MOOSE JAW: Playboy of the Prairies
It’s been called a lot of things in the past fifty years — hut never dull. People seldom go short of fun in the little city with the funny name where a cow was once the guest of honor at a banquet and the mayor is a pillow-fighting champion
GEORGE HILLYARD ROBERTSON
FOUR years ago three students on summer holidays from the University of Kentucky decided to take a trip. They pored over a map of North America until they came across a spot marked Moose Jaw, Saskatchewan. Intrigued by the colorful name they pooled their resources, amounting to ninety dollars, piled into a 1924 Model T and, without further thought or enquiry, motored 1,800 miles northwest to investigate.
No matter what system they’d used, the three students couldn’t have made a better choice. When they arrived with $55 of their original stake they were entertained royally by the Moose Jaw Chamber of Commerce, room and board was arranged during their stay and they were given an official send-off for the return journey.
This was typical of the city whose name rates in anecdote with Timbuktu, Medicine Hat and Albuquerque. Moose Jaw is young, friendly and lively. As a city it isn’t quite as old as this century, but in its time it has seen more scandal and excitement than other cities twice its age and many times its size. It has been variously described as the cleanest, wickedest, most progressive, most static, most sensible, wildest town in the West. Through it all Moose Jaw has maintained an unrivaled reputation of community spirit.
One description it has never earned is “dull.” A few years ago one citizen who apparently feared the tempo was becoming slow carried two sixshooters into the Moose Jaw Club, the city’s most exclusive gathering place, and shot up the bar.
Members merely raised their eyebrows, put it down as good clean fun, footed the bill for damages and calmly forgot about the incident.
Once, at a banquet in the Grant Hall hotel, a prize-winning cow was guest of honor.
Most of the 26,000 people who live in Moose Jaw have grown up in a tradition of strange behavior, from elaborate good-natured practical jokes to Chicago-style gangsterism. There was a time when the city was notorious as the headquarters of one of the liveliest multi-vice rings in Canada. Last November it re-elected a mayor who in his first term became pillow-fighting champion of the province. Twenty years ago many residents joined the Roman Catholic-baiting Ku Klux Klan and burned fiery crosses on the city’s outskirts. Yet last year, when an unemployed French-speaking Catholic’s home burned to the ground, a public appeal raised more than enough money to build and furnish another one for him.
Any Moose Jaw citizen knows that a good rollicking party merits more attention than a board meeting, but every Thursday afternoon townfolk gather in the mayor’s office to tell him how to run the city’s business.
Business or pleasure, good times or bad, the people of Moose Jaw live with a zest and spirit as big and free as the country around them.
The reasons for this civic abandon are not easy to guess. The population is estimated to be ninety percent British stock—never noted for uninhibited behavior. Some suggest it’s because Moose Jaw is
not far removed from pioneer days; but sister cities Regina and Saskatoon, which started about the same time, have grown staid and prosy by Moose Jaw standards. It may be that Moose Jaw lives more by itself than most cities, having maintained much the same population for 25 years (it gained only 3,000 from 1920 to 1945).
If you ask affable pink-cheeked Syd Boyling, manager of Moose Jaw radio station CHAB, what distinguishes this city from others, he’ll tell you: “Some cities have a fine location or fine buildings; Moose Jaw has fine people.”
Even so, Moose Jaw is more fortunate than most prairie cities in its location. Surrounded by bumpy rolling terrain, unlike the table-flat land that dominates the rest of south-central Saskatchewan, the city nestles in the valley of the Moose Jaw River at the junction with muddy twisting Thunder Creek. While the buildings may lack classic lines, structure^ like the Robin Hood Flour Mill and the Saskatchewan Seed Growers’ 16-story seed-cleaning plant along the top ridge of the valley give Moose Jaw a skyline few small prairie cities can boast.
The Name Sells the City
Town planners have put the river to good use and four of the city’s six parks straddle the slow winding stream. The city itself sprawls leisurely north of the river, split by one of Canada’s widest main streets (100 feet across), which slopes genfly
up from the riverside CPR depot to the suburbs and two golf courses a mile north. The squat buildings which flank Main Street on either side (two five-story business blocks are the tallest), plus the absence of overhead cables, give an unlimited view of prairie-blue sky.
