Bill Waiser

Monthly Archives: August 2017

Who remembers Humphrey and the Dumptrucks?

Michael “Bear” Millar fondly remembers hammering in tent pegs at the 1967 Blackstrap Folk Festival. It was Humphrey and the Dumptrucks’ first official gig.
They had no contract, and were not even sure if they were going to paid, let alone how much. But Saskatoon was their big break — once they put up a large tent on the Pion-era exhibition grounds.

There was Gary Walsh on the banjo and dobro. Their friend and mentor, Sid Wilsdon, jokingly gave him the nickname “Humphrey Dumptruck” one day. The other band members immediately seized on it and kidded Gary all the way home. The name stuck. But it would be 40 years before Gary’s mother allowed the boys to call her Mrs. Dumptruck.

Humphrey was unbelievably shy on stage, always hiding under his straw cowboy hat. But he was one of the best banjo players in Canada.

Then, there was Michael Millar, a bear of a man to this day — hence his nickname. Bear played piano from an early age, but coveted bagpipes.  He got them on the understanding that he kept up his piano. Given his size, Bear was a natural for the bass but also played jug and guitar.

The other Michael (Taylor) was known as “Earnie.” It was his job on stage to introduce the band members. One night, he described himself as “earnest.”  In a review the next day, it had been shortened to Earnie.

Earnie grew up singing around the piano with family members. At 16, he got a Sears model guitar and would practise all the time with Bob Dylan and Donovan records. He also mastered the autoharp.

The fourth member was Graeme Card, simply known as “G.” He played guitar and mandolin. He left the band in 1973 for a solo career, and the other members simply moved on without looking back.

At the start of the Blackstrap Folk Festival, Humphrey and the Dumptrucks formed a jug band and rode a float in the Pion-era parade. They played “Salty Dog” over and over again to the delight of the crowd.

They also played for hours every day inside the tent that week. “It was a hell of a lot of fun,” Bear Millar recalls.

That’s when they decided to try to make a living at it. But they had to tell their parents — one of the hardest things they ever had to do.

Both Bear and Earnie waited a month to break the news that they were quitting school. At first, there was anger and disbelief, but soon their parents were coming to their concerts.

What made Humphrey and the Dumptrucks special was their sound. At a time when most new bands were playing rock n’ roll, they had no interest in that kind of music — or using drums.

They were influenced by folk and bluegrass, but didn’t really fall into any particular genre. And they liked it that way. Today, Earnie describes them as “a string band,” while Bear suggests that “the music we played was something people never heard before.” Maybe it was because they were not afraid to feature the kazoo or washboard in some of their songs.

They also worked at their instrumentation. During their practice sessions at the Merry Mansion, they were constantly tinkering with their arrangements. They took pride in not needing a sound system.

Humphrey and the Dumptrucks did not sign their first record contract until 1970. Until then, they used a gestetner to crank out a monthly promotional newsletter that was mailed, posted or handed out.

They often played at Saskatoon high schools over the lunch hour and would split the 25-cent admission fee with the student council. They also performed regularly at Jack’s and Yip’s and helped open Saskatoon venues to live music at night.

The band soon became a favourite of the CBC, which constantly featured the group in its radio and television programming through the 1970s.  They also appeared at the Montreal Olympics in 1976.

But they were first and foremost road warriors, travelling across the better part of the country in their van to performances. Bear reckons they travelled 65,000 miles in three consecutive years — and often ended up sharing the same hotel room or sleeping on the floor in a welcoming home.

Looking back 50 years, Earnie and Bear have no regrets. Sure, they wished they had made more money. But they still delight in the memories and the music.

This article originally appeared in the Saskatoon StarPhoenix. 

Photo: Michael “Bear” Millar (left to right), Gary “Humphrey Dumptruck” Walsh, and Michael “Earnie” Taylor outside the Merry Mansion
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Bill Waiser is the winner of the 2016 Governor General’s Literary Award for Non-Fiction and the 2017 Saskatchewan Book 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. Bill was recently appointed to the Order of Canada, the nation’s highest civilian honour.

