When Fox Was King

Photos: National Archives of Canada—PA043988; national Archives of Canada—PA043978

Photos: National Archives of Canada—PA043988; national Archives of Canada—PA043978

(Inset) Scottish comedian Sandy MacGregor holds three silver blacks while visiting a farm during the industry’s golden years; A fox inhabits a pen at the Victoria Fox Farm in Charlottetown, P.E.I.

Those who got in at the right time made fortunes, literally overnight. And it all came from farming—farming with a furry twist. The name of the game was fox farming or ranching, and for several years it remained the hottest industry on Princ e Edward Island.

The late 19th and early 20th centuries brought hard economic times to many Islanders. Some 30,000 residents left the province between 1870 and 1900. By 1924, the population had shrunk to 86,000 after reaching a high of 109,000 in 1881. The development of fox farming at the turn of the century brought a much-needed, but unfortunately short-lived economic boom to P.E.I., and from 1900 to 1940 the Island was the world leader in this new industry.

Although the foxes were the offspring of native red animals, they were black with a sheen of silver in their fur, as their outer guard hairs were tipped with it. They were one of the rarest animals in nature and much prized in a society where being rich meant wearing fur. Known variously as silver, black, black silver and silver black, the fur trade used the term “silver fox” to cover all grades, from light silver to pure black.

While others had experimented with raising foxes in captivity, Charlie Dalton of Tignish, Prince County, in the northwest corner of the Island, seems to have been the first to seriously consider breeding them for profit. Dalton and his older friend, fellow farmer Robert Oulton, became fox-farming pioneers. Oulton, originally from New Brunswick, and Dalton frequently hunted and fished together, enjoying the thrill of the sport as well as bringing in a little extra cash from time to time. Around 1880, Oulton decided to set up stakes on Savage Island (later Cherry, now Oultons Island) in Alberton Harbour near Northport. Oulton, who had been captivated by the island’s natural beauty, would eventually bring roughly 30 hectares under cultivation.

Dalton and Oulton also trapped animals for their pelts, sometimes taking live reds wanted by American hunting clubs for their pastime. Occasionally, they bought a much rarer silver fox from a native Mi’kmaq or caught one themselves. The pelts of such animals were highly prized by the fashion industry and so they always sold on the London, England, market for much more than the common reds.

Around 1883, Dalton began acquiring breeding stock, and drew heavily on his friend Oulton’s experience to help him obtain his first live foxes. The younger man realized a fortune could be made if a strain of pure silver foxes could be bred in captivity from the silver pups the reds sometimes dropped, much as farmers bred their cattle and horses. Unfortunately, Dalton’s initial attempts to breed such foxes failed when the pups died before reaching maturity. In 1894, the two men decided to work together to overcome the problems of keeping the foxes confined to small quarters. Their goal was to get them to breed while in captivity with the hope of developing a pure silver strain.

Although Dalton and Oulton were very close, they had different personalities and strengths that led to their individual roles in their new enterprise. Dalton, 44, outgoing and ambitious, became the manager, dealing with the public and marketing pelts. Oulton, 59, practical and persistent, worked behind the scenes developing fox-breeding techniques. Although their initial efforts were not too successful, they persevered in the face of many failures.

Oulton realized the importance of keeping the foxes’ surroundings as close to their natural habitat as possible, and he constructed a 30-metre square “ranch” in a small copse of trees on the island. One of the biggest problems was the foxes’ natural dislike of being restricted to small spaces. The wily creatures’ natural intelligence, coupled with sharp teeth and claws, resulted in many escaping from their pens back to their woodland dens.

The solution arrived in the form of a British wire mesh fence foxes could not cut. The partners were on their way to success when Oulton designed new pens incorporating this fencing. The wire was also buried deeply so the foxes could not dig their way out, although some of the more determined animals succeeded in burrowing through the sandy soil to freedom.

