For the entire month of May, I did nothing but read up on all the files of the Saskatchewan district as far back as was necessary to get a grip on each subject. I took copious notes, from the names of the firms who handled our freight and when, through conditions of the buildings, data on staff, miscellaneous items which had to be checked at the posts regularly each year: from fire equipment, home furnishings and building painting programs, to the issue of winter trapping debts.
I went to Birt's Saddlery in Winnipeg and purchased a large leather, accordian-looking carrying bag with four partitions, and carefully packed the tools of my new trade. I carried it with me on every inspection trip. In time, it became known as 'Ross's Traveling District Office'. Although I was kidded unmercifully about it, the bag stood me in good stead over the years. Somewhere in that bag was the answer to every question or problem that arose at a post. It contained the Company's standing rules and regulations, post accounting manual, the latest annual and semi-annual rating reports on post managers and assistant staff, the latest monthly trading results for each post, each post's dwelling standard equipment list, inspection notebook, and various other odds and ends. One important item was a copy of the Company's fur trade code used for telegraphing any change of fur prices and for advising district office of monthly post results.
Another item included was Slater's codebook. Slater's was like a dictionary--words listed in alphabetic order--with an assigned number for each. To send a message, you selected your word with its number, added a prearranged three-digit number and looked up the resulting figure. To decode, the process was reversed. There were two different key numbers; one for messages between district office and the posts and vice-versa; and the other for messages between district office and district managers. With this, I could send any confidential message to district office from any post without the post manager being able to decode it.
From the depot, I ordered two sleeping bags--a 'Woods Four-star' for winter and a 'Woods Sierra', a lighter bag, for summer use. These were only the beginnings of my shopping list. Next came a pair of padded windpants; heavy, sheep-lined, air-force-style flying boots; a pair of native moosehide moccasins; thick, wool duffle oversocks and three pairs of heavy wool socks which I stuffed into the bottom of the winter sleeping bag; and a quilted nylon parks complete with fur-lined hood and long enough in the skirt to reach my knees. These completed my winter wardrobe. I wore normal city clothes on my journeys, with a light raincoat in summer and added the windpants, parka and heavy wool gloves in the winter. Since the bulk of my traveling was by air, the sleeping bags were most essential as there was always the danger of a forced landing in the bush. If this happened in winter, it would be impossible to walk any distance with the heavy air-force flying boots; hence the moccasins, duffles and socks.
I set out on a series of inspections designed to cover all the posts in my district in turn. I'm afraid my family saw very little of me until freeze-up. I was away for three weeks at a time and then home for a few days--just long enough to renew my acquaintance with my kids and have my laundry done. Bea had been a Company wife for some years now and if she wished things were different, she never let on to me.
Usually I left Winnipeg by train in the evening, arrived at Prince Albert by noon the following day where I had made charter arrangements for a Saskatchewan Government Airways Stinson 108A. The Stinson was a grand little aircraft seating three plus the pilot. It could do 120 miles per hour on skis and 100 miles an hour on pontoons. The charter rate was $60.00 an hour with a minimum guarantee of two flying hours per day.
My first swing was up the east side of the province. Taking off from the river in Prince Albert, we headed directly to Southend Post on Reindeer Lake--a narrow body of water almost 150 miles in length, running north and south on the border of Saskatchewan and Manitoba. The lake was dotted with islands, several of which had commercial fishing lodges catering to American tourists. There were also a few white commercial fishermen operating mainly in the winter. They shipped their fish by winter road from Co-op Point, halfway up the east side of South Reindeer Lake, to Lynn Lake and thence south by railroad.
Reindeer Lake is drained by Reindeer River which flows south to join the Churchill River. A few miles below the point where the river flowed from the lake, a dam controlled the flow of water south into the Churchill and then into Island Falls where a large hydro plant serviced Flin Flon. Building the dam meant raising the level of Reindeer Lake a few feet and, from the air, you could spot the damage that had been done to the shoreline.
