The Amazing Mr. Lamb

At 47 Tom Lamb is already ín Manitoba schoolbooks —He’s used radio, planes and tractors to run $1,700 into a $350,000 backwoods empire

JAMES C. ANDERSON February 1 1946

The Amazing Mr. Lamb

At 47 Tom Lamb is already ín Manitoba schoolbooks —He’s used radio, planes and tractors to run $1,700 into a $350,000 backwoods empire

JAMES C. ANDERSON February 1 1946

The Amazing Mr. Lamb

At 47 Tom Lamb is already ín Manitoba schoolbooks —He’s used radio, planes and tractors to run $1,700 into a $350,000 backwoods empire


IT WAS the first take-off of the winter from Regina Lake, about two miles east of The Pas, in northern Manitoba. The big red-and-black Norseman shot out across, the thin ice, skis slapping hard against the magnified washboard of snowdrifts and slush.

We had a ton of passengers and freight aboard, and it was a dangerous take-off. There are pilots who wouldn’t have chanced it, but Tom Lamb is not one of them. He’d owned three planes before that $50,000 Norseman, and he’d cracked up often. But he was calm as he sat in the pilot’s seat, hair tousled, white coveralls bulky over his heavy shirt, sweater and pants, and hauled his plane into the air just when it seemed we were about to run out of lake. From what I knew of him, this penchant for taking chances and winning was possibly the main reason why he had carved a fishing and trapping empire worth $350,000 —at his own estimate—out of the lakes and wasteland of the Manitoba North.

I was sitting next to him up front in the Norseman, and I had a good chance to size up this man I had met only a few hours before in his home at The Pas. Tom Lamb is 47, about five feet nine inches tall, and of medium build. His hair is black, but white-streaked, and when he turned to yell a pleasantry in Cree at Big Chief Jacob Nasecapo, one of the passengers, I could see he had brown eyes.

Our destination was Moose Lake, 50 miles to the east, where I was going to get a look at Tom Lamb’s 84-square-mile muskrat empire. He had mentioned it often during the talk we had in his modern home in The Pas a few hours before the take-off.

Incidentally, although we had skimmed over the outlines of his empire in that talk, he had declined to give exact figures of his earnings. He told me that his monthly payroll in 1944 averaged $14,000, but of his own net income he’d only say: “After we pay the workers (he has 170 on his payroll), the income tax people and I fight over the rest. Whoever yells the loudest wins.”

Tom obviously manages fairly often to yell the loudest. His home in The Pas cost $14,000, and its kitchen is equipped with every modern device. His wife needs them all, too, to look after their nine children—aged 9 to 19, and six of them boys. His Moose Lake muskrat farm represents an investment of $200,000 and his fishing empire another $150,000. In addition he has a few mining claims here and there, but says of them only: “There must be a lot of gold in ’em yet, because I’ve never taken any out.”

No Formal Schooling

THIS pretake-off talk had been mostly about fishing. Tossing in the odd French or Indian word as he talked, he told me the background to how he had started to fly fish out of the wilderness—a remarkable story of building something great from nothing. It’s better to start it at the beginning, because in that beginning were some things that might have handicapped a lesser man—for instance, that he never had formal schooling.

He was born in Grand Rapids, Man., in 1898. His father was an Anglican schoolmaster and missionary, who brought his wife out from England in 1895 to Cedar Lake, Man., later moved to Grand Rapids, where the Saskatchewan River empties into the north end of Lake Winnipeg. There, in 1898, Tom was born.

The Lambs moved again in 1900, to establish the first free-trading post at Moose Lake. And for the years of his boyhood and youth Tom worked there for his father. Evenings were spent doing schoolwork under his father—along with his 11 brothers and sisters.

In the early twenties Tom began to work for himself at odd jobs around the north country—taking time off in 1925 to marry Jean Armstrong of Winnipeg. Then

he helped build the original shacks and shafts for the Hudson Bay Mining and Smelting company at Flin Flon. In 1927—after the birth of his daughter Sheila, first white child born in Flin Flon—he began cutting wood in that area. That year he cut 6,900 cords, and got his original stake of $1,700. Then the great spiral began.

