Tuesday, 1 January 2030

Fur Route

About this blog.

This post is intentionally dated in the future so it appears first...

The HBCo posts that Mike ran are scattered along the oldest fur route into the Western Arctic - by canoe brigade following waterways rich with beaver pelts willingly harvested by Indian trappers. We first lived in Cumberland House, the first year-round inland post established by the HBCo. Then, after Mike attended fur school in Montreal, we were posted to Fort Wrigley for a year. The next summer we moved to Arctic Red River (Tsiigehtchic) 1° north of the arctic circle, then the following year to Fort Providence where we spent four years. For two summers Mike "relieved" post managers at Fort Norman and Fort Rae having their semi-annual holidays, and then in 1958 we moved to Fort Chipewyan. Mike left the fur trade and the HBCo in 1967 after 18 years of service.

The following description of the canoe route used to transfer goods and fur west of Cumberland House is from Wikipedia:

From the depot at Cumberland House, Saskatchewan on the lower Saskatchewan River, north up the Sturgeon-Weir River, across Frog Portage to the east-flowing Churchill River which is mostly a chain of lakes, west up the Churchill past the depot on Lac Île-à-la-Crosse, through Peter Pond Lake to Lac La Loche and over the 12-mile Methye Portage to the Clearwater River whose waters reach the Arctic. The Methye Portage, which was first reached by Peter Pond in 1778 ranks with Grand Portage as the most difficult of the major portages. West down the Clearwater River to the Athabasca River at Fort McMurray, north down the Athabasca to the Peace-Athabasca Delta and the depot at Fort Chipewyan, Alberta, at the west end of Lake Athabasca. This was about as far as canoes could reach and return in one season and was the gathering place for furs from the rich Athabasca region and further west. One could continue into poorer country north down the Slave River to the Great Slave Lake and northwest down the Mackenzie River to the Arctic Ocean.

Thursday, 29 November 2018

Talking Indian

We were to speak only English or French at the Sacred Heart Residential School in Fort Providence, which I attended as a day student from 1954 until 1958. It was forbidden for any of us to speak Indian. I didn’t have a problem with this, as we only spoke English at home and, frankly, never gave it much thought. I only knew that the kids that were caught talking in Slavey, Loucheaux or Dogrib were being bad, and would be punished by one of the Sisters or Brothers. One warm June afternoon in 1955 my sister and I were playing in the icehouse, and started babbling incoherently to each other, laughing and shouting while acting out imaginary scenes. She was four years younger, and still had a limited vocabulary, so it was fun making up words and sounds, pretending to communicate. The game regressed into her chasing me around the yard, onto the sidewalk and around the corner of the house, right into Mike, my dad, who was painting the screen door red. “What are you doing, talking like a goddamn Indian? Smarten up,” he blustered, “And watch out for the wet paint.” The tone of his voice, the reminder of the school rule, and the underlying fear of him stung like being slapped. We quietly went into the house and Mom gave us a glass of water. The next week my grade one classmates shared their excitement at going home for the summer, being with their parents, grandparents, aunts and uncles, and talking Indian.

Years later Carol Upton, the only other white kid in town, gave me the following poignant memory. It is copied from http://www.twofrog.com/hodgson.html.

When I Go Home I’m Going To Talk Indian

My best friend, Rose, was the most fun in the world. I looked forward each day to meeting her in the school hallway just before the bell rang. She often wore a barely-suppressed grin, or covered her mouth with her hand. I would spend recess trying to get her tell me what the joke was. Usually, she had managed undetected to plant a stone on Sister's chair or sneak an extra crust of bread from the supper hall. Rose, head bobbing, dark eyes twinkling, would finally share her secret transgression with me, causing us both to burst into uncontrollable giggles, and occasionally drawing the attention of a stony-faced nun who, disturbed by our laughter, would shoo us to move on.

