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Outfoxed: The Decline of the Fox Farm Industry in PEI

Harrowsmith’s editor-in-chief visits Summerside’s International Fox Museum and Hall of Fame.

Who knew that sleepy Summerside, Prince Edward Island, was the birthplace of the prestigious worldwide fox-farming industry? In the early 1900s, over 8,000 fox ranches dotted the Island, keeping the rich and royal fashionably warm. Of course, Samuel de Champlain and Sir Alexander Mackenzie would claim earlier fame as fur traders, but the demand for luxury furs necessitated the establishment of fox farms. After experimentation in 1895 on a farm near Tignish resulted in a litter with silver veins in the fur, the“silver rush” began.

Summerside’s International Fox Museum and Hall of Fame is a curious mix of relics, pelts, heritage and an actual tattoo kit that was used to mark the ears of the foxes in captivity. If you like odd museums and quirky lore, put it on your itinerary. There’s even a Summerside “fox hunt,” which allows participants of all ages to try and find a dozen foxes, cleverly designed by Malpeque Fine Iron Products, hidden around town.

Archivist Fred Horn is an amiable Islander and non-official fox expert. He accepted my request for a private tour, as the museum only operates on a seasonal basis (in July and August) or by appointment. Get him talking about the legend of Frank “Snake” Peters, the legendary trapper and hunter from the woodlands of Malpeque Bay, and you’re in for a treat. A valuable friend of the “fox men,” Snake sold live animals to those in the industry. It’s easy to slip back into history with Horn as your ambitious and scholarly guide.

The museum was established in 1980 in what is now the landmark Holman Homestead. The heritage building was saved from a pending wrecking ball and handsomely converted into a country inn and ice-cream parlour in July 2016. Before Horn can go on about foxes, he insists I experience the ice cream. Who wouldn’t want to try the Spaghetti Sundae? Spaghetti-noodle-shape vanilla ice cream is topped with strawberry sauce, shaved white chocolate and mock meatball Ferrero Rocher chocolates. Yes, Summerside is full of the unexpected.

Returning our focus to the genesis of the museum, Horn says the original agreement for the museum in Holman Homestead is expired. As did volunteers’ interest with age. In 2005, the historic Summerside Armoury building, just across the road, became the home of the fox-farming industry archives. The climate-controlled space, necessary for the pelts and trophies, is one of five historical cultural sites operated by the City of Summerside and boosted by donations. Situated across from city hall, the brick-and-stone structure was constructed in 1911 and is one of the last of its design in Canada. Until 1992, it served as the home of local militia and reserve units.

 

The storyboards and artifacts about the lineage of “fox money” and “fox houses” is an intriguing showcase of a lucrative time in Island history, a time when a pair of breeding silver foxes sold for over $35,000. Every fox was named (a peek in the log book shows a colourful cast: Larry, Minerva, Cynthia, Miss Seashore), and museum records elaborately detail diets that included fish, chicken, just-baked buns and even lobster. Some farmers swore by a blend of tripe, chicken livers, junk fish, raw horseflesh, or beef offal mixed with commercially prepared fox meal. If a vixen didn’t produce milk for her pups, nursing cats were used as a surrogate mother.

On display are primitive fox restraints, which were used for exhibiting and portable grooming. Pine pelting boards used to stretch pelts look like small ironing boards. There are fox food grinders, barrel kennels and boxes of unused metal tags intended to mark pelts. I flipped through the 1921 expense sheets of the Silver Fox Breeding Association and saw staples like fresh fish, graham flour and eggs listed. Telephone bills were a remarkable $30 a year back then.

Grainy vintage photos show fox ranchers with Cheshire grins. There were an estimated 4,000 fox ranches at one time; indeed, fox farming was a cash crop that brought notoriety to the Big Six Combine. Retired sea captain James Gordon, carriage builder Robert Tuplin, Silas Rayner and B.I. Rayner dominated the industry. They didn’t sell outside their tight group, especially live breeding stock, and maintained their monopoly. Charles Dalton and Robert Oulton, however, are credited as the pioneers. Capturing fox from the wild in 1883, Dalton swapped intel with Oulton, who had been successful in raising foxes in captivity. In 1884, Dalton and Oulton created the first fox fur farm in Alberton Harbour. When one of their silver pelts sold in London for $1,807, they couldn’t sit on their secret any longer.

