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Holidays at Edmonton

Published January 09, 2008        by Matt

presentThe factor assigned me a room with one of his workmen, William Borwick, a man of approximately my own age but who had been in service with the Company for several years, mostly at

We were approaching the Christmas holidays and there was a growing excitement noticeable among the inmates of the fort. Bill and others spent their spare time making ready their best clothes. The preparations the week before Christmas took on a new tempo of activity. Every dog driver and team was rushing supplies of fish to the fort for the dog trains of the expected visitors. The factor engaged two of the Indians who had buffalo-running horses to go with me after fresh meat, with orders to bring nothing but the best. We returned in four days with our pack horses loaded with two fine cows.

It was the custom of Hudson's Bay officials to meet at Fort Edmonton during Christmas week, staying for New Year's Day. They discussed business concerned with the trade, and prepared their orders for the following year. The conference had developed into a week of social activities commemorating the Christmas period.

Fort Pitt, Slave Lake, Chipewyan, Fort Assiniboine, Jasper House, Rocky Mountain House, and Lac La Biche were all represented. The two days before Christmas was a bedlam of noise as each new dog team arrived. Every arrival was a signal for all the dogs of the fort and those of the Crees camped nearby to raise their voices in a deafening uproar of welcome or defiance as their tempers dictated.

The noise was terrific, yet none of the regular inmates paid any attention or made any effort to silence any dog within reach. The drivers of the dog teams and the factors were assigned quarters as quickly as they arrived; the arrangements for the guests were a wonderful example of organized planning.

On Christmas Eve, Father Lacombe drove in to conduct Midnight Mass. I was somewhat surprised that the priest and my employer were on such friendly and cordial terms. Woolsey went out to meet him and immediately invited him to his room, where they spent several hours of congenial conversation. Of course I was on hand to take care of his dogs, as the man drove his own team.

Knowing the Rev. Woolsey's strong views against dancing, I was reluctant to ask permission to attend the celebrations, but I was burning to go. It was getting late when the priest finally departed for his duties with Catholic members of his church, and I finally screwed up enough courage to face the man.

Mr. Woolsey was seated reading his Bible when I entered his small room. I was in such a hurry to have his verdict that I had prepared no opening speech, although he looked slightly surprised at my late visit. He asked me to be seated, then as if reading my mind or perhaps noticing my flustered condition, said, "So you are fond of dancing."

It was my turn to look surprised as I answered too quickly in a tone of voice much too loud for that small room, "Yes I am, and that is what I came to see you about. I want your permission to attend."

Slightly smiling, he answered, "I surmised as much from this late visit. I have given the matter some thought, for you know my principles over dancing. However, you're a young man and need some recreation; your own conscience must be your guide. I have no objections, provided you conduct yourself as a gentleman. Drinking will be quite conspicuous in tomorrow's festivities and as my associate I will not permit your indulgence in this miserable business."

"I can promise you that I'll do no drinking whatever as I've cultivated no taste for liquor. You have my promise on both counts."

"Thank you, I accept both promises," and in an amused tone he added, "I hope you don't find them too heavy an obligation."

Wishing him the Season's Greetings, I bade him goodnight.

Delighted with the interview I ran back to our room to tell Bill the happy news. I was greatly relieved. Had he refused, I would have been in a difficult position. Bill was still up awaiting my return and I asked him what would be the order of the day.

"Well, many will be quite jolly as it is the custom for each of the employees to receive a ration of rum the day before Christmas, but by a rule of the Company no-one is to touch it before the next day. There will also be a dance at night; most of the women will come from the two settlements, Lac Ste. Anne and St. Albert. Let me assure you that some of the best-looking women in the West, and for that matter anywhere else, will be at that dance tomorrow night."

Then I told him of the wonderful news of receiving Woolsey's permission to attend. I danced a few steps for his benefit. Of course I did not tell him about the promise to abstain from drinking. I wanted all the credit to myself about being a gentleman. That always comes natural to a sober man for I have noticed that some of the most polished gentlemen lose some of their color under the influence of drink.

It was some time before I was able to get to sleep, then suddenly it was morning. I was aroused from a deep sleep by a tremendous bloodcurdling noise that actually seemed to vibrate the room. For a moment I was shocked motionless, then the notes of music sounded into my senses. I was out of bed and scrambled for my clothes. Bill was already half dressed.

John Graham, a Scottish employee, burst into the room, almost incoherent with excitement and fairly dancing in his joy. Finally he shouted at the top of his voice, "The Pibroch! The Pibroch!" Tears coursed down his cheeks as he motioned for Bill and me to come. We dressed in seconds that morning and followed him out as he turned and dashed for the door.

Striding back and forth on the walk that surrounded three sides of the factor's three-storied building was a man by the name of Colin Fraser playing a set of bagpipes. The long droning notes that precede the actual music were what awakened me so suddenly. He made a striking figure, dressed in all the gay regalia of tartan and kilt, his knees exposed to the elements. He seemed quite indifferent to the weather that was at least thirty degrees below zero. The deep notes of his instrument echoed back from the high hills of the ice-covered Saskatchewan River. It was beautiful even to my unfamiliar ear; never till then had I heard the bagpipes played.

