by Jody MacPherson
Originally appeared in the Calgary Real Estate News, Summer, 1998
The Porcupine Hills, little more than an hour’s drive from Calgary, have sheltered royalty from scandal, inspired Hollywood filmmakers and provided refuge for famous songwriters. But they will probably never see another pair of siblings like Maurice and Harold King, legendary bachelor brothers who lived the lives of paupers on some of the most valuable land in all of Alberta.
On November 1, 1997, 90 years since the two brothers first set foot in Alberta with their parents, more than 5,000 acres of the King brothers’ land will be auctioned to the highest bidder, in one of the most anticipated land sales of the decade. For Bob Dyck, General Manager of the Fort Macleod Highwood Auction Co. Ltd., it’s the opportunity of a lifetime, both for his auction company and for prospective buyers.
“This ranch is not only picturesque and remote, but it is unique in that it has Waldron Ranch to the north, west and south and a forestry reserve to the east,” he says. (The Waldron Ranch is a cooperative, owned by a group of ranchers who share it for grazing their cattle.)
“Whoever buys this ranch will not have to worry about neighboring developments in the near future.”
In fact, the land is so secluded that the King brothers were able to block out as much of the modern world as they wanted and live in self-imposed isolation for almost a century. The tiny log cabin they lived in for most of their adult lives, never did have indoor plumbing and the colourful duo couldn’t understand why so many people were surprised they seldom took a bath!
According to Eva Hoffman, whose husband Russell Hoffman worked the ranch for the Kings for 24 years, “Maurice told me that he thought ‘people that bathed every day smell more than people that don’t.’”
Clean or not, the King brothers lived long, healthy lives nestled in a small valley in the northeast portion of their west ranch, relatively undisturbed by the day-to-day struggles of modern society. Maurice died in August of 1996, about one year after his younger brother Harold also died. Their story is one of the more colorful Alberta tales to come to light in recent history.
Estate equipment auction tells the story
Just before Highway 22 crosses over the Oldman River, there is a dirt road heading east. This is the road that leads to the Hoffman house and further north to the King brothers’ log cabin. On September 26, 1997, the road is a blur of dust and pick-up trucks as a steady stream of traffic weaves a path towards the site of the King brothers’ estate auction.
It’s a blustery autumn day as a crowd of prospective buyers inspect the items collected from Maurice and Harold’s homestead. The inventory includes everything from tractors and plows to empty ginger ale bottles and blackened pots in every shape and size. Everything is lined up neatly in three rows in the field. The orderly presentation is in stark contrast to the chaos of the brothers’ homestead, where decades of tin cans were simply discarded in a large pile at the end of a long rambling driveway which leads to the living quarters.
The auctioneer, Ken “Daddy” Hurlburt, picks up the microphone and begins to speak in a booming voice to the crowd of eager buyers. The auctioneer’s assistant picks up the first item and the sale has begun.
“Who’ll give me a hundred dollars? Ten dollars? All right, ten now…” and Hurlburt is off and running. As the auctioneer sells item after unusual item, the puzzle of the King brothers is carefully unraveled.
“Now ladies and gentlemen. I’ve never sold one of these shotgun shell holders. They’re the expandable-type for different size shotgun shells. I’ll tell you, now there is an antique,” says Hurlburt. “I’d like $200 but who’ll give me twenty bucks?”
Shotguns and the proceeds from hunting and trapping are likely what got the two brothers on the road to success. In their early twenties, Maurice and Harold were fed up with the hard work imposed on them by their strict father. They came over the ridge and settled on the west side of the Porcupine Hills in 1925, which was far enough by horseback from their father in those days, who still homesteaded on the east side.
“I think it was 25 years before Harold ever went back over there again,” says Orrin Hart who had been friends of the family since he was a child and was named executor of the King estate after Maurice died last year.
The brothers became expert hunters and trappers and made a good living selling the hides of coyotes and wolves which were a real problem for ranchers in the area because they were so numerous.
An empire built on hunting and trapping
“Is that a cougar hide? It is? Let’s sell all of those hides. You can nail ‘em up on the side of your barn and have a real antique,” says Hurlburt, as the crowd chuckles their approval. “All right, who’ll give me twenty dollars?” Someone is “hooked” and the bidding takes off again.
