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E.P. Ranch: The Duke of Windsor’s Ranch in Canada

E.P. Ranch House c1925. Image from University of Alberta / McDermid Photo Laboratories.

During World War I, Edward, Prince of Wales served as a staff officer attached to the Canadian Corps Headquarters in Flanders. It was during this period that he developed a liking for the Canadian's good nature, frankness and fighting qualities. After the war, he embarked on three full-scale Canadian toursand two private visits as Prince of Wales, one historic encounter as king, and two private visits as Duke of Windsor. At the heart of these visits were a place close to the prince, later king, and duke’s heart: E.P. Ranch, one of the only two properties he would ever own in his lifetime—the other Le Moulin de la Tuilerie, his weekend retreat outside Paris.

1919 – First Visit  and Purchase of E.P. Ranch

On September 14, he reached Calgary and the lifestyle of the west immediately enamoured him that it was said that the "space and tranquility, the mystique, vigour, and apparent freedom captured his  imagination." On a letter to Queen Mary, he wrote "That's a real life. I am now rapidly becoming a westerner."After taking a short respite at Bar-U Ranch near High River, he thought over his experiences and after meeting George Lane, his host and founder of the Calgary Stampede, he commissioned the purchase of  theBedingfeld cattle ranch, which had been founded in 1886 by Mrs. Bedingfeld, a widow of a British army officer who died in India. The property is set on the foothills with the Rockies rising majestically in the west behind and encompassed over 1,440 acres. The Prince purchased it for $25 an acre and renamed the property E.P. Ranch after his formal signature "Edward, P.", P for Prince. It would emerge as the most famous ranch in Canada.

"The atmosphere of western Canada appeals to me intensely," he told a spellbound audience in Winnipeg after he announced the purchase. "The free, vigorous, hopeful spirit of westerners not only inspires me, but makes me feel happy and at home."

After the purchase of the ranch, The New York Times wrote: "The E.P. Ranch is a polite hint to Britain that the Prince of Wales is no longer dependent on the vicissitudes of a throne. If labor becomes restive, he can say, 'very well, I will retire happily to my ranch in Alberta.'" The Prince's decision to acquire a Canadian property was actually not new to Europeans. In fact, many prominent names moved and lived in Canada. Lord Rodney owned a cattle- and horse breeding ranch in Saskatchewan, while the prince's cousin, Prince Erik of Denmark, after renouncing his rights to throne to marry Canadian heiress Lois Booth, settled on his ranch in Alberta. However, for Edward's part, the purchase of E.P. Ranch was not because he had foreseen himself living in this faraway part of the dominion. It was a mere whim, and in the words of Ted Powell, " a small gesture of defiance against his destiny as Prince of Wales, and an assertion that his future life might embrace other possibilities than the ones which he had been born."

When he returned London in 1919, the prince convinced the sceptical King George V that purchasing the ranch would allow him to introduce first-class blood stock from his Cornish and Scottish estates to the Canadian ranch industry. Indeed, strains of horses, cattle and sheep in Alberta were significantly improved because of his ventures in E.P. The prince poured in money and sent experts as well as superior stock from the Duchy of Cornwall, making E.P. a center of breeding excellence of international note.

1923—Second Visit and Living a Rancher’s Life 

It was not until 1923 that the Prince of Wales returned to E.P. Ranch. Traveling as "Lord Renfrew," in time for harvest, he immediately threw himself to work. Dressed in shabby clothes, he stocked oats, chopped sunflowers, pitches hay and filled the silo.

"I've even helped muck out the cow house," he told his father, King George V. "I chopped and saw up wood and I can assure you it is very hard word indeed!" He was served flapjacks and brook trout for breakfast, corn on the cob for lunch and spuds, carrots, and beets fresh from the ground for dinner.