Oulton designed the kennels used in their first pen. He found sections of hollow logs, nailed a board over one end and filled them with soft, dry seaweed. Dalton then brought two pairs of silver foxes from his home to serve as their first breeders. Once the men had created the suitable environment, they had to learn more about the secrets of domesticating wild foxes. They quickly discovered mother foxes would kill their pups if disturbed while giving birth. The men also discovered it was best to separate males and females except at breeding time during February and early March. They fed the foxes milk, bread, fish, horsemeat and dead calves.

The first year with the new pens resulted in a number of pups from which they selected the purest black ones and those with the brightest silver. The two budding entrepreneurs kept their work secret; not even their families were fully aware of what they were doing. Dalton and Oulton studied the laws of genetic inheritance and applied what they discovered to create a stock that bred true in captivity. In 1896, their selective breeding finally achieved success and they marketed their first pelts. To maintain secrecy, Dalton sent pelts from distant post offices or on ships sailing on the night tide. The next year, Dalton built his own fox ranch at Tignish, but remained a partner in the Savage Island venture.

The partnership received $1,807 for a single silver pelt sold at the London Fur Sale in January 1900. And in spite of Dalton’s assertion the pelts came from wild animals, to buyers it was obvious by their quality they were farmed furs, far superior to the wild ones marketed by the Hudson’s Bay Co. With pelts achieving such high prices it was inevitable others would soon find out and ask to be let into the business.

Prince Edward Island’s silver fox industry had begun.

In 1900, Dalton reluctantly sold a breeding pair to Robert Tuplin and James Gordon, and a second pair to Silas and B.I. Rayner. Soon these six men, including Dalton and Oulton, were known as the Big Six Combine. They controlled the industry, which was still centred in western Prince County, and agreed verbally to keep their fox-breeding practices secret, to never sell a live fox and not to produce too many pelts in order to keep prices high.

Prince Edward Island was soon recognized as the world leader in this rare commodity, and the key to maintaining this lead was to ensure the monopoly held, not an easy thing to do.

Up until 1910, the Big Six completely controlled the province’s domestic fox industry and, by extension, the world’s. But word did get out that fortunes could be made from foxes. Prices on the international market climbed to unheard of heights. C.M. Lawson and Company of London, England, the greatest fur auction house in the world, sold 25 pelts for Dalton and Oulton for $34,649. One prize skin alone fetched over $2,600. This was excellent money considering that the average annual wage for an Island farm labourer at the time was roughly $225, while a university professor earned $1,200.

The Big Six guarded their stock closely and kept their agreement not to sell a live fox. However, the pressure grew from others anxious to get rich quick, and what they wanted were breeding pairs.

In the face of fantastic prices offered by farmers, merchants and others, the Big Six monopoly crumbled. In 1905, Tuplin sold a pair to his nephew, Frank, in Summerside. Not long after that, breeders were selling for an exorbitant $10,000 a pair.

A “silver rush” hit P.E.I., centred at picturesque Summerside. Tuplin’s sales of breeding stock initiated fox farming’s boom years of 1910-1914. However, those good years also brought overproduction. Companies formed overnight to buy breeding pairs and set up fox ranches. As the “get-rich-quickly” mentality spread across the province, people began turning over breeding pairs. A pair of silver blacks bought for $10,000 could quickly be sold for twice that price, with first-class pairs selling for as much as $35,000. In 1912, Tuplin sold 22 breeding pairs to a syndicate for $250,000. It is interesting to note that the entire provincial budget for that year was less than $400,000. When the supply of live animals ran out, an exchange opened to trade in fox futures. More animals were pledged before birth than survived the litters. Reckless speculation became rampant.

Oulton was 76 when he sold out in 1911 and returned to New Brunswick, where he continued raising foxes for a few more years. A year later, Dalton followed suit and began to dabble in politics, becoming a provincial cabinet minister.

However, in the view of leading men from the business community at the time, there was no reason the fox-farming industry could not be a permanent one, with no end in sight.