No one is sure where the name Moose Jaw came from. Its first recorded appearance was on a map drawn in 1857 by western explorer Captain W. Palliser. At that time it was a Cree settlement on the banks of a river “shaped like the jawbone of a moose.” There is a legend that the name comes from an Indian word meaning “the place where the white man mended the cart wheel with the jawbone of a moose.” The Indian name for the settlement was “Moosichapishanissippi” and Moose Jaw citizens with an agile tongue will sometimes describe themselves as “Moosichapishanissippians.” The official title is an equally unwieldy “Moose Jaw-ites.”
From time to time young heretics have tried to change the name (Wheaton and Friendly City were suggested as alternatives) but a hard core of original settlers always succeeded in killing off the euphonists’ campaigns before they were properly launched. Today a new generation is aware that the oddness of the city’s name is exploitable, and they’re all for keeping it.
In a city so proud of its curious name you might expect to find at least one live representative of the animal from which the title comes. But, alas, there are no moose in Moose Jaw. A moose head is part of the official crest on the city’s stationery and there are moose plaques on one of the river viaducts, but apart from this fleeting recognition the city’s symbol is ignored.
Some years ago there was a small herd of moose in the city’s 500-acre Wild Animal Park, two and a half miles south of the city, but the country proved unsuitable and the moose died off. Before it vanished the herd made a final contribution to the city’s tradition for unorthodox hospitality.
Before it was disbanded during World War II the old Moose Jaw Club was host to the town’s most prosperous business and professional men and the scene of merry entertainment. The big event each year was a fish-andgame dinner. Visitors came from all Saskatchewan to sample the club’s hospitality, and the gastronomic highlight was moose-meat steak, imported from a Saskatoon butcher.
One year the promised moose meat failed to arrive. With the club’s reputation for a spectacular table in the balance, two of the city’s leading citizens drove out to Wild Animal Park with a 30.30 rifle in the back of their car. The next night the dinner went off without a hitch and with no unfortunate change in the original menu.
The Wild Animal Park is a unique attraction, with buffalo, elk, yak and several types of deer and antelope roaming through five hundred acres of rolling, bluff-covered countryside. The land, given to the city by a pioneer philanthropist, the late J. R. Green,
was converted to a park in 1928 amid plans for a mammoth opening ceremony.
An enthusiastic newspaper reporter wrote a series of stories building up the public to “the Last Ride of the Indians,” a spectacle that was to include a thousand Indians on horseback, chasing buffalo across the open plains to a natural amphitheatre where scarlet-coated Mounties were to wait in ambush to re-enact a historic battle. The publicity attracted thousands of spectators.
Finally, with crowds rimming the amphitheatre, two blushing Mounties appealed on horseback and watched while half a dozen sleepy - looking buffalo were nudged from a nearby bush by six embarrassed Rotarians dressed as redskins. It came as no surprise to most Moose Jaw citizens that the reporter who originated the fiasco was from Regina.
One of the most virile characteristics of Moose Jaw has been its not-sofriendly rivalry with Regina, 45 miles to the east.
One time a reporter for the Regina Leader-Post, Jerry Hogan, became a sort of civic hero in Moose Jaw when he announced his intention of buying the Moose Jaw Times-Herald from its taciturn publisher, the late Tom Millar. Millar had followed a grey straightlaced policy through the town’s merriest and most spectacular era, and many citizens looked for a brighter, livelier journal. Some of them took over the old Royal George hotel and threw a party for Hogan that lasted three days. On the fourth, when Hogan went back to his Regina job, the hoax was uncovered. Everyone agreed it was a good party anyway.
Lately the rivalry between the two cities has languished on Regina’s side, but Moose Jaw still works to keep it alive. After last year’s railway strike the first train to move was a shuttle from Moose Jaw to Regina. The CPR public relations office in Winnipeg made the mistake of announcing that (lie first train left Regina.