His first move was to buy out his father’s trading post at Moose Lake. The price was $5,000—and his $1,700 was the down payment. Selling everything—hay, wood, fur—in two years he paid off his father, who had moved to Tisdale, Sask., and later became mayor there. In the winter, as he had done since 1915, Tom Lamb fished.

He became the North’s first flying fisherman mainly by chance. It was the winter of 1930-31—a cold winter, with deep snow and strong winds. He was fishing William Lake, east of Moose Lake, and was getting his catch out by a horse and truck relay system to Mile 55 on the Hudson Bay Railway.

For the first half of the haul he had relay teams every eight miles. At halfway point, where the road got a little better, they would switch to trucks. On one of the first hauls he broke an axle. By the time he had walked out to the railway, lighted a fire and stripped to dry his clothes and thaw out, he was pretty disgusted with the system. He had to go down to The Pas to get a replacement for the axle, and while he was there he met Ted Stull of Wings Ltd., a bush-flying airline. Stull was flying freight in and out of the North in an old Junkers. The idea was taking grip.


ITOLD him where we were working and to fly over some time, drop in and give us a hand. I was joking, and he just grinned. But about three days later I was back hauling fish from William Lake. There was quite a pileup because of the delay—hundreds of boxes of fish waiting to get out. We had two new trucks on the haul—and they both broke down!”

What happened next seems pretty close to fate. He heard an airplane, looked up—and there was a Junkers coming in to land on the ice. Stull stepped out. *

“I said: ‘You ready to fly fish?’ ” Stull was ready. He pitched in, started Continued on page 34

The Amazing Mr. Lamb

Continued from page 19

relaying to The Pas. They had the haul cleaned up in no time. So Tom Lamb hired two more planes and flew fish all winter.

That season the cost of flying fish out to The Pas was between two and a half and three cents a pound. They were worth only four and a half cents on the market then, so the profit was small. But' the cost by tractor and truck was two cents a pound. There wasn’t much difference, and the speed was worth it.

That gave Tom Lamb his first real interest in flying. In 1935 he bought his first planea Stinson—and went to Winnipeg to learn to fly. Since then much of his fish haul has been with his own aircraft.

Today it costs about six cents a pound to fly fish to the railway (trains stop anywhere to pick up a load of fish) —but Tom gets 22 cents a pound, fresh, and 12 cents a pound, frozen. He flies fish both summer and winter.

One of Manitoba’s biggest fish firms, Booth Fisheries, is the immediate purchaser of Lamb’s fish. Ultimately, about 90% of it is sold in the United

States—most of it in the New York j area.

He has a total of 14 fish camps and 20 subcamps spread throughout the North, mainly on Southern Indian, Moose and William Lakes. He says his fishermen, like all his other employees, “are the best paid in the North.” They work on a straight salary of $4 a day, plus board and room—and most of them are Indians or half-breeds. Each camp has an overseer, who may be paid as high as $200 a month plus keep. Some of his overseers are well-known northern characters in their own rights—like Art Winn, boss at the camp at Pickerel Channel, who, Lamb says, “is four axe handles across the chest, and has to have all his clothes made to order except his handkerchiefs.”

They deliver the goods both winter and summer. Summer fishing is simply a matter of pulling the nets out every day, cleaning the fish, weighing them, packing them in ice and waxed paper and storing them in a dark, ice-filled building until they can be shipped. In winter it’s a little more complicated, and one of the prime requisites of winter fishing is a gadget called a jigger. Rope operated by a system of pulleys, it is a crablike float arrange-

ment which crawls along under the ice, towing a 150-foot net. After two days the ice is rebroken and the net withdrawn. The fresh fish are hauled by tractor in a heated caboose to the nearby fish camp, where they are cleaned, packed, in crushed ice and waxed paper, in 50-pound boxes, and then shipped out by air.

He never uses a small-mesh net, and is convinced that under this system his fishing can go on forever. He has some fairly definite proof: he has taken 75,000 pounds of fish a year from William Lake ever since 1915. This winter he expects to take out about a million pounds—about half whitefish, which is in demand for export to the United States.

He gets around to his fish camps mainly by air. Also, both winter and summer, the camps are kept supplied by combination land and water routes.

They had to teach the Indians how to fish for profit.

“They’d never seen a jigger, or corks, or steel ice chisels,” Tom says.

