ve come across so far:
A wealth of images relating to fox farming have been found in the Albrecht Family Fonds at the Nicola Valley Museum & Archives. Charles W. Albrecht, known as “Bob” and his wife, Helen (nee Graham), owned Silver Lake Fox Farm near Quilchena for many decades. Prior to owning Silver Lake Fox Farm, Bob and Helen farmed at the Nicola Valley Silver Fox Farm (at what is now Miller Estates/Tyner Place) in Lower Nicola).
Bob Albrecht was born in Egypt in 1901 and immigrated to Canada from Geneva, Switzerland aboard the Empress of France in November 1925. Helen (nee Graham) Albrecht was born in Ontario on October 5, 1901 and grew up in Powell River. Helen and Charles were married on August 23, 1929 in Vancouver. Their son was born on May 20, 1942 in Powell River.
Bob is pictured here with two of his silver fox pups
Helen was an avid photographer, a poet and a teacher (at Lower Nicola). Helen and Bob captured thousands of images of life out at Silver Lake, especially of their fox farm.
The Silver Lake Fox Farm was located at Silver Lake, (also called Glimpse Lake or Fish Lake), at Quilchena. The fox farm was active from 1929 until 1935 when the Albrecht’s bought out Isaac Miller, and his partner John Metcalfe (Gold Medal Foxes Ltd) and moved their fox farm back to Lower Nicola. This farm was active until at least 1943.
At both farms, high watchtowers were constructed to watch over the rows and rows of fox pens.
Rows of fox pens (shelter and nesting enclosures) at Silver Lake Fox Farm
The Watchtower in Winter - an impressive sight! (at Nicola Valley Silver Fox Farm, circa 1928)
Pelts produced at Silver Lake and Lower Nicola were sold by Albrecht’s company London Fur Sales Ltd.
There are hundreds of pictures of both Nicola Valley Silver Fox Farm and Silver Lake Fox Farm in the archives at Nicola Valley Museum & Archives. These images document the industry of fox farming from day old pups, to fox pairs, handling foxes, views from the watchtower, panoramas of the entire farm in winter, fox pens, pelt gradiation, a season’s pelt production on display, and just about anything you can think of fox related – with the exception of the slaughter and pelting process!
Bob and Helen also owned and operated Glimpse Lake Fishing Lodge, where avid fishermen often frequented. There are hundreds of pictures showing catches from Glimpse Lake, guests and boating.
They were also frequent hunters, a sport that is reflected in the images –moose and deer, proudly displayed for the camera.
Aside from raising foxes, the Albrecht’s also raised pigs, turkeys, hound dogs, horses, cattle, pekin ducks, chickens and even tried their luck at raising beavers.
Bob and Helen travelled extensively throughout Europe and Egypt and kept a beautiful photo journal of one of their trips. Bob also returned to Switzerland to visit family on occasion. Since no death records are found for him in Canada, it is likely that he returned to Switzerland later in life.
Helen died in Merritt on November 15, 1970.
The Albrecht’s fox farms were not the first in the Nicola Valley, but they were one of the longest running and most successful farms in Western Canada.
There is significant evidence in the pages of the Merritt Herald, as well as the in wealth of photographs in Albrecht Family Fonds, to be able to conclude that fox farming was, at one time, a large part of the local economy and a well-established industry in the Nicola Valley.
There must still be a lot of information out there, and of course, there are usually quite a few people around who have stories to tell about their relatives who might have had some experience fox farming in the area. If you are one of these people, I would love to hear what you might have to add.
Please feel free to send me an email, firstname.lastname@example.org, or give me a call 250.378.7983.