Going back through history, societies have developed measuring systems, often based on parts of the human body. So we have the foot, a convenient way to measure small distances, the yard, that is, the distance from your nose pointed to the right to your fingertip outstretched to the left, good for measuring ‘yard goods’ (fabric).  Or the Rod, which is the length of a pole used to guide your horse or ox by tapping him on the side of his nose while you walk behind the plow he is hitched to. Or an inch, the width of a thumb, convenient for measuring small things.

Distance was measured in miles, starting with the Roman mille (a thousand in Latin or French). A Roman Mille is a thousand ‘lefts’ when an army marches ‘left right left’, so 2000 paces, about 5000 feet at 2 ½ feet per pace, but the Romans were a bit smaller than modern people, so officially about 4600 feet or 1 and 1/3 kilometers.

A stall for a cow, including space for a manger and a gutter and a milkmaid is traditionally 4 feet by 8 feet. Developing from this, building dimensions are traditionally based on multiples of 4 feet.

Land was measured in furlongs, 40 rods, which was judged about as far as a horse should be expected to pull a heavy plow without stopping to puff. And in acres, an acre being the amount of land a man could be expected to plow in a day. Traditionally an acre is an area a furlong in length by 4 rods wide.  It would take about 60 trips for the plow to turn 4 rods, so the plowman would have walked about 8 miles following that horse and trying to keep that plow going straight, sounds like a good days work.

The flaw in all this is of course that we don’t all have the same size of feet, or thumbs, and there is way too much room for error and dispute. So back in the day, Henry the eighth, King of England, decreed some standards.  A foot would be the length of his foot.  There would be 12 inches to a foot; 3 feet to a yard; 16 ½ feet to a rod, 320 rods to a mile.  As the mighty British Empire spread, the whole modern world was set up on this standard.

Napoleon, Emperor of France some 200 years ago, was a bit of a nut on standards and codes; he even codified the French language. He developed a list of words, and decreed there would be no other words allowed to pollute his magic tongue.  They sniff about the elegance of their language, and compare it condescendingly with the rag-tag collection of perhaps ten times more words which makes up modern English.  But in fact this limitation is a huge liability for the French language, and will probably result in its disappearance over the next century or two.  Thanks a lot, Napoleon!


We were talking about the development of measurements, and Napoleon, Emperor of France and standardization freak. Napoleon correctly concluded that his empire needed a codified and uniform system of measurements, rather than the random and different systems out there.  Good example, France had something called a ‘Pipee’, the distance a man could stroll while smoking a pipeful – how scientific is that!

So the Emperor set his best minds to working up a standardized system. No such inelegant and unscientific things as the length of somebodies foot or forearm or stride for these sophisticated gentlemen.  They came up a metal bar with a mark at each end, and the distance between these marks would be called one meter.  It was an even fraction of the distance from the earth to the sun as accurately as they could measure that at the time, some 200 years ago.  They divided it by a hundred into centimeters, and decreed the weight of a cubic centimeter of water would be a gram and that would be the basis of weight measure.  So there, science rules, and we are modern and sophisticated.

Picture this, you are going fishing say 60 years ago; you take your heavy silver spoon on the end of that green woven cotton line and twirl it around your head, and let it go and it sails out over the lake —  OK, you don’t remember 60 years ago, so let’s say you take your yo-yo and let out all the string, and twirl it around your head – OK, you don’t remember yo-yo’s, so let’s say you grab your baby brother by the hands and twirl around till his feet are straight out behind him.  There is a force which keeps the fish-line or yo-yo string or your brothers arms stretched straight out as the hook or yo-yo or brother orbit around you, and you have to brace yourself against the pull of the string or the kids arms.

So it is with planets. Instead of a string, we have the force of gravity between the planet and the sun, and as the planet rotates, it actually pulls the sun toward it.  The bigger the planet, the bigger the force and astronomers actually use that movement of distant suns to estimate the size of their planets. If there were only one planet, the sun would move in a small circle following the orbit of the planet, but if there are multiple planets, the sun is drawn to them all and moves in a compromise between the planets.  When Jupiter is on the same side of the sun as earth, we are actually measurably closer to the sun than when it is on the opposite side.

It turns out that those sophisticated scientists of 200 years ago were not able to measure the distance from earth to sun very accurately, and didn’t know that it is not a fixed distance. So the meter is just an arbitrary distance, based on an estimate, it is no more scientific as a base for measurement than King Henry’s foot.

However arbitrary and unscientific it might be, the metric system being based on the number 10 is certainly more convenient than other systems, and over time the whole world has converted to it. Of course an argument could also be made that our number system would be much more usable if it were based on say 6, or 12, but it is based on 10 because we have ten digits (you didn’t think that was a coincidence, did you?).  So our number system is as arbitrary and unscientific as King Henry’s foot. But it makes Napoleons arbitrary and unscientific system easier to use than such things as 16 and ½ feet to the rod.