“When we first put them to work they were awkward as bulls in china shops. But they turned out to be good fishermen.”

Before Tom Lamb came to that country, an Indian was lucky if he made $50 a year. Now, if he works for Lamb, he may make $1,200. Tom thinks there is a great future for fishing in northern Manitoba, because the field has scarcely been tapped. He’d like to see the Government cut about $100,000 worth of winter roads through the country, opening up good lakes, and then: “It would be just a matter of a few years before the fishing business in these parts would be worth $7 millions a year.”

Meanwhile, in absence of Government action, he’s doing pretty well opening up the North on his own hook.

Already, by air, he has opened up part of Southern Indian Lake, a vast stretch of water about 125 miles north of Wabowden, on the Hudson Bay Railway, where he has machine shops, a cookhouse, and 35 tractor drivers who work the Southern Indian haul.

To work Southern Indian he spent $6,000 to build his own winter road, north from Nelson House. He considers its opening one of his biggest successes.

“We’ve taken 400,000 pounds of whites out of there in one season and we’re not half into the lake yet. In three months this winter I expect 500,000 pounds.”

He brought out a large map of northern Manitoba. He drew a big circle around Southern Indian and up to the Northwest Territories boundary.

“See there’s lakes in here, and here, and here, but they’re not even on the map. There’s scores of them, and they’ve never had a net in them. I hope to take a prospecting outfit in, with nets and jiggers, and open up five or six. I want to go into Big Sand, Little Sand, Bright Sand and Gold Sand Lakes.” These are all north of Southern Indian.

He drew a line north, and slightly west, from Southern Indian to Nueltin Lake, at the NWT boundary—a territory few white men have seen. “It’s 200 air miles from here to here. Nueltin is full of fat trout and jumbo whites. At present prices I can make it pay.”

If it does it will mean that Lamb has tapped new and rich territory.

I was thinking about all that as the

Norseman flew over the vast panorama of muskeg, lakes, islands, river water and land toward his muskrat ranch at Moose Lake. Tom looked happy. He leaned over constantly to point out various areas—the boundaries of the Manitoba Government muskrat ranch, snow-covered muskrat houses, moose and deer trails on the snow, sometimes moose and deer, fast rivers still open.

Once he looked back into the plane and winked at three boys, two of them his own.

“Couldn’t leave ’em behind,” he said. “Even if I had to leave valuable freight behind. I was a kid once myself.”

We were coming in to his Moose Lake ranch, which is about 10 miles from his father’s original trading post. From the air the ranch settlement looked just like a village, spot ted on an island of 54,120 acres, bounded by the Summerberry and Head rivers. From the air I could see hundreds of muskrat houses dotted over the land, among the limestone ridges, poplar, willow and spruce. Then we came in for a landing, taxied up the ice and clambered out, and I got a closer look at the settlement.

There are about 40 houses in the village, laid out in streets and avenues —all built from lumber produced by the Lamb sawmill and lumber camp at East Arm Narrows, about 30 miles from Moose. His Indian and half-breed employees live in móst of them, and Tom is proud of the interest they’ve shown. There were curtains at most windows, potted plants in many.

Biggest and most comfortable building in the settlement, naturally enough, is Tom’s own summer home—fully modern, with hot and cold running water, electricity, every comfort. Another large building is the store, with Walter Pidskalny its manager. He also doubles as timekeeper for other Lamb businesses.

The post office, which Postmaster Lamb “runs as a. service,” for $5 a month, is of fairly recent structure, with soundproof offices. One of these is his radio room. Including the twoway set in his plane, Tom operates seven radio phone sets, strategically placed at The Pas, his sawmill, Wabowden, Southern Indian and Moose Lake trading post.

Near the summer home is a bunkhouse. The post has its own tractor shop, and Wes Robinson, “who can weld anything,” and full electric and acetylene equipment; master mechanics for servicing his machines, which include a dragline, eight caterpillars, four barges (the newest cost him $6,500), a half-dozen scrapers and tumble bugs, liyster winches, several engines, a bulldozer, a 46-foot launch, two tugs. In the carpenter shop men build the big sleighs used in fish hauling, “because you couldn’t buy them during the war.” Expenses are heavy. For instance, in 1944 he used 30,000 gallons of fuel oil.

