Frontier characters and practical Jokers populated nearly every town and village in the West and North in our country. In the early days before radio and television took over, these people provided "down home" entertainment free of charge to one and all.
They came from every walk of life and vocation imaginable. Blacksmiths to merchants, machine dealers to livery barn operators, station agents to farmers. Trappers to dentists, bush pilots to shoemakers, and the list could go on and on.
What caused someone to be classed a character? They all had several things in common: a keen sense of humour; an eye for practical jokes; a distaste for keeping up with the Jones'; money was never their god. These are a few of the threads held in common by characters. They were a "laid-back" group who marched to a different drum than most!
They were definitely unpopular with the area womenfolk, and were often accused of keeping husbands involved in poker games and drinking parties for long sessions.
These people never took themselves or anyone else too seriously. In most cases, despite their tough exterior, they were tender-hearted deep down, and would literally give the shirt off their backs to someone in need.
All my life, I seemed to be attached to "characters" and "practical jokers" like a magnet, or like a moth to a flame. It has been my privilege to have become friends with a good many of them; some of their stories are contained herein.
The following excerpts are from the book: True Lies of Frontier Characters and Practical Jokers. This excerpt was published in Rural Roots on, Sunday, November 21, 1999.
Shooting pool instead of the bull in 1987.
Map of Lac La Ronge.
GOVERNMENT STORE MANAGER WAS A COLOURFUL CHARACTER.
One of the most colourful characters in the 1950s in La Ronge was Eddie Broome, the Saskatchewan Government Trading Store manager there. Ed was, and still is, famous for his "one-liners." One day, a couple of older American women were visiting the store while their husbands were out on the lake fishing. One of them inadvertently knocked a bottle of ketchup off the shelf. Of course, it broke, causing a mess on the floor. They were stumbling around, ooh-ing and aah-ing over the misfortune, not quite sure what to do about it. Broome happened to arrive on the scene at that very moment to put their minds at ease.
He said, "Don't worry, ladies, it probably wouldn't have lived anyway!"
Eddy's wife, Enid, was a nurse for La Ronge, Pinehouse, Stanley, Deschambault, Wollaston Lake, Reindeer Lake (both of the communities of Southend and Co-op Point) and Montreal Lake. Her headquarters was at La Ronge and had moved a house trailer to a position on the hill just behind the trading store, to act as office and treatment centre.
She was often away overnight, and sometimes several nights in a row. Like all wives, she wondered and worried what her darling husband was up to in her absence! He was known to hang out with assorted "low lifes," including me when I was in town. One of these was the owner of MacMillan Drilling Company, who hit town at least four times a year to set up his camps with fresh meat, produce and all kinds of other items. Every one of his men kept a personal account at the store and would square up with Eddy on their way home to Toronto after the winter and summer drilling seasons.
Enid just dreaded the times when that crew hit the town, as her husband would sometimes get swept up in the parties at the hotel next door. She gave him a fairly firm lecture on the subject and with great regret, he decided to abstain from future celebrations with the crew upon the threat of life and limb! Eddy claimed that 90 per cent of a woman's intuition is suspicion!
Sure enough, a couple of weeks later, the crew arrived in La Ronge one April after a long, hard winter in the bush, ready to paint the town! Eddy wisely declined the usual invitation to the party, but instead, he showed up to collect his accounts from the crew at 7 a.m. the morning before they took off for the South.
The party was still in full swing, as usual, with one variation. Two local girls were in bed! They both knew and respected Eddy, and immediately covered up their heads! Broome had one beer to be sociable, then proceeded to collect all of his accounts. He smugly returned to the store and, with great glee, rang the money in the till and, by 8 p.m., figuring he had obeyed his wife's wishes and also having squared up with the crew, he heaved a big sigh of relief and promptly forgot the entire incident, figuring he was off the hook for sure.
Unfortunately, this was not to be! In late October, he was in his fur room at the store, when Enid burst in and told him that his presence was required immediately at her public health trailer.
The two girls from the hotel room had just been in with venereal disease and as in all such occurrences, the nurse had to obtain the names of all contacts. The girls named names and Enid's ears pricked when she heard familiar names from the MacMillan crew, and she narrowed it down to that break-up party in April. Enid then gave the third degree to the girls, after they had exhausted every name they could remember! Enid kept hounding them, and finally one said "Honest, Mrs.Broome, just ask Mr Broome, he was there."
Needless to say, the girls got their penicillin shots and were on their way forthwith! Enid headed for the store and found Eddy in the fur room. She told him to get over to the clinic, not now, but right now!
Mr. Broome arrived as requested, figuring that Enid was having trouble with the trailer furnace again. In Eddy's own words, "Here was Enid sitting across the desk with her glasses halfway down her nose."
"I didn't even know her!"
When she started to grill him, up, down and sideways, he figured out what was happening and felt trapped. With the deer in the headlights look on his face, he told his side of the story!
Enid, being the kind of person she was, wanted to desperately believe him, and he thus escaped the needle, but he walked on very thin ice for a long time.
Livery stable owners and operators were at the centre of all the action when area farmers delivered their grain to town with horses. In small towns and villages where a hotel and beer parlours were non-existent, everyone congregated at the livery barn, where entertainment abounded in the form of poker games and gossiping (telling lies), with a bottle or two of homebrew available at a reasonable price. The brew was bottled with a cork seal, in the beer bottles, and it sold for fifty cents a bottle. The providers of this refreshment were well known in the district, as they bought corks by the gross in the local store. One such entrepreneur eventually obtained a bottle capping machine and got real fancy by mixing half-and-half with red wine. He sold this for a dollar each. The empty wine jugs were sold for ten cents each and re-used as containers for coal oil.