The Catholic Mission loomed at the far end of the only road cutting through Fort Providence, Northwest Territories. In l954, I entered my first year of school there as the only "white kid". My father spent his days predicting weather and tapping it in Morse code, down to a military base in Hay River. My mother cooked, knitted, sewed my clothes and preserved berries. I, being a spirited 5 year old, knew that we lived in an exciting place, accessible only by barge or float plane and snowed under nine months of the year.

The Mission school was the place for me to go to and hang out with other children. I didn't question the locked iron doors, the bars on the windows, the unreasonable rules imposed by the nuns. I didn't find it unusual that my playmates were several hundred native children who lived at the school rather than with their families. It was my only experience of school and I had no need to question.

The day I arrived at school and didn't see Rose, I thought she must be ill. The recess bell finally rang and, in the impish manner I had learned from my friend, I quietly slid down the forbidding corridors that led to the dormitory. The nun who was changing the beds glared at me as though I wasn't meant to exist. I lowered my eyes to my shoes, knowing the necessary rules to avoid having to stand in the corner or get the strap.

"What are you doing here?" she barked.

I heard the squeak of her black boots, the jangle of her crucifix and the angry swish of her robes as she came closer.

"Looking for Rose, Sister. I thought she was sick." "She's not here. Now get back to class!"

I scurried back to the coatroom and pulled on my parka and touque.

She must be outside, I thought, struggling to push open the heavy back door.

Children filled the snowy yard, screaming, laughing, building snow forts and pulling each other around on little pieces of cardboard. It was freezing today and the nuns gathered close to the building, warming their hands over the fire barrel. I stood on the high stone steps, searching everywhere for Rose's red jacket. Finally I spotted her in the farthest corner, standing with her face to the fence, no friends around.


I shouted as loudly as I could, running down the steps and slogging through the deepest part of the snow where the other children had not gone. When I reached her, I tugged on her sleeve.

"Come on, Rose! Recess is almost over!"

She kept her back to me, warming her hands under her jacket. Impatiently, I tugged again, sure that the bell would ring at any moment and we would have no time to play.

Now she turned, her face drawn with pain and fury. She held up her red, swollen hands and I knew then that she hadn't been warming them, but holding, protecting them as best she could, from the searing pain. I saw the tears, which had frozen on her beautiful cheeks.

"When I go home I'm going to talk Indian!", she whispered fiercely.

The bell rang and neither one of us moved. Cold needled into our faces and I stood, watching Rose breathe rapid frosty puffs into the bleak northern air. I didn't know what to do for my friend. When I looked back, I saw the other children were almost all inside.

"Rose, we have to go."

She nodded, wiping her face in her sleeve. We couldn't hold hands like we usually did. Instead, I touched her shoulder as we walked toward the stone steps, where two nuns stood like sentries, waiting for us.

Rose and I never talked about what had happened to her. We still sat together everyday and traded the ribbons in our hair. We built forts and pulled each other around in the snow on pieces of cardboard. Rose talked longingly of eating her granny's toasted bannock and romping in the woods with her younger sisters, who hadn't yet arrived at the Mission school.

Our family left Fort Providence two years later. In the time I knew her, Rose never did get to go home.

Copyright © Carol M. Hodgson, March 2000 All Rights Reserved

[Note from Sonja Keohane: After reading this, I asked Carol for an explanation of what had been done to Rose's hands. This was her response:

Rose was strapped for speaking her language. This is a common practice in schools all over the place at the time. Her open hands were hit with a large thick leather strap, many times. I received the strap on several occasions, although not as harshly as Rose did in my story. I did see many native children whose hands were strapped so long and hard that they were blistered for days, as though they had been burned with fire.]

Carol and I at my birthday party in March 1955.
Me, my sister Tania and Carol on Hallowe'en, probably 1955, at Carol's house in the Army Signals compound. 

