A moment in history: Feb. 15, 1928

A moment in history: Feb. 15, 1928

· The Pulse

On this day in 1928, hundreds of Albertans were angling to find their fortunes in the province's burgeoning muskrat industry.

The provincial government at the time revealed that around 500 people had applied for permission to raise muskrats for their fur. The requests came a year after changes to the province's Game Act, which set standards and required licences for fur farms in Alberta.

Of course, Edmonton's history cannot be separated from the fur trade. Fort Edmonton was established as a significant outpost as part of the Hudson Bay Company's fur trading network in western Canada. The industry brought the first wave of settlers to the area, and trading in furs was one of the major points of interaction between them and the Indigenous people who had lived in the region for thousands of years.

The fur trade began to decline in the mid-1800s due to dropping demand in Europe. As the new century approached, trapping and hunting for wild furs was being replaced by other industries, such as agriculture and coal mining. At the same time, fur-bearing animals like beavers were becoming harder to find due to over-trapping and habitat destruction.

Edmonton grew from a fort to a town to a city. The 1910s and '20s saw another much smaller fur boom, with a growing middle class in Europe and the United States hungry for luxury goods. Fur farms began to spring up in both Edmonton and the rest of Alberta. Many farmers experimented with "beaver ranching" (often just fencing off existing dams) to limited success, and others tried their hand at lynx, raccoons, or chinchilla rabbits.

Despite the hundreds of people applying for permits, Alberta did not become a muskrat farming powerhouse. But at least 20 muskrat farms were in operation in Alberta by 1929. Many Edmontonians would also raise mink in their backyard. Some of these operations would then grow into full-fledged mink farms, many of them moving to the eastern outskirts of the city.

But it was fox fur that fascinated the wealthy in the United States and Europe, spurring high demand and higher prices. By 1929, there were two hundred fox farms in the province, with many in and around the city. In an echo of its early fur trading history, the city served as a hub for distributing both live fox and fur across the country and into the US, with some shipments worth hundreds of thousands of dollars at the time.

The financial collapse in the 1930s saw a sharp decline in demand for luxury goods, and the fur farming industry entered a sharp decline. While Alberta's fur farms would not disappear completely, they would not see a boom of the same size again.

Concerns over the conditions of fur farms in Canada, as well as changing attitudes toward the morality of fur, mean we're not likely to see another surge of backyard mink farms. Still, the tradition of urban agriculture continues in Edmonton, especially of the more edible variety, with growing interest in backyard hens and initiatives like the Edmonton Urban Farm and the MacKinnon Food Forest.

This is based on a clipping found on Vintage Edmonton, a daily look at Edmonton's history from armchair archivist @revRecluse — follow @VintageEdmonton for daily ephemera via Twitter.