Settlers at the turn of the century near Grande Prairie found the shores of Kleskun Lake a good source of wild hay. The lake stood at the headwaters of Kleskun Creek, which empties into the Smoky River, and was shallow and marshy. A local history book says the lake, which covered a large swath of a valley, was dubbed “Kleskun,” meaning “fat cache,” by the Beaver Indians. The story goes that the natives rolled excess bear fat into balls buried on the shady side of Kleskun Hills, for use later in the making of pemmican.
It was a few years later when Edmund Thompson, a land guide and soil tester, began to explore the idea of draining Kleskun Lake to unleash the potential for what he thought could be prolific hay production.
Thompson was the lead in the establishment of the Kleskun Ranch Co. in 1918. It was launched with authorized capital of $600,000 and a land grant obtained from the province in lieu of having the lake drained under the Reclamation Act. Over the next few years, the company worked to open up the Kleskun Creek channel, and installed lateral ditches for drainage. This made most of the 15,000-acre lake bottom available for grazing or hay production. At its peak, the cattle company controlled about 45,000 acres but by 1927 had to sell out due to financial problems.
Local history says the lake was drained at a cost of $150,000 in an ambitious venture that involved dredging machines used to create a network of ditches. Stakeholders thought it worthwhile – it would, after all, reclaim acres of land of “almost inexhaustible fertility,” says the history book.
Though the lake continued to fill up with water every spring, the fertility of the old lakebed and the adjacent area exceeded everyone’s expectations. While it wasn’t the original intent, several hundred acres of oats sowed there the first year after the land was broke yielded 120 bushels/acre. The land was also capable of producing 10,000 tons of Red Top and Blue Joint Hay each fall, reported Maclean’s in August 1930.
The Kleskun Ranch Company provided employment for the surrounding community. Fencing contracts – at $75-100 a mile – haying, cooking, knitting and mending were just a few opportunities. There were usually about 35 men on permanent staff, and a single fellow could earn as much as $90 per month – with room and board on top!
In the fall of 1921, the Kleskun Ranch Co. made northern Alberta’s largest purchase of purebred livestock to date when it bought V. W. Smith’s herd of 150 Fairfax Herefords for $25,000. The company thought it was a nice addition to its herd of 1,600 high-grade Herefords and was bent on bringing its total herd to 5,000 head.
Eventually though, local settlers – who objected to draining the lake because they needed the income from muskrat pelts, brought to bear enough opposition that the company opted to concentrate on ranching instead. At one point, about 2,000 head of Hereford, Shorthorn and crosses (even one Texas Longhorn) grazed on this range. A succession of bad events prompted the sale of the ranch in 1927 and the local Grande Prairie municipality took it over for taxes.
Kleskun has always boasted its unique set of attributes. When a system of underground wells was capped off, SRD rangeland manager Kurt Kushner said stickleback fish flew out with the flush. “People don’t believe me when I tell them that, but I’ve got the fish to prove it,” says Kushner.