You can’t beat Kelly’s Bear Grease
The genuine bear grease that Kelly Chamandy ships out of northern Ontario gets rubbed on bald heads and aching backs, fishing lines and farmers’ boots. And his best customers for bear steaks are meek little men who wouldn't swat a fly
ELLY CHAMANDY is one of those rare and interesting people who share a physical resemblance with the animals they own or with which they deal: he looks like a bear. He stands five feet five inches high, weighs two hundred and nine pounds, has snapping bearlike eyes, a long torso and short legs, and shoulders and arms which are thick and muscular as a bear’s.
His resemblance to a bear is appropriate. He is Canada’s leading distiller of bear grease, as well as the country’s only licensed butcher of bear meat, beaver meat, muskrat meat and raccoon meat. He operates from a combined gas station, trading post, museum and general store at Ramore, in northern Ontario, in the heart of eastern Canada’s bear belt.
Hectic and bizarre are the words for the enterprise he runs. His bear grease is in frantic demand all over the continent because thousands consider it the only antidote yet discovered for baldness, rheumatism and sundry other ailments. Customers come to him on bended knee and in raging anger. If the first approach fails they try the second, oblivious to his explanation that the manufacture of attar de bear is seasonal, and that he can’t supply what he hasn’t got.
When one Illinois customer whom he had to refuse in oil-season denounced him to the U. S. Food and Drug Administration for overoptimistic advertising his products were banned in the U. S. for eighteen months. This made him the target of hundreds of abusive letters from other customers in the States who thought he had abandoned them.
The bulk of the letters were from women and some of them were tragic in tone. Says Kelly, a man noted for his high spirits: “That is the one
thing about this business which makes me sad— the women. Almost as many women go bald as men. The loss of her hair is a sorrowful and bitter blow to a woman.”
A former free trader at James Bay, Chamandy has dealt in bear all his life, but it’s only since he settled at Ramore, following service with the RCAF in World War Two, that he went into the business in a big way. It’s one reason he chose Ramore. The hamlet is situated almost exactly between the forestry districts of Cochrane and Timiskaming. In the past year, two hundred and eleven applications for bounty on black bears were made in Timiskaming and an estimated one hundred and fifty more animals were killed by lumberjacks and sportsmen. In Cochrane the total take was about
four hundred and fifty. Of these Kelly handled about fifty. This year he hopes to get one hundred.
“I don’t claim that bear grease grows hair, nor cures aches and pains,” Kelly says. “But my customers claim that it does. Who am I to call them liars?”
He pulls a sheaf of letters from beneath his counter. One from a Kansas client reads: “Please rush more bear grease at once. My hair is coming back.” From Manitoba: “It has stopped my hair from falling.” New York: “I believe it is helping
my back. Please reserve a supply.”
It was the advertising that Chamandy concocted from these testimonials that got him into trouble with the U. S. officials. In a circular he prescribed
rubbing his bear grease into the skull once a day to cure baldness.
For a long time it looked as though he would never be reinstated in U. S. favor. The results from two vigorously worded protests to Washington were nil. Then he had the happy idea of sending a large economy-size bottle to Harry S. Truman, who he noted was getting thin on top.
“I got no answer from the President, but the grease wasn’t returned,” Kelly says. “And a short time later I got a letter from the Drug Administration advising me very courteously that if I modified my advertising the product would be admitted.”
To maintain his position with the U. S. government Kelly sent a bottle to General Eisenhower after his election victory.
The trader regards the new President as a hot prospect by reason of his receding hair line, irrespective of the official connection.
The old label which Kelly used was revised “at the suggestion of the U. S. Government.” Now his stuff goes out by mail in eight-ounce glass jars bearing this typewritten label: KELLY CHAMANDY’S PURE BEAR GREASE. A VITALIZING GREASE REDUCED FROM POWERFUL BLACK BEARS KILLED IN THE WILDERNESS OF NORTHERN ONTARIO. He charges a dollar-fifty a jar.
Kelly says now that he can safely claim only that this is the stuff that keeps four - hundred - pound animals alive when they sleep five months of the year in hibernation. But, when he encounters the more vociferous type of sceptic, he squints one black eye, fixes the unbeliever with the other and demands: “Have you ever seen a bald-
The implication is that Indians don’t get bald because they use the grease for hairdressing as well as for cooking. Yet, in the next breath, Kelly will tell you that maybe it’s impossible for Indians to be bald. “Indians don’t fret about the future,” he says. “If worry is a cause for baldness, maybe that’s why an Indian has his hair.” .