The United States has for its own reasons stayed with King Henry’s foot. Before these last decades in which it outsourced most of its manufacturing to Asia, its economy was as large as the rest of the world combined. It still dominates, is still the world’s policeman, the modern equivalent of the Roman Emperor.

The cost of converting all that industry and commerce to another system with no particular reward was too much. Even though Napoleon assisted with the formation of the United States, his supposedly superior ‘scientific base’ did not impress and the US is about the last hold-out, still using the British system based on King Henry’s foot.

Being on the same system as the US gave Canada some advantage, and as fully two thirds of Canada’s dealings with the world were with the US, and as that advantage would far offset any disadvantage our being on King Henry’s foot gave us with the rest of the world, our conversion to metric made no practical sense. So, why then would Canada go through the multigenerational upheaval and turmoil and multimillion dollar cost of converting to metric?

Why, indeed. My common sense Oxdrift friends were incensed.  They argued that even if we needed to change some measurements to keep up with commerce, there is no useful purpose whatever in our having to learn that comfortable room temperature is 20, not 70, or that a 2 x 4 board would now be a 41 x 91  (really?).  Liberal-educated me of course argued that we needed to get onside, after all we were being told that the whole world including the US was going metric.

Remember, this happened just as Canada was beginning its change from a free and equal democracy to a government-centered quasi-democracy. Perhaps it was just a test, to see if we would put up with being manipulated and micro-ruled by the autocracy.  At about the same time, we passed a law which gave the police a right to stop us at any time to see if our seat-belt was fastened, — what an intrusion into our privacy!  Another test!  We flunked both tests, meekly went along like good little lambs.  And the process of removing our personal freedom in favour of big government has proceeded since.  Once again, the common sense of the common people was right, and I was wrong.

There is a delicious irony here,. We converted to metric in terms of things with no economic conflict, say room temperature, but not fully in more economically important things such as building materials, (plywood is still 4 feet by 8 feet!) where the cost of converting outweighed any possible benefit.  And the pull of the mighty empire to the south is working, you might have noticed there is a distinct swing back to King Henry’s foot, for example we see pounds gaining ground on grams in our supermarkets.  Of course this might reverse itself as China grows to be the economic engine of the world.  Interesting times.


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Some of you old-timers remember it – a little house called a caboose, mounted on a sleigh and pulled behind the horses to get you to town without freezing, in the days before they bothered with things like snowplows. Inside was a miniature tin stove, with a miniature tin stovepipe, and your dad cut up some miniature little sticks of wood to burn in it.  And if nobody was paying attention, you could feed enough sticks into that little stove to turn it red hot, maybe even melt it but somebody always spotted you before you got that far.  Maybe even made you walk behind for a ways as punishment.  Remember, too, it didn’t take much wood – you could put enough in your pockets to melt that little stove.

When you got a bit bigger, you worked on hauling wood on that same sleigh, with the little house removed. The standard model sleigh for heavy work was quite rugged, with four, steel-shod runners, mounted in pairs in a somewhat flexible fashion on each end of a sturdy bunk.  The front bunk was equipped with a tongue, a long pole which extended up between the two horses which pulled and steered the thing.  Every farm had at least one such sleigh, many purchased like so much of life’s necessities from the Eaton’s catalog.

The sleigh could carry a grain box or hay rack as well as a caboose, and these could also be used on the farm wagon, which was similar but obviously had four iron-clad wheels instead of runners, and which also might have come from Eaton’s catalog.

Wood for the paper mill was generally cut in winter, by woodworkers and by farmers from as far as Saskatchewan who might have needed some winter work and the extra cash that meant, spending the winter in camps scattered around Wabigoon Lake. The time-honoured method was to cut in a ‘strip’, working on a front perhaps one chain wide.  The stumps would be cut extra short down the middle to form a road, and the wood piled by hand in one-cord piles on each side of that road.  The trees along the front would be felled in a criss-cross pattern and bucked with the trusty ‘swede saw’ into 4 foot or 8 foot lengths, depending on the contract.  The idea was to have the tops and branches end up outside those piles, and the bole of the tree as close as possible to those piles to reduce carrying them to the minimum.  The piles were accurately made and were the basis of the workers’ pay.  The end result was a road, or trail, with one cord piles spaced along it.  Teamsters with sleighs would collect these piles and they would be dumped on the lake ice to be towed to the mill in summer.