 

In 1900, Dalton sold a breeding pair of silver foxes to Tuplin for $340. Tuplin and Captain Gordon soon established the second fox farm on the Island, at Black Banks. The Rayners also bought breeding foxes from Dalton two years earlier and raised some silvers after mating red and black foxes together. The Big Six Combine members were heavyweights with serious restrictions on their practice to keep the demand and prices high.

Of course, when numbers were leaked, everyone wanted in on the action. The math was easy: the average farm worker earned around $26 per month; Dalton and Oulton had a harvest of 25 pelts that rang in at $34,649.50. “Silver fox fever” began. In 1913, there were 3,300 foxes in captivity in P.E.I. Even schoolboys found a tidy income catching escapee foxes on weekends for 25 cents a fox.

In a 1913 census, 1,602 silver-black foxes were valued at $15 million. In that same year, fox hot shot Frank Tuplin (Robert’s nephew) bought a Pierce-Arrow automobile for $8,000. This was a third of the value of a single silver-black fox. In 1910, Frank Tuplin sold two pairs of breeding stock ($10,000) to Harry T. Holman in exchange for a house on Beaver Street in Summerside. Prices for a single-pelt scarf (a scarf fastened to one shoulder by a small spring clip set, allowing the full length of the pelt to flow down its wearer’s back) ranged anywhere from $350 to $1,000.

While the American fox industry took hold in the same decade, Summerside continued to have the most successful breeding rates in captivity. Buyers from London, Paris and New York would exchange pelts for suitcases of money. Stealth sales were employed to keep sources secret via multiple mailing posts. The famed “Million Dollar Train” of 1926 saw a cargo of 855 live silver foxes worth $900 each shipped to the United States. Annual fox shows became must-attend events, with close to 500 foxes on display. Exhibitors could enter a maximum of 30 foxes. A $5 cash reward, trophies and ribbons (and bragging rights) attracted pioneering Islanders.

Though the Depression affected the industry, fox farming still provided a reliable income for the Island’s most stable fox ranchers. Foxes were being raised in captivity worldwide, and the market was worth millions, until overproduction, taxation, import duties and competition from Scandinavia and the Soviet Union reduced sales. By 1948, barely 20 percent of pelts in auction houses sold.

The fox farms visibly shrank from a surplus of 3,729 ranches with 99,269 foxes in 1946 to 189 ranches with 3,293 foxes in 1955. By the ’50s, many ranchers lost their shirts, but ironically, they still had pelts to wear. Fox tails began appearing on car aerials, and the prestige was quickly lost to tackiness. Sleek sable and mink replaced the fox as the next craze, and many Island foxes were pelted out or simply released after the Second World War. Coyotes wiped out much of this new-found “wild” population, though mutant strains were introduced.

The International Fox Museum and Hall of Fame also explores the Island’s resistance to motor vehicles and their influence on the agricultural and fishing economy. Low-impact mixed farming lent well to no vehicles, and the decade between 1910 and 1920 was a period of great resistance to cars on the Island. So, when the fox ranchers rolled in with their fancy cars, introducing road construction in tandem, it’s easy to imagine the opposition and resentment that ensued.

Locals will happily point out fox houses to visitors, and if you’re lucky, an insider might just lead you to an old fox ranch to see the wood-frame fox cages that still stand along many of the roadsides in Summerside. (Thanks, Nancy and Noelle!) It’s impossible to visit the Island without seeing the brilliant orange flame of a fox running across a field or kits tumbling about near their den. Each fox is a reminder of a flourishing industry that was, simply, outfoxed.

 

Fast Fox Facts

  • Females are called vixens; males are called dogs.
  • A group of foxes is referred to as a skulk or leash.
  • Foxes are monogamous.
  • Vixens will have four to six kits, or pups.
  • Famous fox movies: Disney’s Robin Hood (1973) and The Fox and the Hound (1981); Fantastic Mr. Fox (2009)
  • Famous fox song: “The Fox” (a.k.a. “What Does the Fox Say?”) by Ylvis
  • Popular books: Fox in Socks by Dr. Seuss, Fantastic Mr. Fox by Roald Dahl

For more information on the International Fox Museum and Hall of Fame, visit culturesummerside.com/international-fox-museum.

 

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