The Black Fox Museum

An Almost Forgotten Industry

Summerside, Prince Edward Island, Canada

August 20th, 2001

Some of the more delightful things we found while traveling across the Provinces of Canada were the small city or county museums. These are often one or two room operations maintained in support of some organization or business. Although some can be disappointing, many others are a look into some narrow point of history overlooked by the formal competitors. Such was the case as we passed through the town of Summerside on our way to a demonstration at the famous College of the Pipers. This is the only college in North America dedicated solely to the bagpipes and to the dances associated with it. They accept students from around the world. You can get a degree from there. We were quite early, as I remember, and while getting some lunch, a small roadside sign attracted our attention as it directed us to the "Black Fox Museum". It was not a subject either of us had heard anything about and with time on our hands, off we went investigating. We wandered the streets for a while until we spotted a small sign outside a boutique in a little white cottage. Sure enough, the second floor was reserved for a museum. Here we learned that the black fox has always been a rare animal in the wild. With its beautiful silver guard hair, it was much prized by a fashion industry forever in search of distinction. From the earliest days of the fur trade, the fur of the elusive and exotic black fox possessed a value all of its own. While red fox adorned the clothing of the new middle class, the black fox was the sole possession of kings and princes, the wealthy and the famous. The origins of the fox industry are to be found in the woods and fields of rural Prince Edward island and the men who first raised the black fox in captivity who shared a love for hunting and trapping. Ever so often a black fox was dug out of its den or caught live and eventually attempts were made to breed and raise the animals in captivity. Between 1879 and 1885 a Island farmer by the name of Benjamine Haywood had the first recorded success at domesticating the wild fox. However, it was not until hunting companions Robert Oulton and Charles Dalton combined their knowledge and expertise in 1894 that fox ranching or farming truly had its beginnings. Dalton and Oulton made a perfect team. Their partnership lasted for eighteen years until 1912 without a dispute. Dalton, Nail Pond farmer/druggist was an experienced outdoorsman but he also processed a good knowledge of business and an outgoing personality. It was Dalton who would provide the money to acquire initial breeding stock and set up a fox ranch on Cherry Island in Alberton harbor and he later did the promoting and marketing. Oulton, a quiet and unassuming man who came from Little Shimogue New Brunswick, provided the real genius. On the remote Cherry Island his great skill and judgement as a livestock farmer was put to the test and slowly but surely the problems associated with breeding and domesticating the black fox were overcome. Before long the Cherry Island fox ranch was producing healthy litters of silver black fox pups. Once the animals had grown to maturity, they were killed and pelted. Dalton and Oulton kept their business very quiet, and the black fox pelts were secretly shipped to the London, England firm of C. M. Lampson and Co. from a neighboring rural post office. They developed a perfect blue black heavily furred fox pelt that brought extremely high prices on the London market. In 1910, Dalton and Oulton sold 25 fox pelts for about $35,000, an incredibly large sum of money given that the average monthly wage of an Island farm worker at that time was $26. That would translate to over a million dollars to a present day $800 a month minimum wage worker. Prior to 1910, fox ranching was the exclusive domain of a small group. Dalton and Oulton each had their own hunting friends who were understandably anxious to get into the business. Benjamine I. Rayner of Kildare began raising foxes in 1896 on his own initiative, following Dalton and Oulton by only two years. Together with his father he developed the famous Rayner strain of light silver blacks. Two other hunting companions, retired Albertson sea captain James Gordon, and carriage builder Robert Tuplin went into partnership in 1899. Their Black Banks Ranch was developed from a single pair of Dalton/Oulton foxes. Together, Dalton, Oulton, the Rayners, Gordon and Tuplin comprised the group known as the "Big Six Combine". They made an agreement not to sell live breeding stock outside the group, thereby monopolizing and controlling the fledgling business. Frank Tuplin was a struggling young farmer from New Ameam, near Summerside. The nephew of Robert Tuplin, he had visited the Black Banks fox ranch and dreamed of having his own silver-black foxes. He knew about the gentlemen's agreement not to sell outside the original six and yet he was determined to get into the business. His perseverance paid off and following a visit to the Black Banks ranch in 1905, Frank Tuplin returned home with a pair of black foxes. He purchased them from his uncle and Captain Gorden with $1000 borrowed from his cousin Robert Bowness, a Summerside photographer. After two unsuccessful mating seasons, Frank Tuplin's fox ranch finally became a reality. Meantime the Big Six Combine" was expanding on other fronts. Captain Groden took in his brother H. H. Groden, Robert Oulton set up his sons on both New Brunswick and on the Island. Lewes and Champion ranches were begun with Dalton/Oulton foxes. The first public corporation for the breeding of foxes was chartered in the United States in November of 1911. Local speculators quickly followed in 1912 and saw the business spread throughout PEI. But growth was small compared with the following year. In 1913, promotion and speculation soared, as local merchants, professional men farmers and traders, and even store clerks got into fox breeding. There was a wild scramble for options at the start of the year and a wilder scramble later for the money to finance them. More fox pups were pledged, in advance of birth, than actually survived from the litters born. The 1913 Census reported 3,310 foxes on PEI, 1602 of these silver blacks with an estimated value of about 15 million dollars. This was more then twice the value of all other Island livestock at the time. Fox farming spread rapidly beyond the shores of PEI after 1910, first to the neighboring Maritimes Provinces then to Quebec and western Canada. In 1914 Frank Tuplin made the fox industry international with the sale of a pair of silvers to W. H. Smith of Muskegon Michigan, for $20,000. Tuplin had met Smith while vacationing in Florida, and agreed to go to Michigan himself to assist with the establishment of the ranch. He decided to stay and build his own ranch there. later moving to California. In 1913, the Island government recognizing the value of the fledgling industry imposed a one percent revenue tax on all foxes held in captivity. Meantime, America slapped a 10 percent duty on the importation of live foxes, except for those registered in an approved herd book. This was trade protectionism but also an attempt to maintain pedigree. Governments at all levels now took a serious interest. The Commission on conservation of Canada published the first analysis of the fox industry in 1913. This study legitimized fox farming as a new livestock industry. The industry is gone now. To my knowledge there are no more fox farms on the Island. The once big money maker faded into obscurity sometime later in the century. There was nothing I found to indicate what exactly happened other than the market dried up and fashion moved on. It was an interesting insight into a small adventure by a few men that blossomed into a great enterprise. There was even a black fox pelt hanging on the wall to be draped over Laura's shoulder in a true fashion statement.

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