The legend of ‘Roaring Bill’

Ranch Tales by O'Keefe Ranch curator Ken Mather

Joe Coutlee was the son of Alexander Coutlie (note the original spelling), a French Canadian from Trois Rivières who had settled in the Nicola Valley in 1873 and married a native woman.

At the age of 10, young Joseph’s real job was working cattle for Joseph Castillion, the Mexican packer who was one of the original settlers in the Nicola Valley. Joe came to work at the Douglas Lake Cattle Ranch at the age of 23 in 1892 under cow-boss Joe Payne and stayed there for the next 53 years.

Coutlee learned the cattle trade well under the sharp eye of Joe Payne and, when Payne left in 1896, Coutlee took over as cow-boss of the Douglas Lake Cattle Ranch, a position that he was to hold until his death in 1944.

Coutlee had an incredible ability to read the range. He could eye up a field and accurately predict just how many head of cattle could graze that field and for how long. This ability allowed him to carefully manage the precious bunchgrass resource that sustained the Douglas Lake cattle.

He always separated the herd and moved each group to the higher elevations in the summer so that no one range was overgrazed. Coutlee knew his stock as if they were his children, even when the Douglas Lake was running 13,000 head of mixed Shorthorn and Hereford.

He could remember which cows had been pulled out of mud holes two years before and where certain calves were born.

Coutlee was a large man, more than 200 pounds and close to six feet tall. His cowboys referred to him as “Roaring Bill” and when he was crossed he lived up to his nickname.

He expected his 20-odd cowboys to ride any horse they were given, break, shoe and care for it, and repair its tack, not to mention rope cattle, repair fence and cook for themselves if required.

Many a cowboy was sent packing who failed to live up to Coutlee’s expectations.

Coutlee married a native woman, Mary Ann Horne, who Joe affectionately nicknamed “Muggins.”

The two had a stormy relationship, especially when Joe was on a drinking spree when the work was all done, but Muggins stayed with him all his life and cared for their six children.

She pre-deceased him and when Joe died in 1945 he was buried alongside her in the native cemetery at Shulus, close to his childhood home.

His legacy to the Douglas Lake Ranch was expressed by his long-time boss, Frank Ward: “With all his failings he was a tower of strength to me especially in my early days, and I thank God he lived through my reign at Douglas Lake for he made it that much more simple … enabled me to get away from time to time and know that the cattle at any rate would be properly looked after. I never went off for a long voyage without having old Joe promise me he would not get off on a drunk during my absence, and to my knowledge he never did.”

Ken Mather is curator at O’Keefe Ranch in Spallumcheen.