Sportsmen use Chamandy’s product for greasing fishing lines and farmers use it for' greasing harness and boots. It keeps leather remarkably soft and pliable and is excellent waterproofing. It will not freeze in the bitterest weather and trappers prefer it for greasing their traps.
Worldwide veneration for the grease is indicated by the demands Kelly gets from Chinese who use it as both an internal and external medicine. However, when a Chinese has a chance to get at a bear, the grease is a secondary consideration.
“He will travel a hundred miles to get the left forepaw and the gall bladder,” Kelly says. “He makes a medicinal soup of the paw—though why it has to be the left one I don’t know. He uses the green fluid in the gall bladder as flavoring in food and, in its pure state, as a medicine which he seems to think has the same power that a white man thinks penicillin possesses.”
Boots For A Bear’s Belly
It’s probable that Kelly knows more about bears than anyone else in Canada. He saw his first as a boy of six, while he was being carried in a packsack on an Indian’s back toward the site of the town of Cochrane, where his father established the first store. He has slain grizzlies in the Rockies and accompanied Eskimos on spear-hunts of polars at Hudson Bay. He has killed scores of blacks and once engaged in a wilderness wrestling match with a full-grown beast.
That happened north of Cochrane, while he was on a spring fur-buying trip with an Indian employee. To cross a swollen stream he jumped from a high rock to a ledge at the bank. Too late, he saw beside him on the ledge a bear eating a fish.
“The rock was too high to go back.
I had to pass over the spot occupied by the bear. As I stepped forward it lunged at me,” he recalls. An energetic storyteller, Kelly leaps across the floor of his store to illustrate how the bear leaped, then hurls himself on the floor
to show how he and the bear grappled and rolled about the ledge for half a minute. The finale is punctuated by a vigorous kick in the air, as he tells how1 he hurled the bear into the stream by pile-driving two hob-nailed boots into its belly as he lay flat on his back. His injuries were a torn shirt and a few scratches.
He pauses for breath, then adds as an afterthought: “Say, don’t believe
that story about a bear fishing by standing watch over a stream and knocking the fish from the water by a sweep of its paw. A bear dives right in to get a fish.”
Quite apart from his unique avocation, Kelly Chamandy is a fascinating personality. A Syrian, his Christian name is a tribute to an Irish family at North Bay who had befriended his immigrant father and mother. His father, A. K. Chamandy, began as a peddler in North Bay and ultimately owned twenty-two stores and trading posts in northern Ontario and northwestern Quebec.
Much of Kelly’s life has been devoted to competition against the Hudson’s Bay Company. His personal battle with the HBC ended in disaster when his boat, the Kitiwake, was wrecked in James Bay with a cargo worth thirtyfive thousand dollars. Kelly emerged as a hero, credited with saving the lives of his wife and infant son and three Indian crew members. Six months later his home at Moosonee burned to the ground and he joined the RCAF. He got started again at Ramore with a stake of one hundred and seventy-five dollars.
Kelly’s manufactory is located on Highway 11, about half a mile from Ramore’s outskirts. It is no palace. Large signs, painted fairly expertly by Kelly himself, scream BEAR GREASE, BEAR MEAT, BEAVER .MEAT. Though he’s licensed by the Ontario Department of Lands and Forests to handle muskrat and raccoon too, he says muskrat are too small to bother with and it’s too far north for raccoons. Another large sign declares:
SEE THE ONLY TEAM OF UNBORN HUSKY PUPS IN THE WORLD.
Kelly got these from an Eskimo on the Belcher Islands who removed them from a bitch which had been killed. The Eskimo mounted the perfect little figures on a board, made harness for them and a sleigh, and carved a little man to drive the Lilliputian team.
During the past summer, the exterior of Chamandy’s place was adorned by a huge bearskin which appeared to be growing a set of antlers. Kelly had nailed the antlers near the top of the hide just because it was a handy spot to put them. Some Americans, to whom Kelly enjoys telling the most fantastic yarns he can conjure, entered the store and asked if the bear had the horns when alive. Kelly said gravely that was the way the pelt was brought to him by Chief Gabriel Whiteduck, an Indian who roams the nearby bush. The tourists went outside and photographed each other in front of the hide as the burly trader tittered behind a window. Small hoaxes of this kind make life worth living, he claims.
But there is nothing hoaxy about his bear grease. I have known him fairly well for more than five years and I think he would sooner lose his right arm than dilute the grease with ordinary fat. The opportunity for deceit is almost limitless, for the pungent bear extract could be mixed one to four with lard without much detectable difference, and his business would be multiplied fourfold.
