Bill Waiser

Monthly Archives: January 2017

Beaver felt made best hats

The fur trade brought newcomers to the Canadian North-West in the late 17th and early 18th centuries. The English and then the French were here to secure beaver skins for the European hat-making industry.

These weren’t fur hats with tie-up flaps to cover the ears. That’s not how the beaver pelts were used.
In the 16th century, the high-crowned and broad-brimmed felted beaver hat swept across Europe as the latest fad — much like fitted designer ball caps today.

Not to be left behind, England readily embraced the new style from the continent and by the 1600s, the beaver hat was considered “a social necessity.”

Beaver was perfectly suited for the felting process because the soft under-fur of the pelt — the beaver wool or duvet — was barbed and hence naturally cohesive. Beaver wool was removed from the pelt, processed into felt, and then moulded and shaped into a hat.

The finished product was not only waterproof but resilient. Felted beaver hats held their shape and colour longer than those made from any other fur or woven cloth product on the market.

For any fashion-conscious man or woman, there was no substitute.

European colonization of North America coincided with the growing European demand for beaver pelts to produce hat felt at a time when Baltic sources were being exhausted.

Here was a renewable natural product that was not only plentiful in the forested Canadian landscape, but the animals sported a denser, more luxurious coat because of the colder climate. And Indian traders were more than willing to exchange furs for European goods. Producing beaver felt, however, required an extra or secondary step in the processing of the pelts because the softer, shorter under-fur was overlain by longer, coarser guard hairs. Before shaving off the beaver wool, felters first had to remove the outer hairs.

This requirement resulted in the designation of two distinct kinds of beaver pelts in the trade. Castor sec or “parchment” beaver was a skin that had been dried and stretched with the guard hairs still intact. Castor gras d’hiver or “coat” beaver, on the other hand, was a skin that had been worn by the Indians during the winter so that the pelt was not only supple and greasy but the guard hairs had been rubbed off.

Coat beaver was preferred by hatmakers in Europe because it was immediately ready for the felting process. But parchment beaver also enjoyed a strong market because the Russians had perfected a process of combing the beaver wool from the skin for felting, while leaving behind the guard hairs for a fine fur pelt.

Hat styles would change over the decades, becoming smaller in size with upturned brims, but the best hats absolutely had to be made of beaver felt.

The beaver skin was consequently the mainstay of Hudson’s Bay Company operations for more than 150 years. At York Factory, for example, more than 43,000 beaver skins (parchment and coat) were shipped to the London market in 1727. That figure represented 94 per cent of the post returns that year.

The French also sought to take advantage of the lucrative beaver trade.

In the early 18th century, Pierre Gaultier de Varennes, sieur de La Vérendrye established a chain of posts northwest from the Great Lakes, across present-day northwestern Ontario to the Manitoba interlake region.

These Postes du Nord, as they were known, effectively cut across the major canoe routes to HBC posts and saved Indians the necessity of making the long arduous trip to trade with the English at the bay.

The returns were phenomenal. In 1735 alone, nearly 100,000 beaver skins were shipped east to Montreal.

The competition for beaver furs eventually forced the HBC and its Montreal-based rival, the NorthWest Company, to move up the Saskatchewan River to the Rocky Mountains and northwest beyond the Churchill River to the Athabasca country by the end of the 18th century. In the bitter struggle to gain the upper hand in the trade, entire districts were stripped of fur-bearing animals.

By the 1820s, beaver numbers were so low that the HBC actually introduced some of the first conservation measures to help bring back the animal.

In the end, what ironically saved the beaver was another change in fashion — the introduction of the so-called silk topper at the end of the 1830s.

This article originally appeared in the Saskatoon StarPhoenix. 

Photo:Beaver felt, renowned for its durability, was used in a variety of hat styles.
Photo:The Beaver, Spring 1958

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Bill Waiser is the winner of the 2016 Governor General’s Literary Award for Non-Fiction for his most recent book, A World We Have Lost: Saskatchewan Before 1905. The book is available for purchase via McNally Robinson Booksellers

Festival Express stops in Saskatoon … for booze

There’s probably never been a “booze run” like it in Saskatoon history.

