The Watson Manor in June of 1936. (T.D. Sale photo)

The Watson Manor in June of 1936. (T.D. Sale photo)

HAPHAZARD HISTORY: Captain Watson of the 108 Mile Ranch

Alongside 108 Mile Ranch sits a huge, log barn

Barry SALE

Special to the Tribune

Alongside Highway 97 at the 108 Mile Ranch historical site, you will see a huge, log barn.

Constructed in 1908, at 40-feet wide by 160 feet long, it was, at the time, the longest and largest log barn in Canada. It was built for the British owner of the 108 Mile Ranch, and therein lies an interesting story.

Captain Geoffrey Lancelot Watson was a young officer and veteran of the Boer War. He had just been released from the York and Lancashire Regiment when he purchased the 1,000-acre 108 site from Clarence Tingley for the sum of $11,000.

Watson was a tall man at six-and-a-half feet, a superb horseman, an expert shot and a bachelor.

He was also very well off financially, having family ties to the Watson Scotch Whiskey distillery.

Within a very few years, he had acquired almost 50,000 acres in the area. He named his holdings the Highland Ranch, a nod to his Scottish roots.

Watson commissioned an architect from Victoria to design a large country mansion. Construction began in 1904 about four miles to the west of the 108 site, using local timber.

Special or hard to get materials and some very lavish furnishings were brought by rail to the terminal at Ashcroft, and then shipped the rest of the way via heavy freight wagons drawn by 18 horse teams.

The “Watson Manor” as it was called, was completed in 1911. It was three stories tall and every room inside was beautifully finished.

The Captain had planned that when the manor was ready to occupy, he would bring his fiancé out from England, marry her and live there with her happily ever after.

Unfortunately for him, real life seldom unfolds the way we expect it to, and the lady of his dreams decided that life in the wild, remote Cariboo area of “the colonies” was not in her future. She broke off the engagement and would have nothing more to do with the good Captain.

Some of the locals began calling the house “Watson’s Folly,” but he was undaunted and continued to work hard at improving the ranch.

Besides the manor, a bunkerhouse, a slaughterhouse, an ice house and a store were built.

Watson imported breeding stock from Scotland and over the years he developed an impressive herd of up to 10,000 Highland cattle.

Watson’s greatest interest, however, was his horses. He owned two pairs of sulky horses which were said to be the most beautiful animals in the Cariboo.

He also trained and raced polo ponies, but his pride and joy were his purebred Clydesdale horses.

He is reputed to have owned over 100 of them (probably not all at the same time). Many of these animals won awards, ribbons and hardware in various shows and competitions.

In 1908, Watson commissioned Gilbert Monroe from Ashcroft to construct a log barn big enough to house 50 of the large Clydesdales at a time.

This structure was truly impressive, built from logs and beams up to 40 feet long.

Like the horses it housed, it was, as we say today, “supersized.”

This barn instantly became a landmark on the Cariboo road.

Captain Watson was quite a character, and he became very well known in the area.

He was also prone to spending money on what some might consider to be frivolities.

In 1907 he purchased one of the first Cadillacs to appear in the Cariboo from a dealer in Vancouver and had it shipped up to the 108.

He liked to drive out onto his range land and surprise his cowhands by suddenly roaring out from a stand of trees.

It is also said that he possessed a large elephant gun that he would allow guests to shoot, just for the pleasure of seeing the recoil knock them down.

He bought a team of reindeer and in winter he would take local children for sleigh rides.

By all accounts, he was a kind and generous man, well liked and respected by all, and always willing to help those in need.

When the First World War broke out, Watson returned to England and took up his officer’s commission once more.

He was assigned to the East Surrey Regiment.

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On April 20, 1915, during the heavy, vicious fight to take Hill 60 on the Western Front near Ypres, Belgium, he was killed in action.

He was just 35 years old. Captain Watson is commemorated on the wall of the Menin Gate at Ypres, along with the names of more than 54,000 Commonwealth soldiers whose bodies have never been identified or found.

Watson’s estate was acquired by Lord Egerton of Tatton, England, who appointed Charles Cowan of the Onward Ranch to be his local representative.

Cowan visited the holdings periodically, and sometimes, during hunting season, he would stay for two or three weeks in the manor house.

Otherwise, that building sat empty, and by the mid 1970s, vandals and time had taken their toll.

The big log barn remained in continual use until the late 1950s, when it was too unsafe, and it, too, was left to the elements.

In 1979, the Block Brothers Realty Group, which now owned the 108 Mile Ranch property, transferred the seven-acre heritage site to the 100 Mile House Historical Society for the token sum of $1.

Money was raised, and the Clydesdale barn was completely restored to its original condition.

Block Brothers also donated 90 acres of land and the manor house to a society which operated a youth camp.

A good deal of money was raised and spent restoring the mansion and turning it into a group home.

Unfortunately, on Christmas Eve, 1983, a chimney fire broke out. It spread quickly to the rest of the building, and within hours, the entire manor was reduced to ashes.

So ended the brief but significant legacy of Captain Watson, a gentleman rancher, romantic, adventurer, and war hero, who fell under the spell of the freedom and wide open spaces of the Cariboo.

The information for this article was obtained from the writings of Irene Stangoe, information from the 100 Mile Historical Society and records from the Commonwealth War Graves Commission.

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