The silver fox industry is one of the most interesting episodes in Island farming history, a boom that-- like all silver rushes-- ended almost as quickly as it started. The silver fox was a rare breed, with a beautiful fur that in fact resembled a black with just a hint of silver. The first attempt to raise silver foxes on Prince Edward Island was in 1872, when Benjamin Heywood managed to obtain several litters of fox pups and kept them in captivity. This attempt eventually failed, since he did not know that the foxes would destroy their pups if not secluded from outside interference. The real breakthrough in the industry came in Tignish in 1895, when experiments by Robert Oulton and Charles Dalton finally resulted in a mature litter with the all-important vein of silver in their fur. Oulton and Dalton joined forces and, by 1898, had two profitable fox ranches.
But by the turn of the century, silver-fox pelt prices began rising sharply on the London market, and P.E.I. soon gained attention as the world leader in this rare commodity. Maintaining a monopoly was the key to the Island's status as capital of the silver fox market. Breeding pairs were few and far between, and in 1912, up to 85% of the silver foxes in captivity were held on the Island. Combined with the high demand for the fur in the fashion industry, this market stranglehold resulted in astronomical paydays for Island fox-ranchers. At the peak of the industry, pelts were selling for $1,500 to $2,600 each. By 1913, a breeding pair of first-class silver foxes sold for $25,000.
The problem with monopolies is that they are difficult to maintain. Word soon got out about the fortunes to be made in foxes, and ranches began springing up on every country farm, including many in the Kensington area. The value of the foxes led some farmers to build pens that resembled armed camps, surrounded with high barbed-wire fences to discourage would-be thieves. But more and more farmers continued to get a hold of the rare animals; by 1923, there were some 450 fox farms containing 13,000 foxes, up from only 3,000 in 1913. Despite a market decline during World War I, the fox industry grew throughout the 1920s, reaching a peak value of nearly $4 million in 1929.
Robert Humphrey of Kensington became one of the Island's leading fox farmers. From his humble beginnings in 1921 with only one pair of foxes, Humphrey was chosen as winner of the Royal Winter Fair Championships between 1927 and 1930. He also won eleven other championships, including competitions in Charlottetown, Borden, and the title of grand champion at the Summerside Pelt show. Besides his success in showing foxes, he also gained great notoriety for his innovation of raising foxes in sheds. The shelter not only improved the quality of the fur, but keeping the animals off the ground also limited the spread of diseases such as lung and hook worm.
But this enterprise was bound not to last forever. Like all aspects of the economy, its reckless speculation collapsed in the Depression era, as the lack of disposable income saw the demand for fox pelts decline drastically. When funds became scarce, there was suddenly no time for fashion. By 1935, the industry was suffered from severe overproduction and in 1948, pelt prices had reached an all time low. Earle Semple, a fox farmer in Kensington, remembers how quickly the bottom fell out of the market; he recalls how one year he was offered $800 for a single male fox, and how but a year later, he was only able to get $35 for a high-quality pelt. Many farmers simply let all their foxes loose rather than keep paying to feed them.
Despite all the money, time, and effort Island farmers had devoted to the silver fox, few had anything to show for it at the end. It has even argued that the boom diverted attention from farming improvements that, in the long run, would have been more beneficial to the Island economy. In the end, the fox industry might have taught local farmers an important lesson: all that glitters is not silver.