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Beef rings speak volumes of local history

These early informal co-operatives kept beef on the table in the warm summer months before refrigeration

This small outbuilding near Gilbert Plains is a designated heritage site, as one of the few beef ring buildings still standing in Manitoba.

The recorded history of the settling of Western Canada is a sketchy affair. I am not referring to history as we ordinarily think of it, such as treaties, battles, or political decisions, but rather the histories of families, communities, and the evolution of a society largely cast upon their own devices in what was a rather forbidding and harsh environment.

In the community in which I grew up, there were those, like my father, who came to Canada when he was 16, with neither education nor skills. There were those who came from upper-class backgrounds, with education but no skills. And there were those who had both skills and education, but little scope to exercise either one.

What there was in abundance, was land, easily obtained, but challenging to make a living from, and an even greater challenge was to survive until the land was brought into production. We have very little idea, in our present pampered world, of the almost unbearable hardship of a winter spent in a sod shanty on the plains. No wonder ancient gravestones bear the faded names of wives and children who could not survive such terrible hardship.

In all the mass movements of mankind, there is always a winnowing takes place. The more hardy, the more fortunate, the more determined hang on, and the rest move on. Those who stay then begin to improve their circumstances, and a community takes shape. That community then begins to address the problems that beset them as a community, and by trial and error develop means of coping with common needs. As farmers broke up their land, the need for more of a labour force developed. This in turn, meant many more mouths to feed. And since much of the work was hard labour, farm women were faced with the need to put large meals, with plenty of meat, on the table.

Pork could be slaughtered and cured so that it would keep in the summer heat. But beef was a problem, and then as now, beef was a favourite form of protein.

I have no idea where the concept of the beef ring originated. I have no idea whether it was a widespread phenomenon or not. It was a very early and crude form of a co-operative. I only know of my own personal experience with one as a boy, and that at some point the farmers in the municipality of Strathcona, Ward 1, where I grew up, got together and talked about a beef ring. I have no firm facts about who started the idea, although I am pretty sure George Wanless would have been one of the movers and shakers. He was a close neighbour who came to the Belmont district in March 1897, and spent his first 10 years farming rented land and operating a butcher shop. He then bought the north half section of section 22, and the west half of section 23, and started to break up the land. He was an excellent stockman and in my opinion a very good all-round farmer, and since the first one of three slaughterhouses was built on his land, I am sure he played a large role in the formation of the beef ring. In fact, although I don’t have a shred of proof of the fact, I expect he performed as butcher in the early days of the beef ring, feeding not only his neighbours but his own large family as well.

The Wanless’s may have had plenty of children, but they were not unique. The country schools, which were never to be more than four miles apart, all had 20 to 40 pupils. Add to the large families many hired men, and it becomes clear that large meals were the order of the day, with a good supply of meat being essential. In summer, the prospect of a weekly supply of fresh beef was a godsend.

Somewhere, someone no doubt has a complete record of the formation and function of a beef ring. Until that record comes to light, we must conjecture. There must have been many meetings held to iron out the many facets of such a venture. How much beef could a family use? What would be the target weight of the animal to be slaughtered? How could parity in weight and quality of animal be enforced? What penalty would be incurred by not providing a quality animal when it was your turn? These and many other questions must have occupied many hours of debate.

Remember, there were no fridges or freezers, and no butcher shop able to provide the volume or variety required for such demand as existed. So at some point, all the questions had been answered, more or less, to everyone’s satisfaction, the slaughterhouse was built, a chart showing a cut-up side of beef was provided for each member, showing what they would receive over the summer, and the beef ring commenced business.

I have no idea what the target weight was. An 800-pound live animal will dress out at about 400 pounds.

A family taking a half-share, which meant they would receive half a beef in the course of the season, which might have lasted five or six months, would receive somewhere in the vicinity of 10 pounds of beef every week. Don’t be too critical of my efforts here. I’m very much going on guesswork in some of these areas.

What I know is, there was a target weight. If your animal didn’t come up to the required weight, you owed the beef ring. If it was over, they owed you. Because many farmers didn’t — or couldn’t — feed their animals in winter as well as George Wanless did, it was required that the first several animals in spring be stall fed, which meant they were given enough grain to fatten them up, so that scrawny animals didn’t get slaughtered.

I have suggested that George Wanless was very instrumental in the formation and function of the beef ring. But my own memories of it have Howard Williamson as the central figure of the ring. Of necessity, the butcher was the central figure. He it was, who must do the unpleasant work of killing and cutting up a living, sensate creature. Many of us are very fond of meat, but don’t much like the process by which we obtain it, so butchers have pretty good job security.

Where or how, Howard Williamson learned the butcher trade, I do not know. But I know that he was scrupulously honest, and meticulously clean, both necessities for the duties he assumed. He lived about four miles from the slaughterhouse on the Wanless land, and he had to go by where we lived to get there, which was a dirt road, and when it rained, he could only get there with a team of horses. But though he would go on a Friday night and butcher, dress and hang the animal and return Saturday morning, early enough to cut it up and put it in individual bags before 6 a.m., as far as I know, no one ever had to wait for him. I think many Friday nights he would have had very little sleep.

Finally, for those who, having attentively read thus far, and have wondered what the purpose of this endeavour is about, since I have displayed a lack of knowledge about many facets of the beef ring, I would refer you back to my opening remarks. A great deal of history is lost, and may never come to light. We can only celebrate what we know, and I have tried to tell, however imperfectly, what I know. Farming has changed beyond recognition, from when I was young. Farmyards have been vacated, and in many cases, been obliterated. The Wanless yard, full of life in my memory, is empty now. The big red barn is quiet, save for the rustle of an occasional rodent, the chirp of sparrows, and the sound of the wind.

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