Things were pretty quiet at the coffee shop in the hamlet of Walsh, Alta.
Until James Hargrave walked in.
Then the conversation livened up as everyone had something friendly to say to the young rancher and operator of the 25,000 acre JH Ranch nestled near the Saskatchewan border.
That’s how Bob Lowe of Alberta Beef Producers remembers a meeting in that coffee shop a few years ago.
Hargrave 34, a husband, father and friend to many, died Oct. 17 while fighting a wildfire in the Hilda, Alta., area, north of Walsh, that burned an estimated 75,000 acres when pushed by 120 km/h winds. Working as part of the local volunteer fire department, he was killed when the water truck he was driving rolled and was then struck by another vehicle, according to RCMP reports.
He leaves behind his wife, Elizabeth, and four children: Hudson, 6, Alec, 4, Savannah, 2, and Isabelle, 6 months.
“It’s tragic,” said Lowe. “James was one of the great ones. He loved his family, he loved his ranch, he loved the grass, and his whole life was dedicated to improving all of those things. He’s left a big hole in the Canadian cattle industry.”
Hargrave was chair of the Alberta Grazing Leaseholders Association and vice-chair of the Western Stock Growers Association. Friends in those circles say he was an advocate for grasslands and the value of grazing.
“The stewardship that he did with that place that he had was just phenomenal,” said Aaron Brower, chair of WSGA. “He’d be a model for being a steward of the land, for sure.”
Brower spoke of Hargrave’s ability to work with people, whether it involved grazing, firefighting or lobbying government to resolve land-use issues.
“Anybody that had anything to do with James, even if they’d only met him one time, they always felt that James was a friend to them. He just had that aura about him,” said Brower.
“He was probably one of the most respectable people I’ve ever met in my life. He was probably one of the most selfless people. He would give of himself before he’d even think of himself.”
Larry Sears, who served on the AGLA with Hargrave, said his death while helping neighbours was typical of the man.
“He was doing what he does best, volunteer, whether it’s firefighting or leaseholders or whatever. He was there,” said Sears.
As for his work on grazing lease matters, “he went into it with the enthusiasm of youth and the knowledge and experience of someone much more well-seasoned. But he was schooled well and he came from a good background and handled himself very well,” Sears said. “We were fortunate to have had him as a friend and colleague and we’re going to miss him.”
Tributes to Hargrave were issued by numerous Alberta politicians via social media, adding to condolences from Cypress County, the RCMP and many others.
Cypress-Medicine Hat MLA Drew Barnes was among them.
“He was the type of guy that would do anything for you and get involved, whether it was Western Stock Growers, or after the Bindloss fire from a month ago. I’m so not surprised to hear that he was out there in the middle of the night fighting the fire with all of his energy.”
Hargrave was also a man who understood the importance of history and an innovator who embraced all tactics to improve grazing and grassland.
Lowe said Hargrave told him he’d bought the moribund Walsh auction mart a few years ago.
“I said ‘why?’ He said, ‘well because it’s here and it’s history, so I just bought it. That way nobody can tear it down.’”
Lowe and Brower credit Hargrave with helping educate Alberta NDP politicians about the value of grazing, accomplished last year when he hosted a tour of the JH Ranch founded in 1888.
“It was a good way to get them to understand where we, as grassroots, were coming from,” said Brower.
“They got their boots on the ground and got an understanding of where we were coming from … instead of sitting in a boardroom somewhere, staring at the concrete walls. We were out on the grass looking at stuff and having conversations.”
Out on the grass looking at the ranch is said to have been one of Hargrave’s favorite places and pastimes.
A memorial for Hargrave is scheduled Oct. 27 at 1 p.m. at Holy Family Parish in Medicine Hat. A reception will follow at the Cypress Centre.