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  Range Rider

by Dave Yanko

So, as I found you, old buffalo skull, while riding by your way, I can only say, old timer, you're a relic of a better day.

-- from To an Old Buffalo Skull, by Pete Perrin, 1938.

BEECHY - Visitors to Pete Perrin's suite at the modern seniors facility in Beechy can't miss the deer antlers hanging on the wall.
Pete Parrin
Pete Perrin
They're big. Pete says they used to rank among the thickest mule deer antlers in the world (Note: Pete passed away in 2007 - ed).

Their hefty size is no surprise when you consider their previous owner foraged some of the best native grass in North America. It's the same grass that in 1905 lured the Matador Land and Cattle Company north of the 49th parallel into southern Saskatchewan, thereby extending the operations of the Scottish-owned company from Texas to Canada.

After its departure in the 1920s, the Matador's name lived on as the first community pasture in Canada. It's where Pete Perrin got his first job as a cowpuncher in 1925.

Today, sitting beside nephew and local historian Ted Perrin, the 92-year-old cowboy chuckles when he recalls how he convinced the pasture manager he was the right man for the job in spite of the fact he was two years too young to be a cowboy at the Matador.

"I threw my chest out as far as a I could and I said 'I'll be 17 on the 28th of this month','' says Pete. "And (the manager) says: 'Well listen, you be darn careful that you don't let a horse buck you off, cause I'll be in big trouble. I shouldn't be hiring you'.''

The manager, who would become his father-in-law when Pete married Mae Valentine in 1934, need not have worried about his newest hand. Pete and his seven brothers were riding horses right after they learned how to walk. Brothers Don and Evan were members of the Canadian rodeo team that competed in the 1924 world championships in Wembley, England. Don went on to produce rodeos, including the first one held at Swift Current in 1938, and Pete performed as a rodeo clown.

"We were raised in the Cypress Hills at Maple Creek,'' says Pete, "and we were raised on horses.''

Pete and Mae in front of a house built by the original 'Texas' Matador company
- courtesy the Perrin family
Pete and Mae in front of a house built by the original 'Texas' Matador company

Pete's job as a 'rider' at the Matador included roping, branding, building and mending fences, helping with calving and collecting cattle from the pasture's patrons. Typically, the cowboys gathered the cattle from their respective ranches and 'trailed' them to the Matador in spring, and the patrons trailed them home in the fall.

One time, Pete single-handedly trailed 35 head of cattle and six horses from Riverhurst to the Matador, a distance of about 50 miles. Cattle can be persuaded to follow a leader, he explained, but horses tend to be persnickety. Pete says he was able to get the job done because the horses were recent arrivals from central Canada.

"Had them horses been in this country before, I'd have been in trouble - they'd have just taken off ahead of the cattle. But I knew they'd never been West, so they just went right along.''

Cattle collected from ranchers who lived in the southern end of the Matador district had to be 'swum' across the South Saskatchewan River. Pete said this posed a double-headed problem because most of the cattle hated water almost as much as the horses that were supposed to lead them into it. The task required a carefully-executed plan that employed the special talents of horses called 'swimmers'.

Ted, 62 and a longtime rancher himself, explained that cowboys used different horses for different tasks. The quick and smart cutting horse was used to separate individuals from the herd, the vigorous circle horse was used for big roundups and the swimmers were used to help get cattle across the river.

In order to do this, two cowboys riding swimmers led the first few head of cattle into the river and out to a man waiting in a boat. With the other cattle following the leaders, the cowboys hopped into the boat, removed the saddles from their horses and led their mounts across the river from the back of the boat. Cowboys waiting on the other side gathered up members of the herd as they arrived at the shore.

"One thing that helped so much,'' added Pete, "was that some of the old cows came back year after year. After you swam them a time or two, hell, they'd get right into the water and head across.''

The Matador employed five or six cowboys who each earned about $75 a month when Pete began working there in the mid 1920s. They slept on hay-filled ticks in a bunkhouse capable of accommodating 14 men when all single and double bunks were filled. The extra space, and more, was needed for the patrons who came to collect their cattle in the fall - cowboys were too busy sorting the roughly 4,500 cattle to take them back home to their owners.

Branding took place at the Matador until the early 1960s. Today, calving and branding is completed before the animals arrive at the pasture
- courtesy the Perrin family
Branding took place at the Matador until the early 1960s. Today, calving and branding is completed before the animals arrive at the pasture.

Branding season at the Matador meant tough and tricky work. Ted, a foreman at the community pasture in the early 1960s, said a good day might see 150 calves branded. But with more than 250 different brands, and calves sometimes numbering more than 3,000, the work usually stretched on for weeks.

"The roper had to catch the calves sucking their mother to make sure what brand went on,'' Ted said. "And then he had to drag the calf over and holler out the brand.''

One of the most memorable and horrible episodes during the 15 years Pete worked at the Matador occurred in mid October 1930. Unseasonable temperatures had turned heavy rain into a two-day blizzard and the cattle, blinded by the ice and snow, simply drifted with the wind into a fenced corner. Pete remembers riding out into the storm with his brother Jesse (Ted's father) to cut the fence and free the cattle.

"If they got trapped in those corners, you knew damn well they'd freeze to death,'' said Pete.

When the storm settled, 183 cattle were dead and a herd of 1,500 to 2,000 had drifted 25 miles from the Matador. By freeing the cattle from the Matador fences, Pete and Jesse saved many animals by allowing them to keep moving and stay warm.

Branding took place at the Matador until the early 1960s. Today, calving and branding is completed before the animals arrive at the pasture
Pete (far right) never expected to be anything but a working cowboy, an honorable job.

Pete loved the range and expected to work at the Matador much longer than he did. In 1943, however, he was given an attractive offer that allowed him to get involved in his own ranching endeavor.

Pete and Mae, who passed away in 1989, for years ran their own successful ranching operations while raising son, Lynn, and daughter, Bev. Pete served as president of the Saskatchewan Stockgrowers' Association in the mid 1960s. In 1974, he and Mae travelled to Africa with the Canadian International Development Agency (CIDA) to help teach animal-husbandry techniques to Tanzanian farmers.

"I had no intentions of ever even buying a ranch,'' says Pete. ''I was just a working cowboy. But I was lucky.''

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