“When I say it is bear grease, it is bear grease,” Kelly declares, jaw athrust. “They can use it to grease cars if they want. But it is pure bear grease when it leaves here.”
Getting the grease is relatively simple: you need a bear, a large wash tub. a fire, and some bottles to put the stuff into. There’s up to seventy-five pounds of pure fat on a mature bear at the end of a summer in which the blueberry crop has been good. The fat is in a thick layer just under the skin. It is sometimes four inches thick on each side of the backbone. Generally the fat is scraped off and reduced to grease at the spot where a bear is killed. However, settlers frequently drive up to the Chamandy establishment with whole bears in their trucks. Then Kelly reduces the fat himself and butchers the meat.
He claims he has standing orders for five thousand pounds of bear meat at all times. He charges thirty-five cents a pound for it. He sells the untanned pelts across the counter or by mail for prices up to twenty-five dollars.
The chief customers for the meat are Canadiens who drive over from Quebec to get it. However, many district people like it too. Some farm families buy entire carcasses, which they butcher throughout the winter in the same manner as steers. Sportsmen’s clubs in southern Ontario and the eastern United States order the meat for banquets.
“A tender roast of young bear is good feed,” Kelly declares. “It’s a lot like young pork.”
Bear Chops for Milquetoasts
Kelly’s beaver-meat season begins in December toward the close of the bearmeat season and caVries through till April. Last year he handled almost two hundred beaver carcasses, which also retail at thirty-five cents a pound.
Kelly was an interested observer recently as some city butchers tried to sell horse meat to Canadian housewives. He claims that the reason most of them failed was psychological.
“People didn’t like eating a friend and servant of man. It’s different with bear,” Kelly says. “Eating bear appeals to the atavistic impulses. Some of my best customers are meek and mild little men. I think they revel in the idea they are devouring a creature regarded as a ferocious enemy—which a bear is not. He’s more of a pest.”
Harvesting bears is a seasonal occupation. They sleep all winter. In spring they come out of hibernation in such a scrawny state it’s not profitable to handle them. Midsummer and fall, if feeding conditions have been good, is the boom period.
Kelly himself doesn’t hunt until September—an Ontario game regulation prohibits any person from carrying a rifle in the bush till Sept. 1. Bears were so numerous near Ramore last year a movement got started to ask abrogation of the law. Many women refused to go blueberry-picking through fear of meeting the animals face to face.
From September through to the hibernation period early in November Kelly labors long hours butchering and bottling his product. He does the skinning and degreasing with the assistance of his fifteen-year-old son, Monte, in a clearing in the nearby bush. R. takes him about four hours to skin a grown bear and scrape away most of the fat clinging to the hide. Then he suspends the carcass from a tree and scrapes the rest of the fat into a washtub. Then the fat is reduced to grease over a wood fire. The odor can be almost felt a couple of hundred yards away. “Breathing in that bear smell is what makes me strong,” says Kelly with a wink. But the bulk of bis grease
comes to him by rail and truck from Indians, farmers and trappers, who pack it in five-gallon pails.
Kelly handles about a dozen live cubs each year, which he sells to resort operators. He says a bear in the bush is harmless but that tame bears become dangerous because familiarity breeds contempt for man. He doesn’t keep any on his own premises. Several years ago, near Sault Ste. Marie, a bear carried away a small child and ate part of its body. Kelly thinks the killer was a tame bear which had been released. “The proper way to dispose of a fame bear is to shoot it dead in its cage. It is folly to turn loose a captive,” he informs the purchasers of his cubs.
He advises sportsmen that the simplest and most effective way to shoota black bear is to stand watch at any of a dozen municipal dumps in northern Ontario. The animals turn up in large numbers to feed in the evenings. Dumps at lumber camps, particularly where the bodies of dead horses have been dragged, are even better.
“Hunting blacks is a pushover. It. is the polars and the grizzlies which are a man’s job,” he declares.
He was once traveling with the late Jack Panquist, also a free trader, in Panquist’s boat, the Venture, along the coast of North Twin Island in east James Bay. Aboard were George Wetaltuk and two of Wetaltuk’s sons, Eskimos who live at Fort Hope Island. The natives sighted a large bear with a cub on the shore and asked the trader to put in. They got off with three of their dogs. The stark duel which followed lasted about twenty minutes.
