The Gatineau Park Chronicles

The following story originally appeared in the Fall 2007 National Capital Commission's The Gatineau Park Chronicle.

The Old Fox Farm in Gatineau Park

by Carol Martin

A trail extending Pine Road from its junction at the Cross Loop Road into Gatineau Park leads to the "Old Fox Farm Road," as some long-time residents still call it. Hikers and skiers will find no signage with its name, but a branch off trail 50 leads to the acreage that Colonel Cameron Macpherson Edwards selected in the 1930s for a fox farm. This secluded area in what is now part of Gatineau Park was an ideal setting for this enterprise.

Fur had been a staple of the earliest trade between Europe and North America and, throughout the 18th and 19th centuries, trappers exploited the Canadian wilderness for a wide variety of animal pelts. Some trapper-farmers who caught animals in warm weather kept them alive until winter, when their fur was prime. The next step was "fur-farming," a new industry begun around 1890, breeding and raising some of the smaller fur-bearing animals.

The Gatineau Park Chronicles
The Legros sawmill, 1975. Pair of foxes, Avion Fur Farm - Jean Doraty Johns Collection.

In the mid-1930s, Harvey Doraty left his law firm in Saskatoon and moved to Ottawa with the intention of opening a legal office. However, he met Colonel Edwards, of an influential old Ottawa family, and decided on a different line of business. Both men had previously raised silver foxes, and Edwards wanted to go into fox farming on a larger scale. The result was a partnership, with Edwards providing financial backing and Doraty agreeing to be the manager.

Edwards had a property near Harrington Lake (Lac Mousseau), with an old homestead building on it, which seemed ideal for this venture. An isolated, rural site is ideal for a fox farm, for several reasons. During the breeding season and just after the pups are born, foxes tend to be exceedingly sensitive to strange sights, noises and smells, so a quiet location is preferred. The animals also have a pungent odour, which any near neighbours would likely find unpleasant. Foxes are omnivorous, but require a large proportion of meat in their diet, and farmers in a rural location are potential suppliers of waste meat.

The Avion Fur Farm on the Edwards property took its name from the town of Avion, near Vimy, where Colonel Edwards saw action as commanding officer of the 38th Battalion of the Canadian Expeditionary Force in the First World War. Harvey Doraty, with the assistance of Bob O'Neil, a carpenter from Chelsea, renovated and enlarged the old house, added a workshop, and installed rows of kennels for the foxes. In April 1937, Harvey married Jean Parker, who recalled that,following the ceremony, she changed into her "going-away outfit" of jacket, ski pants and gum-rubber boots, after which the couple walked in rain and mud through the bush to the ranch. They lived on the property, raising a family of three children, while they managed the fox farm. Later, they addeda second house to provide housing for a family who worked for them.

Over the next 15 years, the Avion Fur Farm took prizes at the fox shows in Québec City, sold breeding stock to ranchers from Nova Scotia to Alberta, and sold their best pelts to Holt, Renfrew and Company. The rest of the pelts went to the Canadian National Silver Fox Breeders Association in Summerside, Prince Edward Island, to be sold at auction. On one occasion, they received $2,400 for a breeding pair of foxes.

Sales had continued all during the Second World War, but then fashions began to change, and long-haired furs were no longer in demand. Some breeders went into raising mink, and the Doratys made a start in that direction. However, the creation of Gatineau Park changed their plans. The Colonel sold the property to the federal government, and the Doratys knew that any future plans for fur farming would have to end within 10 years. They decided to leave, and disposed of the stock and equipment in 1952. For Christmas that year, their last on the farm, Jean received a fox fur boa, her only fur memento of that period in their lives. They left the property early in 1953, and moved to Stittsville, Ontario. Harvey had not qualified to practise law in Ontario, but made use of his legal expertise as a notary public, as well as working as an insurance adjuster for an Ottawa firm. Jean taught school for a short time, and then worked on the annual Canada Year Book for Statistics Canada.

In 1985, members of the Doraty family revisited the site of their fur farm, and found a road running though what had been their backyard, although their spruce hedge and the maple bush remained. Few traces are left of the old fox farm, as tall pines have overgrown much of the area that was once cleared, and the old road is now closed off as part of the access to the prime minister ofCanada's summer residence. This specialized industry, which took advantage of the quiet and secluded environment of Gatineau Park, has gone, leaving little trace of its former existence within the park.