In addition there are many other buildings, from a hangar for his plane, to icehouses for summer packing of fish. This winter Tom’s men—under the post’s general manager, Don Smith —will put up 1,300 tons of ice for next summer’s catch.

Oddly enough, Tom had the idea for his muskrat ranch before he got the idea about flying fish to market. When he bought out his father’s Moose Lake trading post, in 1927, there were some muskrats there—and Tom says that then his methods were the same as any trapper’s: “We killed and killed. We just about wiped the rats out.

“Then I got thinking. I knew I could breed them so there’d be plenty for everyone if I could work it out my own way.”

i Perhaps the best summary of the : resultant relation between Tom Lamb

; and muskrats is given in Manitoba’s * fifth-grade reader, which devotes a ; chapter to the subject. It says:

! “In 1902 there were 850,000 (musk, rat) skins shipped from the marshes of ! northern Manitoba. In 1910 this

> number was reduced to 300,000 skins. During the year 1926 this number was

! still further reduced to 40,000 skins. i In later years these numbers became smaller and smaller. The same was ! true of other districts where the musk! rat used to live.

! “The great hunters and trappers could no longer make a living. Misery

> and starvation faced them and their ¡ families. What could be done?

i “It was Tom Lamb who found the [ answer.”

It was in 1930 he first applied to the ! Manitoba Government for permission L to try his muskrat-conservation plan ; on Moose Lake Island. But it was two s years before he got a go-ahead.

[ “Then,” says Tom, “Bracken—

, premier of Manitoba then—said: ‘Go , ahead, you darned fool, and try.’ ”

Simply, his plan was to restore the marshes to their former productiveness.

; To do this he knew he would have to ! build dams and renew water levels to increase the acreage suitable for ; muskrat homes; to plant feed (wild rice,

¡ cattail) which would encourage the ! animals to breed in the area; to harvest l furs scientifically; to wipe out musk! rat’s natural enemies, such as foxes,

; timber wolves and owls.

When Lamb took the island over it consisted chiefly of dried-out land, with only 40 of those rounded piles of twigs and dirt which means “muskrat ; home.” Now the island is lush and green. You can see the rat houses i every few feet. In winter they stand i out like black periods on a page of i white snow.

The island has five elevations, with an over-all drop of sevenfeet. To overcome natural drainage Lamb has built thousands of yards of dams,

! moved hundreds of thousands of yards of earth to create channels to bring ! water into the arid sections. One of these canals is 6,000 yards long.

To get water to the higher levels of ! the island he installed two pumping systems—one run by a 60-horse Diesel and the other by a 40-horse Diesel. In. all, it’s the biggest pumping system of its kind east of the Rockies, handling 22,000 gallons a minute. The pipes of t this system are large enough for a man to crawl through. This irrigation is ■ improving the land constantly. Two years ago there were only 3,400 acres of good rat land—now there are 5,000, and it’s still going up.

His success convinced the Manitoba Government. In 1936 it pencilled off one million acres surrounding Moose Lake Island as the Government’s own muskrat breeding ground. Tom’s methods are used largely.

He leases his ranch land from the Manitoba Government on a 10-year basis, paying as rent 10% of what he makes on the muskrats. Last year he paid $4,000 to the Government this way, so his muskrat take (at about $5 a pelt) was approximately $40,000.

The rats are caught in ordinary steel traps set in the “push ups”—front door to a muskrat home. The trappers cut a hole in this front porch, set in the trap and cover it up. Traps are picked up each day, and only three rats are taken out of each home each season. As there usually are about eight or nine rats living in each, this leaves enough to keep the family reproducing.

When Lamb first took over the island there were 40 muskrat homes. Now there are about 5,000.

You might wonder how he knows

that there are 5,000 muskrat homes on his land now. It’s quite simple. He takes a census. Each winter he sets out into the 180 small lakes on his ranch, carrying a pair of skates and enough food to last him for a few days. In about two weeks he probably skates 2,000 miles around those lakes, counting muskrat homes. When he first started this census, he used to carry a pocketful of rifle shells in one pocket and transfer one shell to another pocket for every 10 houses he passed. Soon the ranch outgrew that system. Now he uses a small hand-checking machine.