I turned to watch to face of our old friend [Graham] and felt some of the deep loneliness that marked the features of this old man, whose life ambition had been to return to his native land; he now realized he was too late ever to attain it. He stood with his hand on Borwick's shoulder; unashamed tears flowed down his cheeks. That night Bill and I carried him to his room, too inebriated to manage his own way.

Shortly after breakfast a horn was sounded, a sign that the factor was ready to receive the salutations of the men at the fort.

I accompanied Borwick in this customary courtesy. After greeting each man in turn the chief clerk, who stood at the factor's elbow for this purpose, handed each man a drink of rum. I watched Bill out of the corner of my eyes as I took my turn to shake hands and offer the factor the happy returns of the day. When I refused my offer of a drink, I could see consternation and anger on Bill's face. We were scarcely out of the room when he gave me a sound going over for refusing the drink.

"Look here, Peter! You have been guilty of a grave discourtesy in refusing a drink. This has been the custom of the Company since the memory of the oldest man in the service."

"My dear sir, I'm not an employee of your grand Company; my first duty is to my employer. The matter of the minister's man refusing a drink of rum will, I hope, not create a revolution in the service. Perhaps you'd better interview Mr. Woolsey before the situation gets too serious."

He gave me a disgusted look but said no more. However, I noticed that he made a great fuss and ceremony when it came time to open his own ration in our room and never offered me a courtesy drink that he had so strongly advocated early that morning. Up to this time and for several years afterwards, I had no desire for strong drink nor had occasion to test its possibilities, but regret to say that at this late date, I'm afraid I could not claim that boast.

Christmas day was spent in visiting among those gathered at the fort. Woolsey held a service in English which everybody attended, regardless of affiliation. I was not called up to interpret but sat with his audience.

I had heard stories of unrestricted convivial times at these Christmas gatherings but there was no evidence of excess that day, other than our friend Graham who appeared to be under no obligation to share his portion with any other of the workmen. He gave Bill a drink but when I refused mine, he took an extra for himself, first holding the glass high in the air in my direction, smacking his lips in anticipation, then sipping with evident relish, nodding his head towards me with an air of admiring approval as if my refusal was a personal act of kindness to himself.

The dance that night I thought upheld Bill's claims; in fact he had slightly underrated it. Borwick, being an old-timer in the area, seemed to know every person there and soon made me acquainted with a number of his friends. They were friendly and cordial and called me by my first name without the formal use of surname. When Bill introduced me as Peter, I drew him aside and pointed out his omission.

"Heck, everyone around here knows you as Erasmus, the minister's man, so why waste time? It's the custom around here to use first names or nicknames. They would think you were trying to put on airs if I called you Mr. Erasmus. Only factors, ministers of the church, and priests have a handle to their names."

Colors in clothes were quite in evidence but nothing as startling as in later years. The Hudson's Bay stores at that time were more conservative in their choices of colors and they were the only source of supply. Therefore dress in those days gave more attention to utility than fashion. Neatness of apparel was of primary importance and the winsome maids of the prairie were quite as adept at adjusting the means at hand as their sisters a quarter of a century later.

A big lunch was served at midnight in the homes of the married couples, where the guests had previously left their contributions of food at the homes of their friends and acquaintances. Young bachelor residents of the post were pressed into service as chore boys, regardless of their wishes in the matter. I presumed that usage had established a precedent; at any rate I found that single men were mere appendages of the wives' organization for entertaining their guests; we were errand boys. Bill's apparent enjoyment of my hesitant and clumsy handling of the job was plain to see. Wherever there was a shortage of any particular food, we were sent to a neighboring house for supplies and we were both too busy to share in the talk and pleasantry going on wherever we went.

I was getting quite rebellious and said so in a low tone to Bill, who just laughed and told me to have a little more patience. At last the guests were all served and started drifting back to the dance floor. Most of the crowd had taken their food standing up around the tables. Not us; we were seated at a table with our hostess and the husband who from some hidden secret place brought out a sadly depleted bottle. Bill's malicious grin and wink was a determining factor in stiffening my weakened resistance.

Three attractive young ladies kept us supplied with food and talk; I refused the drink but needed no second invitation to start on the food. Under these circumstances I regained my good humor and for revenge on Bill, entered into a gay conversation with our attentive and pretty waitresses. Bill's devotion to the bottle left him badly handicapped in that competition.

There was very little rest for the musicians between dances, and there were plenty of fiddlers among the French Metis people from Lac Ste. Anne. Having too good a time dancing I did not offer my services that night, but later on I happened to mention to Bill that I liked playing the fiddle, and thereafter on Borwick's insistence I had to do my share.

The settlement guests all left for their homes at broad daylight.

After dancing all night they had to run behind dogs for another forty miles before they would have any rest or sleep. The men were tough athletes to stand a grind like that and I did not envy their trip under those conditions.