Access to water was major concern for new Regina capital

It didn’t make any sense.

One critic called the site “one of the worst spots in the territories.” Another decried the choice as “lunacy.”

Still another could not resist poking fun at town life on the flat, windblown prairie: “It would be almost absurd to go out for a ride as it is never possible to get out of sight of one’s front door.”

What they were talking about was the 1882 selection of Regina as the capital of the North-West Territories.

Finding a new territorial capital became necessary when the Canadian Pacific Railway syndicate decided to build across the southern prairies and not go through the North Saskatchewan country.

The rerouting of the national railroad meant that Battleford’s days as the seat of government were numbered. But where would the new capital be located along the main line?

Choosing a site fell to Edgar Dewdney, the lieutenant-governor for the territories, and William Van Horne, CPR general manager.

Somewhere in the scenic Qu’Appelle Valley would have provided a stunning setting for the new capital. But Dewdney and Van Horne were opposed to running the railway through the valley because of apparent engineering difficulties.

Instead, they selected a parcel of CPR land (part of the federal grant for building the railway) where the main line crossed Pile of Bones (Wascana) Creek.

Dewdney reserved the site in late June 1882. Less than two months later, when the first CPR train arrived on Aug. 23, Pile of Bones was officially re-christened Regina in honour of the queen.

Those with any familiarity with the region were dumbfounded by the capital’s placement by an “exaggerated ditch” on the “uninviting” prairie.

But then it was learned Lieutenant-governor Dewdney belonged to a group of land speculators that had been buying up HBC lands along the main line. They just happened to own 640 acres immediately next to the original Regina townsite.

Not wanting to benefit Dewdney’s group, the CPR placed the train station almost two miles away to the east.

Not to be outdone, Dewdney convinced the federal government to locate the new territorial government offices, including the lieutenant-governor’s official residence, closer to his section of land.

He also used his influence to get North-West Mounted Police headquarters transferred to Regina. The new barracks were erected along the west side of Wascana Creek, well away from the CPR station.

This jostling between Dewdney and the CPR initially led to two rival communities, and the longest board sidewalk in the territories between them.

And even though businesses soon gravitated to the Regina train station area and the town evolved from there, the CPR decided to locate the divisional point down the track at Moose Jaw.

Dewdney justified his selection of Regina by claiming that it lay at the heart of a great agricultural area. That was anything but certain at the time.

The more urgent matter for the railway, businesses, and settlers was the availability of water.

In a September 1882 interview with the Winnipeg Times, Dewdney crowed, “There is no better water in the country than at Regina.”

But in a confidential letter that same month, Prime Minister John A. Macdonald bluntly told Dewdney to get a civil engineer “at once” to determine the best means of providing water to the community. He even raised the possibility of an aqueduct system.

The problem was that Wascana Creek was an unreliable source. It froze to the bottom in winter and went dry in summer.

Not even a dam on the creek could provide a dependable water supply for CPR locomotives and the company had to ship water to the capital in flat cars.

Watermen, in the meantime, were kept busy hauling water in barrels to the community.

The CPR unsuccessfully drilled for water through the winter of 1882-83. These were “anxious” times, according to N.F. Davin, editor of the Regina Leader, prompting more questioning about the wisdom of the site.

Then, on April 25, 1883, water was struck at 98 feet at the CPR station. It was dumb luck. The well had hit the southeastern limit of the Regina aquifer.

A relieved Davin telegraphed the news to the prime minister.

But even though Regina secured its water supply and became, until recently, the largest urban centre in Saskatchewan, the city remains the only provincial capital not on a major body of water.

This article originally appeared in the Saskatoon StarPhoenix. 

Photo: The successful drilling of a well in Regina merited a telegram to the prime minister.

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 and the 2017 Saskatchewan Book 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. Bill was recently appointed to the Order of Canada, the nation’s highest civilian honour.

