Alberta pioneer sells fleas to supplement farm income

Arthur Douglas Gregson grew up in England near Charles Darwin and 
developed in interest in the study of insects. | Photo courtesy Blackfalds Archives

BLACKFALDS, Alta. — Historian Judy Carleton says the book she’s writing about Arthur Douglas Gregson is “not your average settler story.”

He’s known to be the first white man to settle the area known as Burbank, southeast of Blackfalds, in central Alberta.

Carleton is excited to share his story.

“You just can’t make this stuff up,” she said.

Gregson, born in England in 1864, had an early interest in entomology, which is the scientific study of insects. This was partly influenced by growing up near Charles Darwin, father of the theory of evolution.

At age 15, Gregson won the school prize for the best collection of moths and butterflies.

At age 25, after a 10-year apprenticeship and becoming a member of the London Stock Exchange, Gregson was diagnosed with tuberculosis. His doctor advised moving to Switzerland. The drier climate and cleaner air were thought to be conducive to curing this respiratory illness.

After six months there and being very much alive, Gregson sought a destination under British rule with similar altitude and climate. He chose Alberta.

Gregson sailed to Montreal in 1890, made his way west to Calgary and then journeyed north by horse-drawn democrat. At his first stop, this greenhorn Londoner undid every single buckle and strap on the harness.

It’s no wonder he needed assistance putting it all back together the next morning.

He found his desired homestead location — a place with trees and hills — at the junction of the Blindman and Red Deer rivers.

Like many settlers, he not only built a sod roofed log cabin, broke land for crops and raised livestock but also learned to hunt and trap.

What’s particularly unusual about Gregson’s life as a pioneer was the way he supplemented his income by selling fleas off animals.

He did this by laying a white sheet on a carcass. Fleas would hop off the body onto the sheet, which made them easy to see.

Gregson would scoop the fleas into bottles, preserve them with alcohol and ship them to the Rothschilds, the well-known banking family in London.

Lionel Walter Rothschild, a famed zoologist, amassed hundreds of thousands of insects, birds, mammals, fish and reptiles from around the world — a collection that was eventually bequeathed to the British Museum.

Another of Gregson’s many fascinating tales recounts his fall hunting and packing expedition in the Ya Ha Tinda wilderness north of Banff with his two nieces from England. The girls, aged 15 and 17, were eager to experience the Wild West. Unfortunately, an early heavy snowfall trapped the trio for the winter.

They survived off their meagre supplies, wild meat, fish and a diet heavy with squirrel.

They emerged in the spring with furs, skins and insects to sell. The girls earned $60 from the sale of fleas to the Rothschilds, which was enough for each to buy a saddle.

Gregson, a founding member of the Northwest (Canada) Entomological Society, died in 1936.

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