The i imes-Herald protested editorial iy: “Even the public relations department of the CPR appears to suffer from the Regina complex. What we would like a lot of chaps to get into their noodles, including the CPR at Winnipeg, is that the first passenger train to run after the strike ended started from Moose Jaw, and on the shuttle service Regina is only the turnaround point. It’s the tank town where the engine takes on water.”
Anxious to maintain his city’s rivalry with Saskatchewan’s capital is Moose Jaw’s mayor, stocky, red-headed Louis H. “Scoop” Lewry. Lewry is an energetic ex-newspaperman (he once held reporting jobs for three rival news outfits, the Moose Jaw Times-Herald, Regina Leader-Post and Station CHAB, at the same time) and he hears his nickname “Scoop” much more often' than “His Worship.” Last year Lewry tried to lure Firestone Corporation to Moose Jaw after it had announced plans for a warehouse in Regina. He didn’t succeed but he says he came close enough to draw a sharply worded “Hands Off!” from Regina’s mayor, Garnet Menzies.
Lewry carries on the mayoralty of Moose Jaw in the best madcap tradition. His predecessors had fist fights in the council chamber and adjourned meetings for hockey games, but none ever sent crying towels to the mayors of neighboring towns whose sports teams were about to meet Moose Jaw’s. Nor did any of them invite forty-eight governors of the United States to spend their summer vacation in Moose Jaw (none accepted
but most replied, declining with thanks).
Lewry’s letter writing has made a full-time job of the mayor’s office, formerly an every other day proposition. He types them himself and they run to a hundred a month. Most are to established industries, inviting them to locate branches in Moose Jaw. So far his letters have netted three garment manufacturing plants, and he’s hoping for a new million-dollar brewery by 1952.
Should Cats Carry Bells?
Apart from his administrative duties, Lewry finds time to conduct a “beef session” with citizens each Thursday afternoon and gives a folksy fifteenminute radio résumé of civic activities each Sunday. Sample fare: “During
July and August we went after a brewery, assisted in getting a new garment-trade school, visited various playgrounds, took part in some pillow fights, attended the Moose Jaw and Regina exhibitions, made several trips to Regina on city business, attended all of the city council meetings and managed to get in a few days’ fishing.”
As mayor he also conducts radio appeals and sells tags for charitable organizations and officiates at the opening of everything from new business enterprises to social events His conscientious attendance at inaugurals gave rise to a crack from a Moose Jaw housewife who was asked by a neighbor to loosen the top of a pickle jar. “Why not ask the mayor?” was her reply» “He’s opened everything else in town this week.”
Always keenly aware of current public sentiment, Moose Jaw city council tackles important or trifling issues with almost equal enthusiasm. One of the hottest was a campaign by a bird-loving alderman, William Kirsch, to put bells on all Moose Jaw cats. When cat-lovers turned Alderman Kirsch out of office in the next election the council abruptly dropped the issue.
Another time it took two council meetings to resolve an issue between a Main Street bank and a popcorn vendor The bank had applied to the city to move the vendor’s cart from the curb in front of its door. The bank finally won, but not before hours of stormy debate on the rights of an individual in free society.
A more serious civic issue was the sale of the floundering, city-owned power plant to a private company in 1930. The sale went through for $3 millions and gave the city, among other things, a permanent fund of $150,000 to help promote industry. Through this fund Moose Jaw was able to capitalize on a fluke that had been lying around unexploited for years.
In 1912 a company drilling for natural gas hit a lake of hot sulphur water at three thousand feet. The well was promptly abandoned. In 1932, through the power-plant industrialization fund, the city built a $100,000 swimming pool and fed it with the suiphui water. The pool has paid off, attracting thousands of swimmers to Moose Jaw each year.
Moose Jaw, with little more than a third of Regina’s population, has an annual industrial product of $38 millions, only two millions less than the province’s capital. Flour milling, oil refining and meat packing make up the bulk of industry, but by far the largest single employer (with about twenty per cent of Moose Jaw’s w'age earners or« its payroll) is the CPR. As Saskatchewan headquarters of the CPR and terminus of the Soo Line to Minneapolis and Chicago, Moose Jaw is thoroughly a railroad town.
The railway has a profound influence on almost every phase of the city’s activities. Even the city’s time was railway time until 1947, when the Chamber of Commerce finally persuaded the citizens to relinquish standard for daylight saving during the summer months.