On July 2, 1970, when the Festival Express train pulled into the CN station, two men were hustled away in a waiting car to the nearest liquor store. They had collected $800 on the train and were determined to spend it all in a mad buying spree for the next leg to Calgary.

Only a few people in the city knew the brief stopover had even happened, let alone the identity of the passengers wandering the platform.

Saskatoon was not supposed to be a stop on the cross-Canada musical tour. Nor was CN expected to be so accommodating. But the impromptu raid on Saskatoon’s booze supply was all part of a transcontinental train trip that rocked to its own beat.

The 14-coach passenger train, with “Festival Express 1970” emblazoned in large letters on the side, left Toronto’s Union Station in late June 1970 to take performers to a series of outdoor concerts in Winnipeg, Calgary, and Vancouver.

There was every expectation that the transcontinental tour would gain momentum — and fan support — as the train sped west.

And why not? The artists were some of the top acts of the day: Janis Joplin and her Full Tilt Boogie Band, Gerry Garcia and the Grateful Dead, Rick Danko of The Band, Delaney and Bonnie, Ian and Sylvia and the Great Speckled Bird, the Buddy Guy Blues Band, The Flying Burrito Brothers, and Mashmakhan.

They boarded a special CN train the morning after their Toronto concert and headed into the rugged Canadian Shield northwest of the Great Lakes.

It was not long before boredom set in. There were no personal entertainment devices at the time — not even cellphones — and the constant panorama of rock and tree interspersed by tree and rock began to wear thin.

They also found themselves trapped in their small compartments and the feeling of confinement only compounded the boredom.  Vancouver seemed like an eternity away.

Many sought refuge in the dining and lounge cars. After a few drinks, drums were set up and guitars plugged into amps on top of chairs. The music flowed with a spontaneity and the voices with a genuineness that transformed the train into a magical sound studio.

The music was non-stop — it’s claimed some never slept — while artists joined with others for a mixing of sounds and the sharing of favourite or new songs. Joplin was apparently at her best, displaying a range of vocal talent, all the while swaying to the movement of the train with drink in hand and trademark feathers in her hair.

It was all fueled with alcohol — and that’s why the train had to make the unscheduled stop in Saskatoon. They were worried they would run out of booze before the train reached Calgary.

Every spare dollar was collected from the passengers and arrangements made with CN staff to stop the Festival Express in Saskatoon. What happened next was recounted in a 2003 documentary film of the same name.

Kenny Walker, one of the tour’s promoters, explained in an on-camera interview how he and John Byrne Cooke, Joplin’s road manager, were chauffeured to a nearby liquor store. They put their money on the counter and started filling boxes of booze. They took whatever was available.

At one point, Walker spied a Texas mickey of Canadian Club on a shelf above the cashier. When told that it was just for display and not for sale, Walker insisted on buying it.

The pair returned to the waiting train like conquering heroes with a trunk full of booty. And then they were on their way again — only this time, with the super-sized bottle of Canadian Club occupying a place of honour in one of the lounge cars.

The artists played Calgary on July 3, 1970, but the final concert in Vancouver was cancelled because the festival was bleeding money. The promoters would eventually lose at least a third of a million dollars.

Artists spoke longingly of the trip — how they wished it could go on forever. But the booze-infused creative atmosphere would never be captured again.

Janis Joplin would be dead just three months later — from a drug overdose.

This article originally appeared in the Saskatoon StarPhoenix. 

Photo:Janis Joplin was among the performers riding the Festival Express train across western Canada

Questions or comments?

Email Bill at

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Bill Waiser is the winner of the 2016 Governor General’s Literary Award for Non-Fiction for his most recent book, A World We Have Lost: Saskatchewan Before 1905. The book is available for purchase via McNally Robinson Booksellers

Grader operator unearths two ancient sites in Saskatoon landfill

It started out as a typical day for Charles Gowen, a heavy-equipment operator at the Saskatoon landfill. It was his job to scrape away dirt from a borrow pit and layer it over the trash.