The more serious business of the post leaders was of course not neglected for any of the social events at the fort or at the settlements. The conference was brought to a final grand finish with New Year's Day sports. There were foot races, toboggan slides on the North Saskatchewan River hill, some competitions for the women, and the big dog-train race of three miles on the river. Every team from each post competed in this race. Each factor contributed a share to this prize; the winner took all, which was a choice of any clothes in stock to the amount of approximately twenty-five dollars.

The employed dog drivers for the Company at Edmonton asked the factor if they could allow me to drive one of their two dog teams. He consented, provided the other leaders agreed. They readily consented as they considered me poor competition against their own hardened and skillful drivers.

Bill heard about the arrangement and came to me with the intention of talking me out of it. "Man, you haven't a chance in the world against these men from Jasper House and Athabasca; fifty miles a day is a regular run for them. They would be ashamed if they were caught riding. They are tough, strong young men. Heck, man! That's all they know, just running behind dogs all winter."

"Bill, I'm going to beat every last one of them; I'll tell you how I aim to do it. Every driver has been idle, eating and drinking to the limit of his capacity all week. Their dogs are the same, and will be in no fit condition for a short fast race like this will be. Our dogs are in work shape. The team I drive has made a trip to Lac Ste. Anne this week; they are not overfed and they are rested enough to be keen in tomorrow's run. Bet your shirt, Bill; if you lose, I'll give you one of mine. Besides, I don't drink and that's my biggest lead over all the others."

This latter remark was just a dig for Bill's private opinions on drinking, but I had considerable faith in my ability as a runner, for I had won foot races against some pretty strong competition. My trips for the post after game and fish had kept me in good condition. Pierre, the driver of the second team, had urged me to enter the race and had been the one to approach the factor.

"Peter, you by gar, are de best runner in dese parts. You win de race for sure. You never drink de whisky, while dem men dey drink, dey eat an' feed de dogs like peegs. Dey lazy like Hell, all de week. For sure you win dat race, maybe."

The starting point was marked by stakes frozen in the ice far enough apart to accommodate the seven teams at the line. One mile and a half downriver was another set of stakes, three in number around which we must drive before returning to the starting line. Failure to pass around the far stake would disqualify any driver. There were judges at this end and watchers at the other to make sure the drivers complied with the rules. No man was allowed to foul up another driver or cut in unless he had a clear lead to the trail that would be well marked on our trip downriver.

We were off! Bill was my helper at the post. I had given him instructions to hold the dogs back until at least half of the others had started. They would be plowing snow on an unraveled track. Bill, disgusted at that foolish way of starting, nevertheless obeyed. There were four teams in the lead, all abreast for the first two hundred yards or so. The Jasper man had the same idea as I had; he was holding his dogs to the track already made by the other four toboggans. One man was left at the post as his dogs in their eagerness had become fouled up in their harness. I could see that the man from Jasper would be my strong competitor.

What none of the other drivers knew about was a stretch of overflow ice on the last half mile of the course downriver where I hoped to pass the others without plowing deep snow. Pierre our Edmonton driver was now in second place behind the Fort Pitt man. We were all closely bunched when we made the turn but I got ahead of the fourth team as his dogs cut short instead of rounding the marker posts, and he had to turn his dogs.

I was now in third place, the Jasper man directly behind me.

When I came opposite the overflow ice, I struck into the deep snow as if to pass the team ahead; he started to follow me but seeing the depth of snow turned back. The minute I reached the thin snow on the overflow ice, I cracked the whip over the dogs' backs and yelled. They almost threw me off the sleigh with their increased speed, as I had climbed on the sleigh to give it weight.

Now ahead of all the others, I allowed myself plenty of room before cutting back to the track. I had the race if I could stand the pace that I was being forced to travel to hold my lead. I had a brief breather while riding the overflow but jumped off when I came to the now well marked trail.

The Fort Pitt man was close up behind me and I knew I had to outdistance him before we reached the last quarter mile, because then he would also have a broken trail to follow. Now for the second time since starting I cracked my whip over the dogs, yelling for more speed, not hitting them but my voice and whip urging more speed.

I did not dare to look behind me at the others but was content with side glances only. For truth to tell, I had neither breath to spare nor energy to worry about opponents as long as I could see no driver ahead. We were only a hundred yards or so from the starting posts when another side glance showed the Fort Pitt man gaining beside me, his lead dog almost opposite my toboggan front. Only the short distance would save the race for me as I had the limit of speed out of my dogs. I hit the finish line with only a two dog advantage over my opponent.

Bill was like a crazy man, shouting and yelling his triumph for my win, but I found out later his delight was for himself as he had won a new shirt and pants by betting on my team to win. He even forgot to congratulate me as all the others did as soon as I could get my breath to acknowledge my thanks. Pierre and the Jasper man had fought for third place but the Jasper man beat him in a closer finish than my win. In fact the judges had some doubt about it but Pierre acknowledged his defeat. He told me afterwards, by gar, he didn't care as long as our Edmonton team won a first.

At daylight the next morning the far-distant post managers had pulled out for another long year of isolated wilderness where their duties held little of entertainment and no social life whatever, until the following gathering a year hence at Edmonton. No wonder the Chief Factor had put so much effort and attention for their comfort and entertainment while they were in