I myself grew up four doors away from the local livery in Holbein, Saskatchewan, and I have many fond and hilarious memories of the place and of the characters who hung out there.
One such character was Charlie, who was a fixture at the barn from October until April. He helped out with the chores such as feeding and watering the stock and cleaning the stables. In return, he had a cot to sleep on and shared meals cooked on a tin heater with the boss.
Charlie spent the entire summer out in the country visiting the farmers who were customers at the livery barn in the winter. He was always welcomed with open arms, and farm wives outdid themselves lavishing large home-cooked meals upon him. In return, Charlie would regale them with stories and gossip of the district, and his visits were always welcomed and looked forward to with great anticipation.
Charlie's stories were downright outrageous at times, but always interesting. He told of a moose hunting trip up north on which he encountered a bull and cow moose, standing side by side on the shore of a lake. He fired and got them both. The cow dropped, but the bull fell into the lake and, in his death throes, kicked a 32-pound jackfish up onto the shore. Charlie was so proud of himself that his chest swelled up and popped two buttons off his shirt. The buttons flew into a tree and killed two partridges perched there. He bragged that he had "bagged two moose, a jackfish and two partridge with only one shot!"
On another moose hunting expedition in the Yukon, Charlie's gun jammed while he was being charged by a bull moose. Charlie climbed a tree to save himself, but the moose kept butting the tree, trying to shake Charlie loose. This tactic failed, and the moose disappeared down to a creek. Just as Charlie was coming down the tree to make his escape, the moose returned with a beaver. The beaver began to gnaw at the base of this tree, while the moose butted with all its might. Just as the tree was about to come down, the moose and the beaver mysteriously disappeared. At first, Charlie was puzzled but solved the mystery when he looked at his watch. It was five o'clock. Charlie believed that the moose and the beaver belonged to the union and it was quitting time!
Charlie told of logging one winter in the Yukon and how cold it was. One night, he left his crosscut saw outside the shack, and the temperature dropped to minus 75. The teeth on that saw chattered so loud from the cold that it kept Charlie awake all night!
Charlie was a 'jack of all trades' who knew everything about everything worth knowing. He was a self-taught veterinarian, and I recall taking my dog Roly, to the livery barn after he had encountered and chased a porcupine for half the night. His muzzle, his face and the inside of his mouth, clear to the throat, were loaded with quills!
Several people suggested that the poor dog be put down to take him out of his misery, but Charlie, at great risk to his fingers, gently worked with pliers and scissors to remove the quills. The scissors snipped the ends of the quills, and the pliers then pulled out the offending object!
Now, my dog, Roly, and Charlie were not the best of friends, and it took all of my efforts to keep Roly subdued enough to keep from taking Charlie's head off! Charlie bravely ministered to my dog, and eventually got the job done.
Would you believe that the very next night, Roly went out and did the very same thing and by morning, was in the same shape as the day before. Charlie took it right in stride and doctored the dog again.
Charlie's next move was to go porcupine hunting in the nearby pasture area when the offending creature showed up and was blown away with a shotgun! He then expounded on what good meat porcupine would be in his stew pot! This, of course, grossed everyone out but, in later years, as a trader in the North, I learned from many trappers that porcupine meat is considered a delicacy that tastes similar to chicken!
As a boy growing up in the livery barn atmosphere Charlie was my hero, and I believed every word he said! In later years, I realized that his stories of moose hunting and so on were not original to him, as these same stories -- with some variations -- have circulated in frontier livery barns and communities for years before and after him.
Every town with a livery barn in the early years had a resident Charlie who provided words of wisdom and down-home entertainment free of charge to anyone willing to listen to his 'lies'. I loved the man!
All good things must come to an end and, unfortunately, in the late 1940s, there was no longer a need for a livery barn, and so Charlie was forced to change his lifestyle and take up a 'real' job. He left town on a freight train and we never heard from him again!
PIPES AND FIDDLE CONCERT ENLIVENS GRAVEYARD DAY.
This excerpt was published in Rural Roots
on Sunday, February 27, 2000.
Lionel Head was an excellent violin player. He won first prize at the Winter Festival at The Pas, Manitoba, several times. This was no mean accomplishment, considering that he competed against some of the top old-time fiddlers in the country!
I first learned of his musical ability when I was practising a new tune on my bagpipes, reading the music and fumbling for the notes. Lionel slipped home, got his fiddle, and showed me where I was going wrong. He then flipped the book open to Stumpy, an old pipe tune which he had never played or heard before and he played it perfectly! Wow! Was I some impressed!
The very next day was the spring graveyard day. This is where the entire community turns out to clean, clear and decorate the graves of their deceased relations. It is a day for a picnic, where each family unit gathers at a family graveside and spreads out a feast after the work is all done. These feasts included boiled goose, duck, muskrat, beaver and moose meat.
Lionel had invited me to take part as a guest of his family and suggested that we have some fun with the people in the graveyard. It was a cold and windy day with low clouds overhead. We took our canoe and paddled to the graveyard, which was on the bank of the river. Lionel started making weird eerie Weetigo noises, then motioned to me to start playing my bagpipes. We came over the riverbank, into the graveyard and into a scene of terror and havoc that was a sight to behold! Small children were clinging for dear life to their mothers. Several were heading for the road in panic, while others stood in awe and everyone was sure that the Weetigo (Cree for ghost or devil) was after them!
I looked over at Lionel, who was doubled over with laughter! The scene was so hilarious that I, too, started to laugh, and couldn't even finish the dirge I was playing. Few, if any, of these people, had ever heard bagpipes before and we had taken them by total surprise!