He also hosted lunches and picnic parties for his rancher neighbors, dropping in on his neighbors for surprise visits. On one such occasions, he surprised the nearby Gardner family when one morning, they found the prince eating with their ranch helpers and Chinese cook.  Around this time also, the ranch house was significantly transformed and flower beds and vegetable gardens were created with the help of William Reader, the park superintendent in Calgary. He reluctantly left the ranch in September and returned the following year. He arrived at the ranch tired, depressed and sick with cold but after a few days, his health revived and he was back on his feet again, engaging in haymaking and walking on the hills. On his last day of stay, he officially opened E.P. to the public, where about 600 people turned out.

The grounds of E.P. Ranch, c1923. Image from University of Alberta / Valentine Edy Co. Ltd.

1927 and 1936 Visit

The prince embarked on another official tour in 1927 but without the mass hysteria that swept the country on his first visit in 1919.  The depressed 1930s lead the ranch to down scale to save money.  Edward once again visited the country in 1936 this time as king. He was well-received by the Canadians  and this trip proved to be one of the few happy moments of his reign. In December 1936, he abdicated to marry the two-time American divorcee Wallis Simpson. The Canadians were shocked. “Canada feels that he is her own possession,” quipped Governor General Lord Tweedsmuir. Nevertheless, the abdication  did not temper the Canadians’ admiration for him.

1941—The Duchess of Windsor Visits the Ranch for the First Time

After his abdication, the duke wanted to visit E.P. Ranch on his way to the Bahamas, where he was to take up the post as the British colony’s wartime governor-general. Together with Wallis, now  Duchess of Windsor, the duke finally returned to Calgary, where a huge crowd turned out to greet them. So large that a planned city tour had to be cancelled. During the war years, the duke speculated in drilling Alberta oil in the property, a venture, which sadly, proved without success.

During their nine-day stay in the ranch, the duke proudly showed the duchess around, driving through rain, mud and swollen creeks. It was, indeed, a brief period of rest and relaxation for the couple.

The chiefs of the Stony Indians, who proclaimed him Chief Morning Star, when he first visited the area in 1919, paid a visit to the duke and duchess. On her part, the duchess got the chance to acquaint with the local women, where she shared her welfare projects in the Bahamas. Their trip was, nevertheless, cut short, when they were summoned back to the Bahamas after a hurricane struck the islands.

1950—Last Visit

The duke planned to returned to the ranch in 1945 but wartime travel restrictions prevented the trip. The ranch was without its master for almost ten years when, finally, the couple returned on April 11, 1950. Rumors were already circulating that he intends to sell the ranch, unfounded news which he was quick to dispel. "It is the only piece of property I've ever own," he said. However, for this trip, though, the  couple stayed at the Palliser Hotel. Over the years without an occupant, the couple thought the house was in a sorry state. They delighted when they found out that it was less decrepit than they thought; the duchess was interested in sprucing up the property.

The duke’s interest in drilling the property for oil was renewed on this visit. He met with oilmen and reportedly reached an agreement for possible future searches for oil on his land.Before leaving Alberta, the coupled announced that they would make another visit in the fall that year. The visit never happened; that was the last the duke's last visit to his Canadian property.

In 1956, the Duke of Windsor ceded the management of the property to a group of investors who formed the E. P. Ranch Company, Ltd. The enterprise resumed the breeding of pedigree stock.  Finally, in 1962, E.P. Ranch was sold. In his book, Prince Charming Goes West (1993), Simon Evans explained that the duke's decision to sell E.P. ranch was not because of his failure to turn the property into a successful enterprise (it operated at a small lose,  between $2,000 to $5,000 a year) or to find oil in it. The sale had more to do with the duke's health and the fact that they couple were already comfortably settled in their villa in Paris. An attempt by a consortium of businessmen to acquire the property and present it as a gift to Prince Charles was declined by Buckingham Palace without any solid reason.

In 2004, E.P. Ranch was designated a Provincial Historic Resource.  In 2013, the property was heavily flooded following the torrential rains that inflicted southern Alberta. E.P. Ranch was given a new lease on life when the property underwent extensive conservation work, with restoration of the main ranch house to its 1922 look.


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