‘We have never got rich, but we sure have a good life being poor.’

For nearly 70 years, the Bradley family have called the Pelly River Ranch home. Through the ups and downs of remote northern farming, they’re still finding ways to make things work.

Dale Bradley’s roots run deep at the Pelly River Ranch.

In his front yard, there’s a slump in the grass where the former farmhouse once stood, and just inside the fence are weathered boards from the floor of the original barn.

When he looks upriver, he sees the spot where his Uncle Dick first crossed the still-frozen Pelly River, with a tractor and farming supplies, in 1954, starting the family’s legendary farming legacy in the Yukon.

For nearly 70 years, the acreage—located on the banks of the Pelly River in central Yukon—has produced tonnes of vegetables, grains and grasses. It’s nourished a herd of cattle, a flock of chickens and many generations of the Bradley family.

The Bradleys’ Yukon story began in the early 1950s, when Dale’s Uncle Hugh spent his summers working at the federal Experimental Farm near Haines Junction. In 1953, Hugh’s colleague John Stelfox was visiting farms north of Whitehorse, to collect seeds and harvest data. Once he saw the Pelly River Ranch, he knew he’d found a special place. As luck and perhaps destiny would have it, the current owners were selling.

Dick and Hugh grew up on a farm in Alberta. They both knew that they wanted to farm for a living, but they weren’t in line to inherit the family farm, so they needed to find a place of their own.

“At the time, the cost of land in Alberta was outrageous,” said Dale. “This place was cheap, in relation; all it was going to take was blood, sweat and tears.”

So, they signed on to put in some “blood, sweat and tears.” The two brothers and two friends, Stelfox and Buck Goodwin, partnered to purchase the property in 1953.

The ranch has never been easy to get to. In April 1954, Dick came up the Overland Trail, from Minto, and locals helped him get his equipment and supplies across the ice. A few months later, in June, Hugh and Buck walked in with four cattle.

“They came up the highway and then walked from Pelly Crossing, through the bush,” said Dale. “That was the start of the herd that we still have here today.”

In 1959, Dale’s father, Ken, came to the Yukon. He worked and farmed in Haines Junction and Carmacks before ending up with his brothers, in 1961. Dale was just an infant when they arrived at the Pelly River Ranch.

While growing up, Dale learned the ins and outs of farming from his uncles and his father. As a young man, he left to explore the world. After working in gold mining and highway construction, he eventually found his way back to the ranch.

“I got tired of working for people and wanted to do something for myself … that’s what brought me back here,” said Dale.

Dale bought Dick’s share of the ranch when Dick retired in April 1990. Dale ran the ranch in partnership with Hugh, until Hugh passed away in 2012. Currently, Dale and his wife, Sue, are the main owners, and that means their skills must be wide and varied to make remote farm life work.

“Here, you’re an everything-kind-of-guy all the time,” he said. “You’re a carpenter, you’re a mechanic, an electrician and a veterinarian and anything else you need to be on that day.

“Yeah, I get to do it all … sometimes I don’t want to,” Dale added with a smile.

Along with the ranch and a strong work ethic, it’s clear that Dale also inherited his uncles’ sense of humour.

A tour around the ranch takes you through a well-organized maze of metal, wood and spare parts that speak to the farm’s self-sufficiency over the years. Nothing is wasted.

A stone’s throw from the farmhouse is a blacksmith shop full of tools and equipment that dates back more than a century. Some of the now-antique tools are still used in a pinch.

“There are rare tools in here that not everybody can say they’ve seen,” said Dale, holding up a V-belt made from wooden blocks that used to drive the fanning mill. “It’s older than you and me put together.”

The blacksmith shop was likely constructed in 1901 by the property’s original owners, Edward Menard and George Grenier. When Dick and Hugh arrived in the 1950s, they used the shop to make and repair parts for their farm equipment.

“Dick and Hugh’s old threshing machine took Babbitt bearings, so they would pour bearings heated up on that forge,” said Dale.

The grinder and drill in the shop were used until electricity came to the ranch in 1960. Today, the farmhouses run on solar power, and the rest of the ranch relies on generators and headlamps for light on the dark days of winter.

The Bradley family story of remote northern farming has been drawing interest almost since the brothers first set foot on the property. Perhaps, most notably, they caught the attention of Marjorie Lucknow, a young nursing student in Ontario in the early 1960s.

While working in a hospital, Marjorie was reading to a patient—an 87-year-old retired farmer—when she came across an article about the Pelly River Ranch. The more she read, the more her patient wanted to know. He asked her to read the article over and over, and eventually persuaded her to write to the brothers on his behalf.

“The urgent need to know how anyone could make a living raising cattle and growing grains, where there is very little rainfall and winter temperatures could be minus 70 degrees Fahrenheit, was almost too much for this old gentleman,” wrote Lucknow in a story she recorded later in life.

On a whim, she chose to address the letter to Dick because he was the older brother. Dick wrote back and, over the years, the couple developed an intimate relationship, which led her to board a bus and move to the Yukon with her young son, Glen, in 1973. She and Dick married the day after she arrived.

Later in life, Marjorie wrote a short history of the farm so that the personal parts of the Bradley family story would not be lost over the years. She was worried all that would remain from the farm would be the sterile, soulless official government records.

“How much reality, heartache, success and failure, to say nothing of the scenes of everyday life, can one find in a piece of paper?” she wrote. “We have never got rich, but we sure have a good life being poor.”

Marjorie described the brothers’ approach to life as “one straight line,” never showing “undue happiness, anger, frustration or discouragement.”

She also delighted in their dry sense of humour. For example, during his 58 years on the farm, Hugh monitored the Environment Canada weather station on the property. Marjorie wrote: “Usually, on wash days, I ask him what’s in store, weather wise. His only answer is, ‘Yep, we’re bound to have some.’”

To recognize their decades of contributions to the Yukon, the Bradley family received the first Yukon Farmer of the Century Award, in 1999. A tribute in the Yukon Legislature proclaimed: “The Bradleys have set an outstanding example for all Yukon agriculturalists, present and future. Their model of perseverance, dedication, and hard work, laced with a positive attitude and humour is something everyone aspires to.… Through the thick and the thin, they have succeeded in finding ways to make things work.”

After Hugh, Dick, and Marjorie passed away, their ashes were buried on a hill overlooking the ranch. Perhaps they’re keeping an eye on the current generations—Dale and Sue, their children, and family friends—who are still following that winning formula of perseverance and hard work combined with a positive attitude and welcoming sense of humour. They are still finding ways to make things work. “It’s my home and I’m stuck with it now … I can’t get rid of it,” said Dale, with a smile that implied he wouldn’t want it any other way.

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