For years Tom has been trying another thing new in muskrat culture— to raise white muskrats. Every once in a while a white pelt turns up, and Tom has been giving them all to his wife. She has 18 now—about half enough for what will be the first white muskrat coat in the world, if they can find another 18. Tom has tried breeding white muskrats, but his only success has been to get some offspring with white spots about the size of 50-cent pieces.

He’d like to expand his normal muskrat holdings too. He’s applied to the Government three times without success for another 5,000 acres of land on which he wants to spend $25,000 in dykes and pumping to make it habitable for muskrats.

He’s also interested in beavers. There weren’t any in Moose Lake in 1935—the last one had been sold at the trading post there 30 years before.

In an effort to re-establish them— because in addition to being valuable for fur they also provide a natural means of water level conservation— Tom Lamb imported six of the animals from New York in 1935.

“That was a queer thing. Those New York beaver were used to an early spring. They only put up enough green boughs of poplar, willow and birch (the beaver eat the bark) to last until January. My youngsters had to gather green twigs and feed them. Next winter they were all right.”

The next year he had six beaver trapped live frov \ up north and brought to his ranch. The experiment, all told, cost him $6,000. He believes it was money well spent. Today there are 50 beaver homes on his Moose ranch, and 50 on the Government ranch. These latter moved over from the Lamb property, because “Beaver like To travel in the spring.”

In addition to everything else Tom Lamb finds it necessary to invent the occasional item, though he doesn’t call it an invention—just an “idea.”

His new Norseman has four original Lamb ideas: Special axles to enable the winter skis to be easily jacked up to prevent them freezing to the ground; a rubber bag which fits the entire cargo space of the cabin, to carry fresh-killed animals or fish; heat vents in the cabin walls (instead of in the floors) to prevent hot air spoiling perishable cargo; and special plywood tips on tail surfaces instead of the usual covering,

which was always getting “pinched through” by the Indians who handled the plane.

In spite of all he has done, the work he still does, the territory he covers, he finds time to be a good dad too. Ask his. youngsters.

The three oldest, Sheila, Carol and Phyllis (Skippy), and Tom Gregory, are all attending schools in Winnipeg. At The Pas are Donald and Dennis, the twins, and Jack, Douglas and Conrad, the last the only one in the family with red hair. They are finishing out their education in a formal manner after an informal start at Moose Lake ranch, where for three years Tom hired his own teacher—a Miss Cooks—and ran the north country’s only private school.

Tom’s sister, Mrs. R. M. Crowe, formerly of Prince Albert, Sask., looks after The Pas business end of the work. She has two children, Barrie and Bonnie, and her husband died in 1944.

This winter Tom’s three daughters have new muskrat coats. They caught the skins themselves. It’s a ritual for the entire family to take time off and have a “hunt” each Easter. Sheila also has a bear to her credit. Tom, Jr., who could fly his dad’s plane when he was 11, is taking lessons at the Johannesson Flying school in Winnipeg, so he can take out his license.

As I had gathered from what I had seen and heard, there aren’t many things in the north that scare Tom Lamb.

Last spring a tractor went through the Moose Lake ice into about 40 feet of water. Tom had it insured, but thought it might be a good idea to recover it. He rented a complete diving outfit from a Winnipeg firm, and last August down he went. He got the tractor out all right, but it almost cost him his life. Men on the pumps didn’t keep air pressure high enough. “Must have seen a moose, and forgotten to pump,” Tom said after. On top of that the suit developed a leak. He laughs about it today, but it wasn’t so funny then.

And early this winter, just about freezeup, he walked from Moose Lake to The Pas—about 75 miles walking distance. He went through the ice three times—on which he comments merely: “Sure, I got a little wet. Not the first time.”

Says Tom’s wife: “Yes, I worry

about him. Always. But I don’t start biting my fingernails until he’s been away three days and no word. But that’s never happened yet.”

Why does he take those chances?

“My dad used to say: ‘I hope when I die I’m leaving this world just a little better than when I found it . . .’

“That’s how I feel too. I think there’s a great future in this north country, and I’m just doing what I can to help it along.”

If you ask him if he doesn’t think he’s done just about all one man can do, he looks surprised. “Why, no,” he says, “I’m just off to a flying start!”