Cochrane foundation preserves histories of Alberta, one brand at a time

From flying letters to initials to rising and setting suns, the brands that have served as both familial identity and commercial property marker tell an important part of Alberta's history.

Stockmen's Memorial Foundation houses retired brands and the documents that help tell their tale

Don Hepburn shows off a sunrise branding iron, which came from a ranch on the eastern side of a rise. (Monty Kruger/CBC)

From flying letters to initials to rising and setting suns, the brands that have served as both familial identity and commercial property marker tell an important part of Alberta's history.

Many still exist, but many more no longer mark animals that wander provincial ranches and ranges — retired brands that often find their way into the archives of the Stockmen's Memorial Foundation. 

Nestled into land of the once-sprawling Cochrane Ranche — whose brand was a C — the foundation houses an extensive collection of branding irons and the registration documents that help tell their tale.

"You know, many of the brands that were used were created as a symbol of a family," said Don Hepburn, treasurer of the foundation. 

Scott Grattidge, executive director of the foundation, looks at documents that tell the story of how a brand was registered. (Monty Kruger/CBC)

"So they would have their family initials or they might have a symbol from their past of where they originated from. It could be a shamrock from Ireland.… I think one of the German families here had a crown and that represented the crown of the country where they came from. Other people had the Scottish thistle and many times they would use that symbol to represent their family."

Brands remain despite technology

Ranchers would have to apply to the government to register a brand and pay a fee when it was approved. Until recently, the brand would have to be renewed every four years or it would be de-registered.

Brands would fall away if the ranch was sold, or the family moved on, or the payment couldn't be made. Today, there are fewer ranches and larger operations. 

Even with electronic ear tags that show where a cow is and who it belongs to, many ranchers maintain a brand, both for easy visual identification and for maintaining that family symbol and tradition.

The foundation houses 155 boxes containing letter and registration documents, showing who applied for which brand and when. It also has branding irons — the metal rods that burn into the hides of animals — to show the variety of designs. 

The archives date from 1885 to 1987. In 1990, the government moved to lifetime brand registrations. 

'A bit of heritage that we're losing'

There are lazy letters (those turned on their sides) and rising or setting suns. There are plenty of initials. One iron shows a Swiss cross. 

Don Hepburn, the treasurer of the foundation, shows some of the historical documents tied to a brand. (Monty Kruger/CBC)

"In 1980, the Stockmen's Memorial Foundation was actually founded when somebody was thinking that they could just possibly throw these away. And people realized the significance of these brand collections, because it was really the family heritage and the history of founding agriculture in Alberta," said Scott Grattidge, executive director of the foundation. 

"These were really what people used to identify their animals and also their family, because they usually had a lot of meaning depending on the symbol and what they would use."

Grattidge compares the brands to Scottish tartans that helped identify a clan. 

Old branding irons hang in the building that houses the Stockmen's Memorial Foundation. (Monty Kruger/CBC)

"It was a bit of your identity and it told a bit about the family and there was usually a history behind it," he said. 

"So it is a bit of heritage that we're losing as we're getting less and less people with brands registered. But on the other hand, I'm seeing more and more interest today, people registering horse brands wanting to have their horse with the unique registration."





With files from Monty Kruger