Also in those days before snowplows, the paper mill would purchase wood from settlers own homesteads, delivered to the mill by those same horse-drawn sleighs. Wood which had been debarked in summer was stockpiled for winter use as the de-barking operation was outside and had to shut down in winter.  The local farm wood would be stockpiled on the river ice and could be debarked and used in spring when the wood stockpiled the previous year was gone, but the debarkers could start up and the lake was still ice-covered so new camp wood could not get to the mill.

So the mill depended on the settlers for wood for the spring season when the outdoor debarkers could work, but the lake was still frozen so they could not bring their own wood down by tugboat. And the settlers depended on the mill for this winter work and ready cash.  In those days the rural population handily outnumbered that in town, and this kind of mutual dependency was helpful in maintaining some sense of community.

The Johnson skidder

Things changed as time went by. We began to plow the rural roads in winter, which made it possible to use trucks for the haul into Dryden, much smaller trucks than we see hauling wood now. Dryden’s own Henry Johnson invented the ‘Johnson Forwarder’, a large clam mounted on the back of a small bulldozer which could go down that bush trail on the strip, back up to those neat one cord piles, and pick each up one at a time and carry it out to the main road or a clearing where it could be loaded on trucks, cutting out the haul on a sleigh.

The advent of the gasoline-powered chainsaw, replacing the hand-operated swede saw, made ‘gypo’ cutting more practical than the strip cutting described above. Both involved felling the tree and trimming the branches and top.  Strip cutting then meant bucking it up into cordwood sticks and building neat one-cord piles, which horses and sleigh (or a Johnson Forwarder) would transport out to a point accessible to a truck.  Gypo meant the trees were limbed and topped but not bucked where they fell, each individual stem (or several together if they were very small) would be dragged by a horse out to a clearing made for the purpose, called a landing, where they could be efficiently bucked with a chainsaw.  The result was bigger piles less easily identified as the work of a particular workman, perhaps that is the origin of the term ‘gypo’  This meant the horses were still at work, skidding out those stems, but the sleigh was no longer needed, and the Johnson Forwarder was obsolete before it really caught on.

Meanwhile things were changing fast on the farm, as tractors replaced horses, and trucks replaced sleighs. I remember our little 1954 Ford tractor was almost as useful as a horse in skidding out trees.  A Quebec farmer mounted two such tractors but with the front axle and wheels removed, in tandem creating an articulated four wheel drive machine; I believe this to be the first rubber-tired mechanical skidder.  Soon a plethora of skidder designs became available; our own company had a hand in these forestry developments; our History Society has a paper prepared by our own Gordon Franklin on this subject.  So the horse followed the sleigh, no longer needed in the bush, replaced by a machine designed to drag the tree to a point where it could be loaded on a truck.

Part of the new mill built in the 50’s was indoor debarkers, and this along with use of trucks meant the mill was no longer dependent on the settlers for their spring wood supply. The settlers had served the mill by boarding its bush horses in summer, and as the horses disappeared from the mill woods operation this tie too was severed.

There had been a rural-urban split on our community since the ‘municipal wars’ – Town of Dryden carved out of the older Municipality of the Township of Van Horne in 1910, townsfolk versus rural dwellers. As the settlers became farmers rather than woodsmen, and the mill no longer needed them as in days of horse, this split deepened, still exists, and is one of the things that hold our district back from its full potential.  Just a Contrarian opinion.


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A page from Willie Brant’s diary — I have a cousin, well really second cousin once removed or something like that, a really strange bird, doesn’t socialize very well.  Seems to lose it when there is a crowd, just circulates around the room, head down like a chicken looking for worms, talking under his breath to himself.  Wears short pants from May long to Labour Day, regardless of the weather, just as he did as a child.  But he can tell you all kinds of details of the news, or government such as name and something about every cabinet minister,  and do amazing arithmetic in his head.   Lives by himself in a house he inherited in the city, able to cope with the help of his church where he is a tireless and amazingly useful worker.

He comes to visit once in a while, just stays for a few hours. Last visit a year or two ago, came by bus,  I took him with me to Joe’s place, Joe needed some help handling a heifer having trouble producing her first calf.  We got home before dark, and I put him on the night bus back to the city, but by then I was so frazzled by his constant weird chatter and the stress of Joe’s problem I couldn’t sleep.

So I was lying awake, thinking about how our society is so ‘employment oriented’ that unemployable people like my cousin are put down and left out. He has the same right to be here as any other person, and strengths too, but his social inabilities make him unemployable, and therefore not a full citizen.  I was thinking about how we really are all equal, some of us are better with language or math or ‘IQ’, but others are better at reading people or animals or nature, or at singing or dancing or sports, or feel emotions more appropriately.  When you consider the whole person —  our ability to love and empathize and reason and communicate —  the difference between us is very little.