Indeed, one writer stated in Rod and Gun Magazine that the raising of Silver Black Foxes is just in its infancy. “Only now are people awakening to the fact that a fortune is awaiting them in the rearing of these Foxes.” The writer added that prominent wholesalers “are of the opinion that if the production of Silver Black Foxes were doubled, the prices would still remain high.”

Fox fur was much in demand by the nobility, especially Russian and Austrian. With Island fur so sought after, prices soared, especially for prime pelts. Even the nobility got in on the act. The New York Evening Post of Jan. 13, 1913, reported, “In the London Market ordinary Pelts bring from $500-$1,000 and from that up to $4,000. This later figure is the highest legitimate price ever brought by a Silver Black Fox, although it is known that an English lady of title purchased a skin at auction for $3,500 and turned it over to an Austrian Nobleman’s wife for $7,000.”

By the time World War I started, up to 85 per cent of silver foxes in captivity globally were on P.E.I. in 312 fox ranches containing some 4,587 animals. The industry was valued at $26 million. And still the number of fox farms rose, including in nearby New Brunswick and Nova Scotia as well as further afield. Although the market declined during WW I when much of the European market was cut off, it quickly recovered and continued to grow throughout the 1920s and 1930s. By then, Island fox farmers made more money exporting live foxes than by selling pelts. In the 1920s, wearing fox pelts spread beyond the nobility and became very fashionable among women, with silver fox retaining its pride of place. One of the earliest fox fashions to become popular was a scarf made from a single pelt, selling for anywhere from $350 to $1,000.

Some fox farmers experimented with better ways of raising their stock, never a sure thing because of the animal’s temperamental nature. The federal government even got involved and in 1925 established the Dominion Experimental Fox Ranch at Summerside to help farmers raise the animals. A secondary industry based on servicing fox farms grew up, developing and selling products such as Sunglo fox food and Redi-Made fox pens. Business flourished for veterinarians, druggists and hardware stores. Island licence plates proclaimed: P.E.I.–Seed Potatoes and Silver Foxes.

The Island’s first annual fox show was held in 1929. For $5 per animal, exhibitors could enter a maximum of 30 foxes. Close to 500 foxes were shown that year.

The judging of live foxes was the highlight of the show. There were seven classes: black or extra dark, dark silver, dark medium silver, medium silver, pale silver, extra silver and groups or herds. Winners in each class received a cash prize of $5 along with ribbons and trophies. Judges for the competition were experts from within the fur farming industry as well as appraisers of fine furs and animals. Owners were not allowed to see the judging, so handlers looked after their animals.

Dalton shared his fortune, and gave large sums of money to schools and hospitals. The Pope knighted him for his charity and he became the province’s lieutenant-governor in 1930. He died in office in 1933. He was 83. Unfortunately, as with most speculative get-rich-quick schemes, the bubble eventually burst and many people lost money. As lack of disposable income decreased during the Great Depression of the 1930s, the demand for fox pelts declined dramatically. When money was scarce, fashion took a back seat to more pressing concerns.

After the Big Six’s monopoly was broken, in time Island breeding stock found its way around the world. Prices declined as the number of pelts on the market increased and by 1935 the industry suffered from severe overproduction. In 1937, when the number of fox farms peaked, there were 1,215 ranches spread from one end of the Island to the other, holding more than 20,000 animals. One in 10 Island farmers now kept foxes. Between 1938 and 1941, fox farming started to fall into insignificance and by the end of the decade pelt prices reached an all time low as fashion tastes changed to lighter coloured and more exotic furs. Many farmers simply opened their pens and let their once-valuable animals escape into the woods. Others “pelted out” their stock.

The fox boom made many people rich, but as with all get-rich-quick schemes there were losers. Many invested their life savings and when the bottom fell out, they lost everything. A few farmers managed to carry on and continued to raise foxes for several more years. One of the last went out of business in 1990 when the value of a fox pelt declined to a mere $54.

If you travel across the Island today, you might be able to spot a row of long-empty, tumbledown fox pens. Most of what remains of the time when fox was king are the sprawling, elaborate mansions known as “fox houses.”
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