A historic love story

Photo by Sandy Millar

Alfred Ernest (A.E.) Cross was born in Montreal on June 26, 1861, the eldest of seven children of a Quebec judge.

He was educated in private schools and, as a teenager, wanted to travel to western Canada. His father convinced him to wait until the railway had been built and he instead attended the Montreal Business College prior to leaving to study in England for three years from 1875 to 1878.

Upon his return to Canada, Cross studied at Guelph’s renowned Ontario Agricultural College and the Montreal Veterinary College.

In 1884, Cross left Montreal and arrived on a CPR train in the settlement of Calgary, a tent and shack town of approximately 400 people. He worked as a veterinarian and bookkeeper for the British American Horse Ranche Co, which was part of the Cochrane Ranche.

Cross started his own ranch in 1885 and named it after his brand, A7, which he picked to represent himself and his six siblings. The ranch, located west of Nanton, consisted of 160 acres, with another 40,000 leased. Cross borrowed money to purchase 500 head of cattle. The following year was one of the worst winters southern Alberta had ever seen, and Cross lost 60 per cent of his herd.

By 1919 the ranch consisted of 25,000 acres owned and leased and several thousand head of cattle. The A7 remains in the Cross family and is still western Canada’s oldest ranch still in the hands of the founding family.

In 1888, Cross was forced to move from the ranch to Calgary due to either an injury from a riding accident or from appendicitis. He would eventually return to Montreal to recover. At the time Calgary had no brewing company and the locals had to make do with low-grade rot gut whiskey.

Seeing a market for a locally produced and marketed beer, Cross studied brewing while in Montreal. Upon his return to Calgary, he interested a number of local backers to open the Calgary Brewing and Malting Company, the first brewery in the North West Territories, in 1892.

He located the brewery at the east end of Calgary and set up home in a railway car pulled onto a siding near the brewery. To ensure a market for his beer, Cross purchased hotels from B.C. to Manitoba and the bison head symbol of the Calgary Brewing and Malting Company became a familiar icon across the Canadian west.

Cross himself was a Scotch drinker, and it was said that during Prohibition, he had family in Montreal send some to him smuggled inside turkeys.

Helen Rothney Macleod was born in the Officers’ Mess of Fort Macleod, the eldest child of Lt. Col James and Mary Macleod. She was baptized by an itinerant American missionary visiting the fort, though nicknamed Nell.

She was educated at Bishop Strachan’s School in Toronto from the age of 11. Her mother, Mary Macleod, insisted her daughters also be skilled at cooking, sewing, outdoor duties, and other tasks around the home.

Colonel Macleod died on Sept. 5, 1894, leaving Mary and their five children with only eight dollars. The family was forced to move in with her sister Jean Pinkham, who sold her diamond ring to afford the groceries for six more people.

Despite petitions from former Governor General Lord Lorne and Lord Dufferin, the current Governor General, amongst others, the Federal Government refused to grant Mary a pension. The hat was passed and a two-story home at the corner of Fourth Street and Twelfth Ave S.W. was found for the Macleod family.

For Nell, it meant the end of her formal education and she was forced to find wage employment. She became a cashier at the Hudson’s Bay Company for $25/month, which paid for the food and clothing for her family. Despite this, the Macleod daughters were still sought in Calgary society.

The Macleod/Cross love story was started by Colonel Macleod, who introduced his then 15-year-old daughter to A.E. Cross on the steps of the Ranchman’s Club. Cross was 36 at the time. In 1898, 19-year-old Nell was riding in a competitive barrel race and completed the track in record time.

The only other rider to come close was Cross and he became smitten with Nell. Cross took to shopping at the Hudson’s Bay Company where Nell had been promoted to an accountant until the day he walked up to her second-floor cubicle and proposed marriage. The couple then left to receive consent from Mary Macleod.

The couple wed on June 8, 1899, by Nell’s uncle, Bishop Pinkham. Unable to afford a wedding dress, Mary offered to design a grey dress with a pale rose satin lining, which could be altered for future wear. Nell was disappointed, as grey was the colour for widows. When Cross heard, he purchased an ivory satin gown from Toronto.

A marriage contract was also drawn up, giving Nell one-third of the A7 ranch or approximately $34,000 so she would have security if Cross’ Calgary Brewing and Malting Company went bankrupt. Cross’ practical business mind was looking out for his wife’s welfare from the beginning.

Looking to build his new bride a home, Cross began to look for land to build. He originally looked at the Mount Royal area, but while showing Helen a lot, a strong gust of wind came up and carried her hat away. Helen decided the location was too windy and Cross would go on to purchase land and a home at 1240 – 8th Ave S.W in Inglewood. Today the couple’s home is the iconic Rouge Restaurant. The home, which the family donated to the City in 1973, was designated a Provincial Historical Resource in 1977.

The couple faced their greatest challenge together in 1904 when they lost their two eldest children,  Helen Macleod and Selkirk Macleod to diphtheria. Helen was four and Selkirk was 3. Infant Jim, 16 months old, was also very sick but survived.

Helen Macleod was their oldest child, followed a year later by Selkirk Macleod. Nell was home alone when she went into labour and gave birth to Selkirk by herself. In September 1904, the Crosses had a third son, Jim, when diphtheria struck down all three children. Nell and her mother Mary nursed the children while Cross attempted to get hold of a new diphtheria anti-toxin. Developed for the Boer War, the anti-toxin itself was not available to the public, but Cross used every favour he had to try to get hold of it.

The serum was due in on a CPR train on Sept. 25 but when it didn’t arrive on the early train, Cross returned home to find Nell holding the dead body of Helen Macleod. Only minutes later Selkirk succumbed as well. The deaths occurred only 20 minutes apart. Only 16-month-old Jim survived. While Nell watched over Jim, now being treated in the hospital, Cross buried Helen and Selkirk the day after they died. A granite cross marks their resting place.

On July 1, 1905, Nell gave birth to her fourth child, Mary Julia. It took nearly two weeks for her to recover.  Mary Julia was born in Victoria, where Nell would go for the birth of her last three children as well, as Nell and the children spent more time in Victoria with its mild climate. Nell also suffered from anemia and was under the care of a doctor in Victoria. She was also restricted socially in Victoria, for Cross’ long absences meant she could not be properly introduced and so was not invited anywhere.

Despite being the wife of one of the Big Four, Nell missed the first Stampede, as she was in Victoria giving birth to her sixth child, Margaret Victoria, known as Marmo. Her last child, Alexander, was born in 1914.

Cross died on March 10, 1932, after contracting pneumonia following surgery. Nell was left the Calgary home and had a lifetime allowance of $600/month. The Victoria home was sold, as Nell stopped travelling due to a degenerative hip issue.

Nell died on Jan. 30, 1959, at her home in Calgary. While conducting a tour of Union Cemetery, I was told by a gentleman who was a telegraph runner as a child that any telegraphs destined for the Cross house were fought over by the runners.

Nell would not only tip the young boy who brought it, but often sent them to the kitchen for a hot chocolate if the weather was cold.