Tuesday, 27 November 2018

Holiday Trains

Every two years Mike would get a 4-5 week summer vacation, with the HBCo providing a relief manager for the store and covering the cost of travel to Edmonton. We would stay at the Corona Hotel on Jasper Avenue in Edmonton for a few days while he completed business at the Northern Stores office on 104 Street. That done, we would travel by train to Winnipeg to visit Granny and Grandpa Paul for a couple of weeks before continuing on, by train, to Kamsack Saskatchewan to visit Babushka and Dyedushka, Mom’s parents. Uncle Mike would meet us at the station in Kamsack for the 10-mile ride to the farm. At the end of the “holidays” we would take the train back to Edmonton, and fly home. We followed this pattern six times, in 1954 and 1957 returning to Fort Providence, and in 1959, 1961, 1963 and 1965 to Fort Chipewyan. 

On the longer trips we used CNR’s new Pullman-Standard sleeper cars, sleeping in a two-bed room with its own sink and toilet. Later, when Tania and I were older, we used roomettes that folded down to seats during the day. I got my own berth, which I loved. While lying down I would roll up the shade a bit and watch the countryside or the activity at station stops, unobserved by passers-by. The black porters on CNR trains in the 1950’s were a real novelty, joking and teasing us kids. But they didn’t put up with nonsense, like running between coaches, making noise in the smoking lounge, or going in the bar car at all. We looked forward to the calls for meals, “Second seating for dinner”, which would send us forward to the dining car for an elegant meal – table cloth, formal place settings, several choices, and first-class service from a waiter, never black, and never a waitress. Tania and I could choose whatever we wanted from the menu, including pop drinks and any dessert. We ate while the prairie scenes rolled by, telephone lines swooping between poles, the clicking of wheels on rails, the tonal change over a bridge, with the ground dropping so we were flying over a stream far below, then whoosh, suddenly returning. Clackety, clackety, thumpety, thumpety, thumpety, clackety, clackety … on and on. If we went to the very back of the train we could stand on the open platform of the last coach and watch the tracks rushing away, rails converging into distant curves, with the ties moving so fast they couldn’t be seen until they were some distance away. The platforms between the coaches were always a bit disconcerting. Much louder than in the cars themselves, the roar of wind and clattering wheels shocked as soon as the door opened. The steel floor plates accommodating movement between the cars always felt a little dangerous, especially if you stood right on the joins, which we would. I would stick my head out of the window to see the engine on curves, chuffing and roaring in the wind with occasional whiffs of burning coal. Mike cautioned me to squint to prevent getting cinders in my eyes. We almost lost Mike once on the way to Kamsack when he decided to run to a liquor store during a station stop. We were already moving when he returned, but he managed to hop on near the end of the train, and walk through all the coaches to rejoin us. Mom wasn’t particularly happy about his antic, and let him know it, but his own happiness was ensured with his mickey of rye.

During our 1957 visit to the farm I spent a few days staying in town with Aunt Dora and Uncle Fred Belovanoff. Uncle worked in the CNR railway yard in Kamsack, shunting cars and engines on sidings, operating the roundhouse turntable, and maintaining the station garden. One morning he took me to work with him. He fired up a steam-powered switcher, an O-18-a I believe, and we happily pushed and pulled boxcars by the grain elevators. I got to shovel coal into the firebox, pull the whistle cord, and apply the brake. It was an amazing experience for a nine-year-old, and cemented my love for trains.

An 0-6-0 CNR switcher model O-18-a, the same as the one Uncle Fred and I used in Kamsack. 
The gardens that Uncle Fred maintained until he retired from the CNR in the late 1960's. 
By 1961 my grandparents had left the farm and moved to town. The day after we arrived Roger, a neighbour my age, took me to the railway yard. CNR had gathered dozens of retired steam locomotives destined for scrapping, and we spent the entire afternoon climbing on them, exploring and pretending. By suppertime we were covered with coal dust and greasy ash, but very satisfied. Babushka had invited several relatives for dinner that evening to show off her grandchildren. I wonder if Roger had set me up.