With money from the animal hides, the King brothers gradually acquired more land, even outbidding Hart for some property he’d had his heart set on. Maurice, who was the older brother, was a shrewd and cunning businessman, taking care of any deal-making and negotiations even though he had only three months of schooling.
“He went to school for three months and then after he broke his leg, he never went back,” says Hart. “Harold never went to school at all, that I know of. But both were as well-read as anyone and would argue politics and religion with the best of them.”
Harold, nicknamed “Raul,” was the quieter of the two brothers, taller and one and a half years younger than Maurice, but a skilled cook and a master log builder according to everyone who knew him. Harold apparently smoked a lot of tobacco. A large greyish-white mound of ash several feet high just a few yards from the front doorstep of the King’s log cabin, is lasting evidence of a Harold’s favourite pastime.
“There’s an Old Virginia tobacco can and some Export ‘A’ papers,” proclaims Hurlburt, the auctioneer. “They don’t even make them anymore, do they? Who’ll give me five dollars?” The auction continues and someone buys the can which turns out to have some old tobacco pouches inside. Later, the young woman who bought the pouches, giggles and tell Hoffman that she’s planning to “stuff them with potpourri and put them in her underwear drawer!” You can almost feel the brothers turning in their graves.
Despite his no-nonsense approach to life, Maurice also had some vices. According to Ronald Nelson, who knew the brothers since the 1920’s, Maurice had a “sweet tooth,” with a weakness for both chocolate and ice cream. A huge freezer was one of the few modern appliances the brothers allowed into their rustic hideaway—probably to store Maurice’s favourite ice cream.
“All right, we’re going to sell all of those chairs. Who’ll give me five dollars?” the auction continues and the spectators are obviously enjoying the show as an odd assortment of broken wooden chairs is sold for $2.
The King brothers likely spent many hours on those chairs. Their cabin didn’t have electricity until the 1970’s and was heated only by a wood stove. The furnishings were minimal and friends say that Harold and Maurice mostly just sat close to the warmth of the stove and read.
“Let’s sell that box of magazines and books. What have we got there? Some old National Geographics? Some Outdoor Life magazines from the 1960’s and a copy of the Saturday Evening Post from 1947?” asks Hurlburt. “And what’s the date on that old Webster’s English dictionary? 1907? Now that’s a collector’s item, folks”
Hoffman says that although their father, Augustus “Gus” King was a well-educated man and a former clothing-maker in England, he told Maurice that you didn’t need an education to make a lot of money. He taught them that hard work was the only way to get rich. They learned to read at home, after their work was done for the day, of course.
“He worked them hard,” she says. “They were in front of a team of horses pulling a plow from the time they were nine-years-old.”
That could be why the boys’ older brother ran away from home at the tender age of 15. He took refuge in the United States and never returned to live in Canada. After his death, he was buried in Washington instead of in the family plot near Cowley, Alberta where a plot had been reserved for him by his parents. Alas, the family was not to be reunited, even in death.
It was to their older brother’s three children and another niece that Harold and Maurice left their land in their will. The niece is the daughter of their sister, who left the ranch and lived in Calgary.
As their parents got older, Harold and Maurice brought them over the ridge to their home so that they could care for them. Some additions were made to the cabin at that time, but there was still no telephone or electricity. They continued to haul water in from the nearby Sharples Creek. Their mother died in 1939 and their father was killed in a car accident in 1941.
The estate auction continues well into the afternoon. Even the blustery wind is no deterrent to the dozens of interested buyers who have made the long trip to buy a piece of history. Some of the people are here to get a closer look at the wilderness property that will be auctioned off on November 1.
In another month, auctioneer Bob Dyck will “call the numbers” for the big land sale at the Highwood Livestock Auction Market near High River. Then he’ll find out who is truly interested in buying the million dollar ranch land. Until then, he and his fellow auctioneers continue to focus their best efforts on the next estate item for sale.
“What is that? It looks like an old buggy axle that’s been sharpened. Who’ll give me five dollars?…” Hurlburt’s enthusiastic chant for even the most ordinary items has even the most seasoned antique-buyers reaching for their wallet.