“A polar bear always lunges to the left,” Kelly begins the story. “The Eskimos timed their thrusts for this movement which they knew would occur. Panquist and I sweated as we watched from the ship. The bear seemed to be on one man, then another, but always the dogs leaped in in time. The courage of the little men before the white monster was fantastic. It was finally killed by old George, who propped the butt of his spear into the ground as the bear charged. When the animal was eight feet distant, the man swung the spear toward its chest. The bear impaled itself on a blade two and a half feet long and smashed the haft with the force of the charge. The sons ran after the cub and killed it. The three laughed like madmen.”
The shelves of Chamandy’s store are sometimes loaded with Eskimo handiwork which is shipped to him by Panquist’s widow at Fort George and by trader George Papp at Richmond Gulf. They range from sealskin boots and parkas to tiny stone and bone carvings of exquisite craftsmanship. Kelly goes to James Bay twice a year on buying expeditions. He claims the Eskimo is more gifted than the Indian in the use of his hands and can exactly copy anything he sees just once. As proof, the trader cites a well-known incident back in the twenties when George Wetaltuk carved a bearing for an aircraft from a walrus tusk and the plane flew back to Moosonee.
Kelly got to James Bay from Gochrane at the same pace at which the Ontario Northland Railway was built. He bad stores, consecutively, at Island Falls, Coral Rapids, Moose River Crossing and Moosonee, always at the end of the then head of rail. Earlier he had four outpost stores at Hudson, Gold Pines, Narrow Lake and Red Lake. They were built during the Red j Lake gold rush. He brought in bis ; supplies by canoe and dog team.
When he wen! to Gold Pines to start | his store there, he slept the first night ! with a corpse. He had reached the ! small camp about midnight in thirtyj below-zero weather. The place was in j darkness and, as is the custom in the bush, he went from tent to tent till he found a vacancy beside a heavy sleeper in a two-man tent. Kelly threw down his sleeping bag and climbed in. His tent partner didn’t budge in the morning and the trader went for breakfast without disturbing him. Kelly discovered at the cook tent the man had been killed the day before by a bulldozer.
Transporting the victim’s body back to civilization the next day in an old Jenny plane posed an engineering problem. The corpse was frozen stiff in a full-length posture and wouldn’t fit into the open cockpit in the customary sitting position.
“There was one suggestion that it be lashed outside on the skis,” Kelly remembers. “But finally it was wedged into the cockpit in a semi-erect position. It spent the trip out peering over the pilot’s shoulder.”
Kelly quickly provided serious competition to the Hudson’s Bay Company when he arrived at James Bay, for he had a way with Indians acquired in boyhood at Cochrane. He made a practice of never giving credit to the natives, nor of grubstaking them. But he offered slightly higher prices when they brought in the catch.
“This made the Hudson’s Bay people chew their fingernails down to the wrist. Sometimes they gave four hundred or five hundred dollars’ credit to a man which they expected to get back when he brought in his furs. But instead of trading at the HBC post at Moose Factory he would sneak across the Moose River to sell his furs to me.”
Kelly courted and won Frances Pullen, daughter of the railway section foreman at Moosonee. A tall woman with smiling grey eyes, she learned the fur business under his tutelage. He claims that today she is a better judge of fur than he is. When he erected his three buildings in the Ramore district his wife acted as carpenter’s helper.
Kelly bought the Kitiwake, a former fishing boat, to expand his warfare with the HBC by getting into coastal ports in the spring. He made numerous successful voyages, then disaster struck on a calm July morning a few hours out of the Moose River. A gale raced in from the north, churning the seas to mountainous size. They tried to get back to the mouth of the Moose and the motor failed. Two anchors wouldn’t hold the thirty-six-foot craft and it was heaved onto a shoal.
“The waves towered fifty and sixty feet above us,” Mrs. Chamandy says. “We would be thrown high in the air, then would come down on the rocks with a sickening crunch. The three Indians said we were finished. The boat was breaking up, but Kelly unlashed a seventeen-foot canoe and got us all to get in it on the deck. I lay on the bottom with the baby in my arms, a tarpaulin over us. Kelly stood on the deck at the bow of the canoe. When the next wave came he gave a great shove and we were clear of the wreck.”
The paddles had been washed away and the canoe drifted at random all that day and the next night before the storm abated. They got ashore not far from the river’s mouth, then used poles to get back to Moosonee. Mrs. Chamandy was expecting another baby at the time. When she went south to have it, their home burned at Moosonee.
“That is the way my life goes,” says Kelly philosophically. “Things go well, then there is bad luck. But they are on the uptrend now. It looks as though they’ll continue that way so long as there are bald heads and aching backs in the country.”
Kelly, by the way, is getting to be as bald as a badger, -k