But on Sept. 1, 1977, when his grader had dug down about a metre, Gowen noticed that the colour of the soil was much darker, not its normal light sandy brown. Stopping to take a closer look, he found bone fragments and other organic material.

That’s when the Department of Anthropology and Archaeology at the University of Saskatchewan was called.

Dr. Ernie Walker, then a graduate student, was one of the people sent to investigate. He would end up incorporating the findings into his doctoral studies on early plains people.

Gowen had uncovered an ancient site — that much appeared certain from the depth at which the artifacts were found. But how much of the site, Walker wondered, had been removed or scattered by the heavy equipment? Was it confined to the immediate area? And did it represent past occupation by one or more cultural groups?
The city’s engineering department stopped work in the area for several weeks so that formal excavation could proceed. But it was still a salvage operation. Although city officials tried to be as accommodating as possible, the landfill could not be shut down indefinitely.

Walker coordinated the digging of a series of test pits to determine the extent of the site. Artifacts unearthed in the undisturbed portion of the landfill were found between two “sterile” layers of soil. In other words, there was no mixing of cultural materials from different periods, but a single “cultural assemblage.”

What was most intriguing, though, was the age of the artifacts. Radiocarbon dating determined that the items were 6,000 years old.

Charles Gowen did not know it at the time, but his accidental find was about to turn archaeological thinking on its head.

Around 7,500 to 5,000 years ago, present-day western Canada was in the grip of the Hypsithermal, a period when the climate was decidedly warmer and drier.

The archaeological community initially believed that the Hypsithermal forced plains people to vacate the western interior for several centuries. This “cultural hiatus” theory, as it was called, seemed to be supported by the lack of archaeological deposits from the period, suggesting that the extremely arid conditions had effectively led to the forced abandonment of the northern plains by both humans and bison.

The Gowen site, named for its discoverer, suggested a different scenario.

Here, along an ancient sandy shelf on the South Saskatchewan River, Walker and other archaeologists uncovered a multi-purpose camp site, small in size and occupied for only a short duration, probably from late summer to early fall. The range of artifacts included chipped stone and bone tools, fire-cracked rocks, and projectile points (used on spears). Most of the faunal remains were bison; the bones had been split open to get at the marrow and grease.

It would appear, then, that there was no Biblical-like exodus from the northern plains during the Hypsithermal. Early hunter-gatherer societies persisted in hunting the thinning bison herds from small temporary camps, especially along major waterways, such as the Saskatchewan.

The Saskatoon part of the story does not end there, though. In 1980, Gowen made another discovery with his grader, this one about seventy metres from the first find. Gowen 2, as it became known, was a bison processing site from the same period. The stratigraphy of the two landfill locations were correlated and found to be a match.

Then, in the early 1990s, a man was digging a full-size basement for his mother’s house on Avenue M South when he found bison bones sticking out of the sandy soil. The Norby find led Walker to excavate several backyards along the street with the help of students from King George school. He’s convinced it’s no coincidence that the location is only about one kilometre north of the Gowen sites.

Nor is he finished. Walker notes that Holiday Park golf course sits on the same sandy terrace as the Gowen discoveries. And he’s just itching to find out what lies beneath the soil there. Maybe he needs to borrow Gowen’s grader.

This article originally appeared in the Saskatoon StarPhoenix. 

Photo:Excavating the Gowen 1 Site at the Saskatoon Landfill, fall 1977.
Photo by: Ernie Walker

Questions or comments?

Email Bill at

Follow Bill on Twitter @billwaiser

Bill Waiser is the winner of the 2016 Governor General’s Literary Award for Non-Fiction for his most recent book, A World We Have Lost: Saskatchewan Before 1905. The book is available for purchase via McNally Robinson Booksellers