The Record of River Street
Moose Jaw historians agree that the city's position as terminus of the Soo Line from Chicago was responsible for its unenviable vice record after World War I. In the Chicago gangster era many hoodlums found the end of the Soo Line a very good place to hide out. At one time five men wanted for murder in the States were said to be in hiding on downtown River Street. Three men who robbed a Calgary bank of $27,000 headed for River Street as soon as they pocketed the cash. Chased by police they had to leave their Moose Jaw rooming house in a hurry and they dumped the money in a garbage can where it was found by police.
Bootlegging, rum-running, gambling, prostitution, dope peddling, blackmail and extortion all flourished for ten years along River Street, with little instruction from the police. Citizens often were found drugged or beaten up one was found dead in his car). Then, one morning in 1924, when the crime wave was at its peak, the day shift of the police force locked up the night shift for plundering stores and warehouses. That started a shake-up in the Moose Jaw constabulary and by 1927 an entire new force was in uniform. The boys on River Street were gradually rounded up.
In 1938 the Ku Klux Klan, under the astute handling of two U. S. organizers, Pat Eammons and a mys-
terious Dr. Hawkins, got a toehold in Moose Jaw affairs. “Clean up River Street” was the cry that brought hundreds under the cloak of the Klan. Eammons, a fire-eating, Bible-spouting rabble-rouser, built up his Klansmen with epic prose. “I know the River Street gang is out to get me,” he shouted. “But if they do I want you to use my hide as the skin of a drum and beat it loud and long as you march along carrying the crusade down that sinful street of depravity.”
Night parades to the city limits, where they burned huge fiery crosses, were only a part of the Klan’s activities as it worked its way into every corner of the city’s social and political life. “The people of Moose Jaw are going to get a real surprise on election day,” Eammons claimed as he campaigned in 1930 for a Klan council to stamp out sin. They did. On election day Eammons fled south with the Klan’s funds. No one was ever certain how many council members were elected with Klan help. But with Eammons and the funds gone the organization collapsed. Even if the council did have a majority of Klanners, as many Moose Jaw-ites still contend, they never again made themselves felt as a gx-oup.
Tell the Folks at Home!
Moose Jaw is a more orderly city than it was a quarter century ago. but it’s none the less lively. With a long record of community enterprise it continues to get things done on a community basis. Just before the depression years the city established a radio station and built a hotel. Today Grant Hall, Moose Jaw’s largest hotel, continues under community ownership. The radio station, training ground for CBC senior announcer Elwood Clover and CBC newscaster Earl Cameron, has been taken over by a private company, but at the front door there is still the hand-printed invitation, “Come up—sit around and watch.”
When visitors wander in the announcer is likely to get them up to the microphone. Sometimes it has amusing consequences. A few weeks ago a man rushed into the studio during CHAB’s afternoon Mailbag Program. Announcer Bob Giles was in the middle of an announcement. He looked up quickly and said, “Shh! I’m on the air.” The man rushed over to the mike and said, “Yes, but my wife’s just had a baby and I want to tell the folks at home!”
After twenty-five years without an appreciable change in population Moose Jaw is starting to grow again. In the last five years it has gained three thousand. Today most of the city’s business is run by young men. At thirty-one, Louis Lewry is one of Canada’s youngest mayors. Moose Jaw’s federal MP is thirty-two-year-old Ross Thatcher, a hardware merchant who won the seat for the CCF. From the president of Moose Jaw’s Chamber of Commerce, forty-four-year-old hardwareman Les Turner, to the thirtyseven - year - old vice - president and general manager of the multi-million dollar National Light and Power Company, Ken Graham, the town is in the hands of aggressive young businessmen.
Radio station CHAB’s thirty-sixyear-old manager Syd Boyling is another of the town’s young leaders. Boyling says he prefers Moose Jaw to any other place in Canada and he’ll tell you why. “In other cities,” he says, “people save all their lives so that when they retire they’ll have enough money to live the way they’ve always wanted. In Moose Jaw we can’t wait that long. We spend our lives living the way we want to.” ir