This photo of CNR engines waiting to be scrapped was taken in Winnipeg in 1960 (thank you Bikelover2 on Flickr). Roger and I played on engines in conditions similar to these.
Arriving in Winnipeg was exciting. The CN line passed through the south end of the city before turning north towards downtown. At one point we could see the tall brick chimney of the Fort Osborne barracks on the horizon, and we knew we were close. The barracks, now the Rady Jewish Community Centre, was across Doncaster Street from the horse paddock behind Granny’s house. We left the train at Union Station on Main and Broadway.  The architects who designed Grand Central Terminal in New York City designed this huge limestone structure, in use since 1911.  The central lobby is a rotunda with echoed acoustics that distort announcements, “Train from Dauphin arriving on track 3”, “Ten minutes until Toronto departure on track 6”. Granny and Grandpa Paul would be waiting for us, both elegantly dressed, arms out for hugs, everyone smiling, “Look how you’ve grown”, and we were off to the car, a Red Cap porter following behind with our suitcases on a cart. 

Union Station in Winnipeg in the 1930's, with its huge rotunda. Announcements have a unique sound in the large space created by the high ceiling in the large lobby.

My last summer holiday trip with the family was in 1965. After Grade 12 exams were over I flew home to Fort Chipewyan via Courier Air , spent two weeks with the family, and then flew back to Edmonton through Fort McMurray via MASL and PWA. This time we went to Kamsack first, then Winnipeg. After a few days at Granny and Grandpa Paul's new house on Lyle Street I decided to have an adventure of my own, and travelled by train to Vancouver to visit my high school friend Howard. I took the CNR Super Continental and experienced seeing the Rockies from a dome car for the first time. 

Thursday, 24 November 2016

Fur Training School 1951-52

After a few years spent apprenticing in the North, HBCo fur trade employees were sent to the Fur Training School. The School opened in the late 1940s to provide instruction in all aspects of fur buying such as grading, pricing, and more. Graduates went on to store management in the North or to work in the Raw Fur Department or Fur Sales Division. Mike was selected for training while we were in Cumberland House in 1951 and we spent the winter of 1951-52 in Montreal before he was assigned to manage the post at Fort Wrigley. 

Mike, Dick, Hank, and my father Mike








Andy and Bruce

Dan and Bob (USA)

Mike (not my father)



Mike (not my father)

Friday, 20 May 2016

Fort Chipewyan HBC Store 1958 - 1967

The year after we moved to Fort Chipewyan the HBCo expanded the size of the store and introduced the ability for customers to select merchandise themselves before purchasing it. The floor-plan, including the basement, was doubled, and freestanding counters and shelves were installed throughout the customer area. Two tills were now used, one for dry goods and the other, with a scale, for groceries. With Canadian Utilities Limited now providing 220 and 110 AC power, a reefer was installed for frozen goods storage, and a display cooler and ice cream freezer were placed on the floor. Fluorescent lights provided a much brighter atmosphere, along with large front windows and several upper windows. A post office was built separate from, but next to, the business office. Local clerks were hired to manage the tills, stock shelves and run the post office. There was even a fitting room. A staff washroom with flush toilet occupied a corner of the building, so no more long walks to the outhouse on the southwest corner of the lot.

This post focuses on the store itself - separate posts for store staffing, Christmas activities, and the fur trade itself are coming...

The HBC property in 1958 looking southeast. Structures include the store, flagpole, lighting plant, warehouses, fuel drum yard and building, and outhouse. The outhouse got tipped over every Hallowe'en, sort of a tradition. Notice the Canadian Utilities' fuel tanks stored on the government wharf point.
Store later in the Fall 1958. The CUL building and power poles have been erected, and the fuel tanks have been moved closer. 
Store in Fall 1959 during the expansion project. CUL is now fully operational.
HBC property in late summer 1962, not long after the big flood of that summer. 
In the Spring of 1965 Courier Flights Limited's Helio Courier failed to take off from Mission Bay due to soft conditions and needed to be towed back to the airstrip behind the RCMP detachment. I don't know why the propellor was missing. I made the trip to Edmonton several times on this plane while going to school. The jeep beside the store belonged to the RCMP. Note the fence on the east side of the store is missing, as is the flagpole. The motorbike looks like a Honda Trail 90, vintage 1964. 
The following two slides, taken in 1958, are the only ones I have that show the interior of the store before the expansion.

