Scapa area ranchers memorialize victims of 1907 blizzard

Written by Submitted

The late Gus Mattheis began the idea for a memorial for the Brainard Tragedy that is located about 2 kms. south of Scapa, Alta. The huge rock was chosen because it resembles a saddle or a sway-backed horse. ECA Review/Submitted

I hope the locals can forgive me, but there just isn’t much to this hamlet. Located 28 km north of Hanna, the heyday of Scapa, Alta., came and went a long time ago.

Scapa’s only claim to fame is one of tragedy. On Jan. 29, 1907 a fierce blizzard struck.

When it ended a few days later, two men were dead, about 550 head of beef cattle and horses perished, and only one man barely survived. Montana rancher Lee Brainard took too many risks in an unknown country in a harsh winter. 

The result was inevitable.

“He was a little reckless, but he had a lot of determination,” analyzed Scapa farmer Leo Erion, 74.

In 2007, a retired RCMP officer from Stettler, Alta., came out and visited a few local ranchers. 

Leo Erion helped
with the Scapa
blizzard memorial.
He lives nearby.

The officer’s purpose was to ascertain where the blizzard had struck, where the men and beasts died, and where Brainard began his walk for survival. 

The officer met with rancher Gus Mattheis, now deceased (tragically, in a farm tractor rollover accident, Sept., 2015). Mattheis began the idea of a memorial site almost exactly where the tragedy had unfolded 100 years earlier.

“It’s within half a mile of the memorial site,” Erion suggested. He lives close by. The site is about two km. south of Scapa on Range Rd 150, which connects Scapa to Hanna.

Erion remembers Mattheis organizing meetings of area farmers and ranchers. 

“A few of us in the community got behind it,” Erion said. The plaque was cast in nearby Alliance, Alta. It cost only $120. “We all chipped in,” he noted. 

“We got the wording from the Glenbow Museum (Calgary) archives,” Erion said. The humble site is road allowance land.

Local planners chose a huge rock “because it resembles a saddle or a sway-backed horse,” Erion said. The old Maple log at the top is from the area – any around were grown for shelterbelts, he added.

Death Rode the Blast

The tragic tale, headlined “Death Rode the Blast,” is recounted exhaustively in the August 1951 edition of Canadian Cattlemen. And a decade or so ago, area rancher, Helen Brunner Standing, re-told the sad tale in a 3-page poem entitled “Death in the Blizzard’s Wake.” 

She grew up on a ranch three miles south of the tragedy site, a ranch now owned and operated by Standing’s niece, Shawna Brunner, and her husband, Lowell Johnston.

Dreamy ‘chinook’ belt

Both accounts tell of Brainard seeking more open space from his confines at Bozeman, Montana. 

His wife had died and so he took his teenage son, elderly hired man and livestock, and in mid-summer of 1906 he struck out for this dreamy “chinook belt” nirvana in East Central Alberta. 

At Medicine Hat, the RCMP had warned Brainard of the perils of the raw frontier in winter. He ignored them. He settled briefly in the fall about three miles north of Richdale, Alta., alongside Berry Creek.

However, one October morning Brainard awoke to snow on the ground. And to his dismay, it never melted. No chinook arrived. 

In fact, more snow piled up. Their only shelter was a covered wagon. The cattle and horses had to rustle their own food. The temperatures soon hovered at 30 to 40F below zero. Cattle began to die. 

On Jan. 29, 1907, a warm chinook finally blew in and caressed the cowboys. They worked in shirtsleeves. 

Brainard decided to move northwards, maybe 12 miles, likely towards the southwestern edge of Sullivan Lake. He used the horses to break the trail. They were headed to Hunts’ ranch and feedlot about five miles southeast of Endiang, Alta. 

Brainard had met the Hunt brothers a few months back and they had urged him to bring his stock there for the winter. 

A fall prairie fire had burned much of the standing grass. He had refused until now.

In late afternoon, the wind died down and a mild calm settled in. The group ate supper. 

Grey wall descends

Young Albert suddenly jumped up and yelled “For God’s sake! Look what’s coming!” the 1951 Cattlemen account states. A grey wall descended upon them from the northwest.

In the space of maybe two days, White and the boy were dead, along with most of the livestock. 

Brainard had warmer winter clothes and so he stumbled off towards the Hunt place, sometimes crawling on all fours. 

He followed a fence-line and incredibly, he found the Hunt shack and collapsed against the door. He had survived.

“It puzzles me to this day as to “How did he find the Hunt ranch?’” Erion asks. “It must have been an eight mile walk in the blizzard.” 

His other question is “Where are the two bodies buried?”

Brainard went on to lose nine toes. However, he recovered and rebounded. 

He and his new wife had two daughters. He ranched in the Fort St. John, B.C., area until his death in 1938 at age 79.

In 2019, Brainard’s grandson, Merle Keddie of Hythe, Alta., came out on a goose-hunting trip. He met with several ranchers and sought answers to a few questions. 

Keddie met with Maureen (nee Hunt) Wasdal, Endiang, Alta. Her grandfather, Harold, was one of the three Hunt brothers who had been in the farm shack when Brainard had banged on the door that blizzard evening in 1907.

Wasdal noted that her family still has a saddle from the Brainard horses. She is unsure if it is Lee Brainard’s actual saddle.

Wasdal and Erion both mentioned that locals and Keddie had planned a get-together for this past summer at the Scapa Hall to re-visit the tragedy and perhaps fill in a few gaps of information. The COVID 19 pandemic put a halt to that idea. 

“Perhaps next year,” Wasdal suggested.

Mark Kihn grew up on a mixed farm at Basswood, Man. He writes out of Calgary.

The inscription on the Scapa Memorial reads: 

End of a Dream

The Brainard Tragedy Site

“In the winter of 1907 Lee Brainard and his son, Albert Day Brainard, and his hired man, Hampson White, were moving 450 head of cattle and 100 horses to the Hunt Ranch when they were caught in a winter blizzard. Albert and Hampson and most of the cattle and some of the horses perished in the storm at this approximate site.”

 

by Mark Kihn

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