The Hudson's Bay Company had been in the area since 1795-96 when Fairford House was built on the Reindeer River, and Bedford House two-thirds the way up the west shore of Reindeer Lake. In 1789-99, the Company located Clapham House on the site of the present post where the river exits from the Lake. The post was abandoned and re-opened several times under various names-Fort Deer Lake, Reindeer Lake, Fort Caribou, until finally it closed down in 1930. When the Company took over Revilon Freres--a rival trading company--1n 1936, their post at South Reindeer Lake was one of the posts taken over. Though a small operation, it was still making a profit in 1948. Bedford House was moved in 1861 to its present location, a sandy promontory at the northeast end of the lake not far from the mouth of the Cochrane River and given a new name--Brochet.
Beside our post, there was a Roman Catholic Mission and a free trader named Steve Russick and we were all surrounded by the Indian reservation.
W.A. 'Bill' Smith, manager of Southend lived there with his wife and one small daughter. His oldest daughter was attending school at St. Mary's Academy in Winnipeg. Bill was a shrewd Scot from Aberdeenshire, a good trader and a keen radio operator. He had a 'good fist' on the key and could transmit and receive radio messages quickly. A rather shy man, he was most excitable and I had to watch what I said to him in case he took umbrage and flew off the handle. Fortunately, his wife was the calm, motherly type and kept him on an even keel most of the time.
Bill's daughter Audrey was the reason for the first and only time I acted, quite unwittingly, as Cupid.
The year after she finished school at St. Mary's Academy, I dropped in to Southend on a routine visit. Poor Audrey. After spending a year cooped up with only her parents and a younger sister to talk to, she was bored to her boots and completely miserable. She missed the companionship at school and the city amenities and wanted to go 'out' to find work. Only her dad couldn't see her living on her own in town and would not hear of it. I sympathized with Bill up to a point and said, 'Look Bill, I think Audrey should have a holiday. I'm sure Mrs Garbutt at Brochet would be delighted to have her visit. She would enjoy the company.' And Bill reluctantly agreed to try it.
When I got to Brochet, I talked to Bill and Renee Garbutt and they agreed to the plan. After their next radio schedule, Mrs Garbutt issued the invitation and Bill Smith accepted. So, as I was staying at Brochet for a few days and paying for my charter aircraft anyway, I had the pilot make a return trip to fetch Audrey.
To make a long story short, Audrey met a fine young man at Brochet, a soldier attached to the Royal Canadian Corps of Signals weather station. The Smiths were transferred in a year or so to another district, but in due course I received a notice of Audrey's wedding to the young man, a thank-you note and a charming water-colour painted by Audrey 'in appreciation'. It still hangs on my living room wall to remind me of my playing Cupid.
From Southend we flew north to Brochet, where we were met by manager W.R. 'Bill' Garbutt and his wife Renee, both from England. Bill had started his career with the Company down the MacKenzie River and eventually was transferred to Brochet. He was an inland trader and had no desire to be sent anywhere near the 'bright lights' as he described it. Six feet tall, with greying hair, he was a dapper gentleman who looked as if he had his suits tailor-made in Bond Street.
Renee Garbutt (right) was perfectly happy to be anywhere Bill was posted.
She was an immaculate housekeeper and a first-class cook and, in addition, she also looked after the regular daily radio schedules. When she first started, she was a bit tentative on the key but Bill Smith from Southend contacted her and coached her along on unofficial schedules until she was most proficient. Her great love was her garden. She and Bill built it from nothing using silt brought in from the riverbed several miles away. They had a fine lawn in front with flower borders and a well-stocked vegetable garden at the rear.
Assisting Bill in the store were Frank Henderson, a Scot from Edinburgh and Henry Linklater, a Cree half-breed originally from Pelican Narrows. Bill didn't speak the native tongue so Henry was official interpreter. Frank Henderson came to the Bay from Revillon Freres in 1936 and had been at Brochet ever since. He retired in 1950 and returned to Scotland. Although he had only one leg, he managed to get along very well on his crutches. In the wintertime, he wore one snowshoe and attached a miniature snowshoe to the foot of each crutch and scrambled on, often leaving his companions behind.
Bill had a puckish sense of humour as I soon found out. Sitting in his office one afternoon, he quietly asked, 'Mr Ross, do you remember a letter you sent out about a month ago? It was about the fall hunting debts.' When I acknowledged that I did, he went on. 'And you said that none were to be issued until you came in early September to authorize them?' I nodded in agreement. 'Well, I'm afraid that won't work here,' he announced.
'I don't understand, Bill. Why won't it work here?'
