The O’Keefe Ranch was founded in 1867 and represents the very beginnings of European settlement in the Okanagan Valley. In those days, the Cariboo Gold Rush was at its peak and the miners’ demand for food inspired enterprising young men to buy beef cattle far to the south in Oregon and drive them north to the goldfields. During the period 1858 to 1868 over 22,000 head of cattle crossed the border near present-day Osooyos and travelled up the former fur trade Brigade Trail through the Okanagan Valley, past Fort Kamloops and on to the Cariboo. These cattle formed the nucleus of herds that grew to become the British Columbia cattle industry.
Cornelius O’Keefe and his partners, Thomas Greenhow and Thomas Wood, were driving cattle north when they arrived at the head of Okanagan Lake in June of 1867. A sea of bunchgrass covered the hills and valleys all around, well watered by creeks and small lakes. The men took up 160 acres each, the maximum allowed by the Colonial government, and began their own ranches. From this beginning, the O’Keefe Ranch grew as O’Keefe acquired unoccupied crown land for as cheap as a dollar an acre. The late 1800s were the days of the open range era in cattle ranching, where thousands of head of cattle roamed the great unfenced ranges of the Okanagan, Thompson and Cariboo regions. The myth of the “cowboy” grew up around the young men who worked with the cattle, even though the mystique of the untamed and romantic cowboy life was sometimes belied by the rough, low-paying life that they actually led.
By the turn of the century, the O’Keefe Ranch had grown to cover over 12,000 acres. Since much of this land was prime Okanagan bottomland and desirable for the up-and-coming orchard industry, the pressure was great for O’Keefe to sell. This he did in 1907 but the O’Keefe family stayed on carrying on ranching on a smaller scale and living in the beautiful Victorian house that O’Keefe had built during the ranch’s hay-day.
The O’Keefe family continued ranching and lived in their lovely house until modern times. After the death of Cornelius in 1919, his wife, Elizabeth, and later his son, Tierney, managed the O’Keefe Ranch and carefully maintained the buildings and grounds of the original ranch “homesite”. It was Tierney O’Keefe and his wife, Betty, who decided to open the ranch as a heritage site in the mid-1960s. They restored the remaining buildings, relocated the blacksmith shop from its original location down the road, and re-constructed the General Store, which had been the site of the first Post Office in the Okanagan valley. In June of 1967, exactly 100 years since the O’Keefe Ranch had been founded, Premier W.A.C. Bennett opened it to the public, ushering in a new era for this historic place.
After ten years operating the O’Keefe Ranch as a heritage site and tourist attraction, the O’Keefes sold the buildings, artifacts and land to the Devonian Foundation from Calgary which, in turn, gave the ranch to the City of Vernon. The Ranch is now operated by a non-profit society, the O’Keefe Ranch & Interior Heritage Society and open from Mothers’ Day to Thanksgiving every year.
Written by Ken Mather, Curator Emeritus, local historian and author