Criddle mixture used to fight hoppers in 1930s

In July 1936, Winnipeg Free Press reporters James Gray and Bob Scott were driving through southeastern Saskatchewan when they were forced to the side of the road by a grasshopper blizzard. By the time the swarm had moved on, the car was a “ghastly mess.”

Gray’s attempt to scrape the insect carcasses from the windshield with his razor produced a “gooey smear.”  Fortunately, a passing farmer had a wide putty knife that removed the “grasshopper grease” from the windows, and the pair pushed on.

But the smell of the “sticky green coating” on the car, made worse by the heat, was so nauseating that they had to stop in Weyburn to have the vehicle cleaned with coal oil.

The experience of the two reporters was commonplace in Saskatchewan in the 1930s. Everyone had hopper stories — how their numbers darkened the sky, how they ate the clothes on lines, even how the guts from their squished bodies stopped trains.

Some stories were exaggerated. But it was impossible to exaggerate the number of grasshoppers that invaded the province during the Great Depression.

In 1931, it was estimated that 10 million acres were infested with grasshoppers. Nor was the scourge limited to the countryside. On Aug. 11, 1938, a massive cloud of grasshoppers brought life in Regina almost to a standstill.

Saskatchewan farmers fought back with “Criddle Mixture” — a poison bait named for Norman Criddle, an artist and entomologist who lived at Aweme, Manitoba, southeast of Brandon. (The family story is told in the book Criddle-de-diddle-ensis.)

In 1898, Norman and his half-brother tried to deal with a grasshopper outbreak with a homemade sheet iron pan, filled with burning wood, that was drawn by two horses. As the sled-like apparatus passed over the field, grasshoppers would jump to a fiery death in the burner.

The “hopper dozer” worked wonderfully, but the entomologist was not done searching for the best way to exterminate grasshoppers.

One morning, Norman noticed that grasshoppers were attracted to fresh horse manure. This observation led to the development and testing of a new poison bait — a mixture of manure, salt, and Paris Green (an emerald-green arsenic-based compound).

The Criddle Mixture, as it became commonly known, was modified over the years through further experimentation and the need to use cheaper or more accessible ingredients. Bran and sawdust were often substituted for manure, while dry white arsenic and then liquid sodium arsenic served as the poison component. Whatever the recipe, the bait mixture proved highly effective, so much so that it was used for more than three decades before being replaced by other pesticides such as DDT.

Criddle Mixture was employed to combat grasshopper infestations in 1902 and then again in 1919. But its most extensive use was during the Great Depression. In fact, the province set up a Saskatchewan Grasshopper Control Committee that met regularly in Regina to assess the extent and severity of each season’s outbreak and coordinate the control campaign.

Mixing stations were set up in the worst-hit areas in the province, and farmers would pick up their poison bait there. The volume was truly staggering. In 1934, more than 1,000 boxcars of sawdust, 10,555 tons of bran, and 116,203 gallons of liquid sodium arsenic were applied to Saskatchewan fields in the form of Criddle Mixture.

The best way to apply the mixture was by hand. A wagon would go along the edge of the field and the bait would be ladled out from a barrel. Or someone would walk with a bucket of the mixture and use a paddle or spoon to spread it with a flinging motion.

Even though protective clothing was apparently never used in the preparation or distribution of the Criddle Mixture, there were no known human deaths — just some close calls. But those exposed to arsenic, especially in powder form, may have experienced neurological problems.
Cattle were lost. So too, ironically, were birds and other grasshopper predators.

There is also the larger question of why farmers, with the active support of the Saskatchewan government, would knowingly put poison on the land.

But in going to war against the grasshopper, farmers were doing something to save their livelihoods — or what was left of them — when all else seemed to be working against them. The Criddle Mixture offered hope at a time when hope was in short supply.

This article originally appeared in the Saskatoon StarPhoenix. 

Photo:Saskatchewan cities did not escape the grasshopper scourge in the 1930s. In this photo from Aug. 11, 1938, a worker brushes hoppers from the walls of the Legislative Building in Regina.

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 and the 2017 Saskatchewan Book 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. Bill was recently appointed to the Order of Canada, the nation’s highest civilian honour.