WHEN CANADA BUILT THE STRONGEST MEN IN THE WORLD

They were French Canadians, mostly, who came out of the bush to dazzle audiences by hefting backbreaking weights and climbing poles with oxen slung around their shoulders. Even in an era when men were men, they ranked as heroes, by showing the world they were men-and-a-half

GERALD GODIN September 18 1965

WHEN CANADA BUILT THE STRONGEST MEN IN THE WORLD

They were French Canadians, mostly, who came out of the bush to dazzle audiences by hefting backbreaking weights and climbing poles with oxen slung around their shoulders. Even in an era when men were men, they ranked as heroes, by showing the world they were men-and-a-half

GERALD GODIN September 18 1965

WHEN CANADA BUILT THE STRONGEST MEN IN THE WORLD

They were French Canadians, mostly, who came out of the bush to dazzle audiences by hefting backbreaking weights and climbing poles with oxen slung around their shoulders. Even in an era when men were men, they ranked as heroes, by showing the world they were men-and-a-half

GERALD GODIN

Adapted from Le Magazine Maclean by Alan Edmonds and Penny Williams

NOT SO LONG AGO, at about the time they say men were men and women were proud of it and just before a PhD in applied physics got to be more necessary to survival than a strong back and a mighty forearm, Canada knew brief world fame as the breeding ground of a race of folk heroes who earned adulation and young fortunes as professional strong men.

They called themselves Hercules and The Strongest Man In The World and The New Samson, and between 1880 and 1920 in Quebec and the eastern United States they could do for an impresario's bank balance what The Beatles and others of the ilk are doing today. Mostly they were French Canadians come out from work camps in the bush to flaunt their brawn in circuses or troupes touring not only parts of Canada and the U. S., but occasionally Europe. To show their prowess they'd lift horses, shin up poles with an ox slung around their shoulders, pick up a score or more of the audience at one time, or perhaps heft horseless carriages around their necks and climb ladders to nowhere.

They were the curtain raisers to the golden age of pole squatting. danceathons and eight-day roller-skate races, and in Quebec — where strong men were a fad which English Canada seemed to scorn — the statistics of their anatomical dimensions were as noteworthy then as Brigitte Bardot's are now. Their shows were an amalgam of conventional weight lifting and showbiz-style feats of strength, which involved tossing people and animals and barrels of concrete around.

It all went out of fashion with the spread of the mechanical age in the 1920s when man no longer needed physical strength to survive. Perhaps it is appropriate that the last of the big names of the muscle-bound age was that of a woman, Marie-Louise Cloutier, of whom an ardent Quebec nationalist once wrote: “We must never despair of the future of the French-Canadian race as long as our countryside gives to us amazons of such strength and such extraordinary size as Mme Henri (Marie-Louise) Cloutier, who is definitely the strongest woman in the world."

She was five-foot-ten. weighed one hundred and eighty-five

pounds and was a lusty housewife until the day around the turn of the century when she wandered into her husband’s gym and found a group of amateur weightlifters trying to lift a platform holding four hundred pounds of gymnasts’ weights. She taunted them for their failure; they challenged her; she accepted — and found she could lift the platform, weights and all, with case.

Turned professional strongwoman, she would begin by hefting five hundred pounds with one hand, and next lift a barrel of cement weighing three hundred fifteen pounds on her shoulders, strap a platform bearing twenty-five hundred pounds onto her back — and, straddle-legged, raise one thousand pounds in weights from the floor to knee height.

Her manager was Hector Decarie, who in 1906 had bestowed upon him the title of Strongest Man In The World by Louis Cyr, most famous and colorful strong man of them all. The two met for a challenge weightlifting match in Sohmer Park, Montreal. Cyr was aging; Decarie was “the young tiger.” It was a draw. But before the referee could announce it, Louis Cyr stepped forward and announced, “Hector Decarie is perhaps the strongest man I have met since I came into the public arena. It gives me pleasure to recognize him as my successor to the title of The Strongest Man In The World.

Louis Cyr was fifty-three when he died in 1912, but for almost thirty years he had enthralled audiences in eastern Canada and the northern States with his traveling troupe of strong men. His claim to the title of the world's strongest man was at least partly justified because he had bested Otto Ronaldo, the German champion strong man; “Cyclops,” the Polish champion; Montgomery and Johnson, the Scandinavian champions; and Eugene Sandow, the British champion and perhaps the best known of all the world’s professional strong men. Yet Cyr was a big (three-hundred-pound ) softy who rhapsodized sentimentally over the “wonderful family” of the circus world, and at the end of a night's show usually went home to play ballads on his violin.

He had toured North America with

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the Barnum And Bailey Circus, and his traveling troupe was run in partnership with Horace Barré who, like most of the professional strong men, first realized there was a fortune in his muscles by winning bets in logging and railroad camps in the bush.

The Louis Cyr-Horace Barré troupe was the best known of them all. At shows Barré would lift a bar, at either end of which were hollow spheres each holding a grown man. Louis Cyr would lift, with one hand, a sphere holding two women. Together they lifted from the ground, one hand each, a platform on which twelve men sat. To climax the show they'd lift thirty of their audience waist high.

Cyr was challenged often, usually to Indian-wrestling matches. He took on all comers and usually won. though he’s on record as having refused the challenge of a Roman Catholic priest who fancied his strength. His bestknown wrestling match was with “The Giant,” Edouard Beaupré, who reportedly stood eight-foot-two. Cyr won, but was later defeated in a match in Montreal by Englishman George Little, whose girth belied his name.

