To western Canadian shoppers, the Woodward name was synonymous with department stores. To retailers, it was the introduction of the shopping mall to Canada. To Canadian investors, it was a tale of commercial real estate, the effects of 1980s interest rates and Alberta’s oil bust. But to livestock producers, Woodward means cattle and horses.
While the Woodward retailing family had owned farms and ranches as early as the turn ofthe 20th century, it wasn’t until Charles Nanby Wynn Woodward bought the then 87-year-old Douglas Lake Ranch near Merritt, B.C., in 1957 that the name began to stand for ranching.
The ranch, which includes 164,000 deeded acres and 350,000 government leased acres, remains one of Canada’s largest working beef cattle ranches.
Along with partner John West until West’s death in 1968, Chunky Woodward made the Douglas Lake Cattle Company famous as one of Canada’s largest cow-calf operations and a world class champion cutting horse breeding facility. It also entertained the world’s rich and famous.
Woodward was born in 1924 to the successful Vancouver retailing Woodward family.
After enlisting with the Manitoba Dragoons and serving in the Second World War, he returned from Europe to begin work in the family business, which had then expanded across Western Canada through its mail order catalogues.
Woodward’s first love wasn’t retailing. As a boy he had grown up spending as much time as he was allowed on the family’s Alkali Lake Ranch, mastering horsemanship and handling cattle.
The ranch, which at the time ran 4,000 head in British Columbia’s Cariboo district, was one of Western Canada’s oldest working cattle operations.
The family sold it in 1939 but maintained a farm in B.C.’s Lower Mainland.
Woodward, who received his nickname from his initials rather than his build, which was anything but, was a renowned sportsman and western rider.
After acquiring the Douglas Lake Ranch, Woodward became interested in cutting horses.
In 1959 Queen Elizabeth and Prince Phillip visited the ranch and the prince returned in 1962. The Canadian Cutting Horse Association was later invited to the Royal Windsor Horse Show and a three month tour of Great Britain in 1964, during which time a Douglas Lake Quarter horse was given to the prince as a polo mount.
In 1963 Woodward bought the four-year-old Quarter horse Peppy San from Texas breeder Gordon Howell. With Matlock Rose on his back, Peppy San became the world champion cutting horse in 1967.
Woodward rode Peppy San to the Canadian championship.
The horse became the basis for the Douglas Lake Ranch’s equine breeding program.
Woodward bought the 1966 world champion mare Stardust Desire and bred her and many of the Douglas Lake horses to Peppy San.
The result was a long line of world and Canadian national champion cutting and American Quarter horse champions, including Peppy’s Desire, Pepontina, Royal Santana, Sonita’s Last, Peppycali, Peppy Isle, Tip It San, Booger San, Bonita San, Popular San and Chunky’s Monkey.
Douglas Lake is said to have bred more champion horses than any ranch in history.
Woodward’s retail operations blossomed through the 1950s, 1960s and 1970s. Stores expanded across Western Canada and the company developed major shopping malls with Woolworth’s stores as anchor operations.
Woodward took control of the company in 1956 and at its peak in the early 1980s it boasted 18 stores in the West and company sales that had grown to more than $1 billion annually.
Despite his retailing empire Woodward’s boyhood attachment to the ranch didn’t waver. He was a founding member of the Canadian Rodeo Commission and worked to fund and establish professional rodeo across Western Canada.
In 1979 he stepped back from retailing to look after his ranch. High interest rates were beginning to form dark clouds on the investment horizon for Woodward’s.
Large expansion in the early 1980s left the company vulnerable to interest rate increases.
The collapse of the Alberta energy boom undermined sales and property values in that province and Woodward’s was forced to sell real estate to cover cash flow problems.
Despite this the company kept expanding its clothing retailing business with a new division, opening more than 20 stores in the mid-1980s while closing its furniture and grocery operations. In 1989 the family turned over the company to outside managers.
Chunky Woodward died in April 1990, three years before Woodward’s declared bankruptcy and its assets were purchased by the Hudson’s Bay Company.
Peppy San remained a Douglas Lake Cattle Company horse even after moving to Texas to stand stud in 1976. It died in 1989.
The Woodward family operated the ranch until 1998.