'Well, you see, it's like this. Most of the native hunters are Chipewyan and they don't hang around the settlement. They come in for treaty and leave again right away. Some of them don't even come in for Christmas. These men are good hunters and they stay out on their traplines all winter, returning only at Easter.' He glanced at me, looking very serious and explained, 'They follow the caribou herds, you know and one or two families have already left for the trapping grounds.'
"I see. What did you do about their debt?' I asked.
'Well,' he replied, poker faced, 'I had no authorization from district office...'
'Oh, good God, Bill,' I interrupted. 'Don't tell me you let them go without giving them trapping debt?'
There was a moment's silence, then he started to grin. 'No, I didn't do that. I just gave them the same amount as I gave them last year.' He handed me a list. 'Here's my proposed list of debts for the fall.'
'Okay Bill, you win,' I said as I signed my approval. 'Next year, I'll know better and get in touch with you much earlier.' It was a well learned lesson. I couldn't be too quick to take things for granted. Every post had its own individual character and I had to learn them all. Up until now, I had been accustomed to natives hanging around the post until late September or early October before going out for the winter, which left plenty of time to discuss trapping debts with the hunters.
While looking through Bill's stock in the warehouse, I came upon a section of dry goods and yard goods neatly piled up but with no cost-landing mark on them. 'What's the story here, Bill/' I asked.
'Mr Ross, look at them. The natives won't buy these yard goods. They're okay for white trade but they aren't colourful enough for the Indians.' We went through all the goods, which were all in light pastel shades. 'They must have been bought by some of the new-fangled merchandise boys in Head Office. They haven't a clue what sort of things native people prefer,' he added sarcastic ally
He was right. The material was good quality but quality didn't count as much as colour. 'Have you tried putting them on sale?'
'I tried, but the Indians won't look at them at any price.'
I thought about the problem for a minute. 'Tell you what Bill. We can't leave the goods to lie here and rot. Let's make out a detailed list and I'll try to peddle it to other posts in the district when I receive their winter requisitions. Mind you, I can't guarantee their full value but that shouldn't matter too much. You've written them off anyway.' It took me two years to disperse the dry goods throughout the district.
Most of the Indians were Chipewyan with a small smattering of Cree. They were great hunters and spent most of their time north in the Barren Lands. I was fortunate enough to meet Horace McCallum who came in for his debt prior to leaving the post. Horace was acknowledged as the best trapper in the area and he spent a lot of time apprenticing young men to become proficient in his art. Each winter he took half a dozen young men, trained them in the finer points of hunting and trapping and paid them a regular wage. Of course, all the fur caught belonged to Horace. According to the post records, his catch each winter was at least five hundred mink.
At Horace's request, Bill took me into the hardware warehouse and showed me a beautiful washing machine operated by a gasoline motor--still in its case. Bill put a little gas into the tank and started it up and Horace proudly gave me a demonstration. 'This is mine,' he declared, rubbing a cloth along the top until I thought the paint would come off. Later that evening Bill told me the story. Horace had been in funds the previous winter and had ordered the machine. It stayed in the warehouse, in its crate and was only operated when Horace brought a number of his admiring friends over to show them the fine machine that he owned. And there the washing machine stayed for several years before Horace decided that everyone for miles around had seen his magnificent purchase and he finally took it home.
He was a grand character, Horace was. His annual great treat for his family and relatives was to charter a Norseman from Lamb Airways in The Pas and fly them all out to the Trappers Festival. One year, Mr Lamb chided Horace. 'Why don't you load up this plane with flour, tea, and lard? There's lots of room. The plane can handle it.'
Horace looked at him disdainfully. 'When I want grub or anything else, I go to the Hudson's Bay man at Brochet. He gives me everything I ask for.'
Besides the Hudson's Bay post, Brochet settlement consisted of a Roman Catholic mission, a free trader whom I knew only by the name of 'Old Man Shieff", a Royal Canadian Corps of Signals wireless station, and a local game warden. The RCCS station was staffed by an NCO and three signallers and was responsible for taking and sending out weather data. Jim Cumines, the game warden, was employed by the Saskatchewan Department of Natural Resources but he had the responsibility for the Manitoba side as well.
Bill and Renee Garbutt stayed at Brochet until Bill retired in 1967. They were there for twenty years.