Saskatchewan-born Edouard Beaupré left the prairies to go east when he grew too big for his job on a ranch: they couldn’t find a horse big enough to hold him. Later, in a nice touch of scorn, it became Beaupré’s favorite trick at public shows to sling a sixhundred-pound stallion around his neck, then shin up a pole. He died in 1904 while being exhibited as a freak at the St. Louis World’s Fair.

Like that other famous freak, Angus McAskill, who was seven-foot-nine and called The Cape Breton Giant, Beaupré was lazy, torpid almost, and not given to exerting his strength unless driven to it. McAskill is said to have spent most of his life idling around his father’s farm at St. Ann’s, though he'd occasionally help neighbors by hauling a plow or tossing tree trunks around to clear pastures.

McAskill, too, was a sideshow freak and his strength was never put to public test with the strong-man troupes because he died at thirty-eight, in 1863, long before they existed. It is said he hurt himself fatally sometime by lifting a twenty-one-hundred-pound anchor to amuse friends.

Both giants are a proud part of the history of their provinces. Beaupré’s mummified body is still on display at University of Montreal, and an enormous shoe and clothes worn by McAskill are enshrined in a Halifax museum.

The local Hercules whose career most resembled the mercurial rise and fall of today’s pop singer idols was probably David “Baby” Michaud, of Quebec City. He was a public hero on the circus circuit for only four years, and later sports writers were calling him the Quebec Hamlet because he promised so much and delivered so little: he drank too much and his giant strength failed rapidly.

He quit farming at twenty-one to join the army, and began to earn fame as an amateur strong man the day he lifted a cannon gun carriage weighing l.568 pounds. As a professional touring the towns and villages of the Que-

bec hinterland, he often challenged village strong men, and on many village squares he'd smash stones with his fists and crack rocks by crushing them against his chest. He might have remained a public hero had he not challenged Louis Cyr, then his junior by six years, first to an Indian-wrestling match, which he lost, and then to a more formal weight-lifting contest at which the title “Champion of America" w'as said to be at stake. It took place in Quebec in 1885. and Cyr won handily.

Victor DeLamarre was the last of the w idely renowned musclemen. Born at Hébertville in the Lac St-Jean area in 1888. he became locally famous as a boy for his strength. Later he quit lumberjacking to join the Montreal police, which at first refused to accept him on the grounds that he was too small — he was five-foot-eight and weighed only 154 pounds.

Yet his strength was so prodigious that on tour from Vancouver to Halifax and in the New England states he was hard put to invent adequate tests for himself. Louis Cyr and his contemporaries would lift horses or oxen to demonstrate their strength, but DeLamarre. the last of the dynasty, would do a backbend, a limousine loaded with people would drive up a ramp propped against his chest, pause for a few seconds, then drive down the other side. The ramp alone weighed twelve hundred pounds. Then DeLamarre would strap the vehicle — it weighed 2,260 pounds — to his back and climb a high ladder.

A devout Roman Catholic. DeLamarre called himself “The Man With No Master But God” and "The New' Samson.” After performing a feat of strength, he would always declare. “It was not I who did that — it was the Sacred Heart." He, of all French Canada's professional strong men, lived long enough to enjoy some retirement: he was sixtv-seven when he died in 1955.

The strong-man cult, which began in Europe, seems never to have spread to English Canada. "English Canadians,” says amateur sports historian Stephen Gamester, of Toronto, “appear to have scorned public displays of muscles. All the men of Canada at the time were big and tough and immensely strong — perhaps the strongest in the world, saving only the Russians. But the English Canadians seemed more phlegmatic about it, while the Gallic temperament of the French Canadians produced the exhibitionism of the strong-man circus.”

The few legendary strong men in English-Canadian history were all gifted amateurs, like “Klondike Mike” Mahoney, a rambunctious man of Irish descent born near Buckingham, Quebec, who is said to have carried a piano up the Chilkoot Pass from Skagway, Alaska, into the Yukon during the gold rush of the 1890s so girls at a prospectors’ honkey-tonk could have music to dance by.

And until twenty years or so ago the annual fairs and sports days of northern communities everywhere in Canada included tests of strength w'hich, typically, involved men running races with five hundred pounds of weights slung on their backs.

Historian Gamester, himself a fairly weedy specimen, says, “It’s not so long

since all Canadians outside the big cities had a rough, tough life and everyone was strong — so in a sense no one was. My father was a farmer in the Maritimes and I've known him to get angry and toss a three-hundredpound man through the air. No one thought much of it."

Before the professional strong men, there were legendary characters who people the lore of the frontier, and of Quebec particularly, with feats of strength. In Quebec they were called

the boules of the county (from the English “bully”). They reigned in the first half of the nineteenth century, never staged professional shows but regarded their strength as a God-given tool to be used to help neighbors.

Most famous of them was Jos Montferrand, a trapper and lumberjack who, like Horatio, once stood athwart the Bytown bridge (now the Ottawa bridge) in the 1840s and tossed one hundred and fifty Orangemen. attempting to parade into French

Canada, over the rail and into the Ottawa river.

A few miles outside St-Jean Deschaillons. near Quebec City, stands an immense stone known locally as The Rock of Mailhot. It seems that about one hundred and twenty years or so ago the local boulé, one Mailhot. rolled it there from the village.

No man would try that today. He'd blast it first, then feed it to a Mark 74, diesel-powered, remote-controlled modulated pulverizer (rock). ★