The store in 1958 had the traditional format of shelved goods behind the counter. 
East wall of old store. 
Floor-plan of the expanded store, not to any scale. The ramp by the stairway to the basement was used to slide freight down in the summer and fur down in the winter and spring. Fur baling was done in the basement.

The rest of this post are photos of the interior of the expanded store, starting in the Fall of 1959 during the transition to the new floor-plan. It was chaotic, but the store stayed open.

The northwest corner, with Mah's building out the window. Shelves are supported with cases of Carnation Milk, the display case is from the old store, and temporary tables are used for merchandise. 
The new display cooler temporarily in the southeast corner. The meat is probably bison from Wood Buffalo National Park. 
West wall at a different stage, grocery scale is temporarily in the new addition. New display cases are being assembled. 
Looking north at the dry goods till.
Looking north-east. What a muddle! 
The following photos were later in the Fall of 1959, after the snow. The new shelving is installed, tills are in their final locations, and the west wall is complete. Things are a lot more organized.

Southeast corner. Canned soup and coffee take most of the south wall shelf. For some reason a tremendous amount of Johnson's baby powder.
At the grocery till looking south. Lard is given a lot of space. Flour, lard and baking powder were big volume sellers.
The display cooler in its final location, with tobacco products behind the till. I overheard two women giggling over this cooler one day, one pointing at a garlic sausage and saying "muniaw tuxsees", white man's penis in Cree. 
Dust was a serious issue. At the close of business each day we would cover dry goods, particularly clothing, before spreading Dust-Bane on the floor and sweeping (my job after school). A lot of sand and mud tracked in from the dirt street.
In the northeast corner. Later more electrical appliances were available as people got power.
The south wall beside the post office - its door moulding is at the very edge of the frame. I got my first shotgun from this display - a Mossberg bolt-action 12-gauge magnum with a variable choke. Great gun for long distances, it got me many ducks but sadly never a goose. I always wanted a five-shot clip (illegal) but never got one. 
By 1962 the south wall has a produce display, partially visible on the far right. 
Men's clothing and hardware, 1964. Notice the back of a kitchen wood stove, an airtight wood stove, and a Pioneer 450 chainsaw. Price tags on larger items had an associated alphabetic code for the cost price of so selling prices could be negotiated without referencing the books. Once in Fort McMurray I decoded the store's codeword and then bragged about it to the post manager - he was not impressed.
Dry goods counter, 1964.
December, 1964. Notice the mocassins with ankle-high rubbers, local favourite footware.
Grocery till at Christmas, 1965. Cheese corns are 25¢, Cracker Jacks are 10¢. Notice the fluorescent light covers.
The tops of all the display cases are now fully covered with merchandise. 
The office in the southwest corner, probably early 1967. This is the counter mentioned in Man Who Chooses the Bush.
Probably early 1967.
Probably early 1967.

Monday, 16 May 2016

Fort Chipewyan Aerial View 1962

I got so excited finding this photo yesterday that I decided to post it all by itself. However, in my rush I inadvertently wiped out my entire HBC Store post, along with over 50 photos! Fortunately my wife had received a Blogger notice on an email which contained the entire post, so I won't have to remember all the captions. The post was too big anyway, I'm going to reduce the number of photos and break the post into 3 or 4 topics related to the store - the 1959 expansion project, the new layout and merchandise, staffing, and the fur trade.

The photo below was taken in August 1962 from the MASL Norseman. It clearly shows the layout of the town, with the best view I've found of the houses north and west of Mah's.

This photo was taken with my 35mm Sears Tower rangefinder camera. I had purchased this from the catalogue in the Spring of 1961. The camera I ordered was out of stock, so Simpon's Sears supplied the next model instead, which pleased me greatly!

Fort Chipewyan looking east, 1962. Note the evidence of the July flooding - water by the road across from Flett's, standing water by the beach, and the washout in front of Mah's. Also, this is the only photo I can find of Mah's house, with their substantial garden. The lake level is unusually high.