That thought reminded me of stories from my uncle some 60 years ago. He was Farm Superintendent at an Institution which included a quite large farm which raised all kinds of food, including meat, eggs, dairy and vegetables, all done the old way with hand labour.  There were work shops along with the farm, and living quarters for I believe some 600 people.  The shops produced some salable products, and the farm supplied all the food, at least that part which could be grown in Manitoba.  Most of the housekeeping was done by the people themselves, so the cost to run the institution was quite low.

The 600 people were those unfortunates who could not hold a job, could not make it in the real world for one reason or another.  Mental or physical or emotional or personality disorders made life very difficult for them on the ‘outside’.  They were free to come and go, and every month some would leave the institution for an opportunity of one kind or another; some would have improved and could succeed on their own, and some would be unsuccessful and come back.  I don’t know the name of the institution – I would call it a minimum security psychiatric residence.

I went over to Joe’s place next morning to see if he needed any more help with his heifer, but she was OK, so we went in for coffee.

I told him about my sleepless night and the thoughts that came up. I said “my uncle’s institution seems like a great way to provide for unemployable folks.  Seems a whole lot better than just abandoning them to life on the street!  Too bad those institutions weren’t updated, rather than just disappear”

Joe looked surprised at this heavy thinking from me, then replied “Yeah, back in the late 60’s, we went all in on the ideas of the hippies, and institutions like your uncle’s were suddenly unfashionable, even embarrassing. They all disappeared in favour of drugging the people and putting them in government housing scattered around town so they would not be ‘different’.  As if the neighbours would not notice!  With full-time caregivers it cost a fortune, so they couldn’t handle everybody and most of the unemployables end up as ‘street people’, but at least we were sooo modern.”

Another swig of coffee, and Joe added “It’s quite a coincidence you bring this up now; I just read an article in ‘Small Farms Canada’ about a study on ‘Care Farms’. It’s a new American idea where Veterans who are having a hard time integrating back into society go to work on group farms just like you are describing.  The same issue had an article about an experiment in BC where long-term prison inmates and their victims work together on a group farm.  Both talked about this being great therapy.”

He went on “The big thing is we all have a need to do something worthwhile, to make a contribution, to live a life that matters. I think that is our main failing as a society, people who end up depending on government to look after them can’t fill that human need to be useful, and drugs and sexual abuse and petty crime are the result.  I think that is a big chunk of what is wrong with our Indian Act Reservation system”

I put in “First we have to stop grading people by what their employed job is, and just value them as each a unique human being! I think we were better at that 50 years ago, when most jobs were casual, come and go and seasonal.  Now you are totally judged by what your job is, and judged worthless if you have no job!  And come to think of it, we have an awful lot of young people who do not have visible deficiencies but still can’t find a job, and too many are turning into meth heads, and we blame them and leave them to life on the street as well.”

Joe studied his coffee cup for a minute, then answered “That’s so true, we need to all be treated as equal citizens. Maybe now that we are coming to realize that the hippies did not necessarily have the right answers, we should take another look at that old idea, large scale group home farms where the residents do most of the work.  Give them a chance to do something useful and socialize while living in a secure drug free environment.  Willie, sometimes you surprise me.”

Don’t know whether to feel insulted or complimented.

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“Supercalifragilistic expialidocius. If you say it loud enough, you’ll always sound precocious.”

Bit of nonsense from a song in the movie “Mary Poppins”, but some truth there. Stay with a script which sounds educated and ‘with it’, and you will appear clever.  Try again.

“Supercalifragilistic expialidocius. If you say it loud enough, you’ll always sound precocious.”

Or, “Racist, sexist, homophobic, climate-denier bigot. If you say it loud enough, you’ll always sound so with it.”

If you are sufficiently politically correct, you will find juxtaposing these two nonsense rhymes offensive, in fact you are already calling me names.   Not much point in your reading further.

But the fact is that these catch words each represent one of the trends guiding our society, trends gone well past their ‘best before’ date, trends extended from the past and no longer relevant. Trends which do not represent the important things happening in our world.  Trends which have already resulted in the loss of our democracy and freedom here in Canada.  Trends which are pushing the world inevitably toward war, famine, bad times.

How so? You ask. Let’s start with freedom – our right to own property, even our own bodies was stripped from us with the Constitution enacted some 30 odd years ago, and incredibly Canadians did not react at all.  With the right to property, ours since Magna Carta, taken from us, it was inevitable that government would take over our property step by step, regulation by regulation, until now there are so many rules, many contradictory, that in fact we do not own anything, not even our own home or bodies or time.   With that gone, such incidental freedoms as freedom of assembly and freedom of speech are also gone, in fact I very well might be branded a criminal for posting this opinion.

As to democracy, we lost that some 50 years ago when our Prime Minister unilaterally declared absolute party discipline, and that all government would be managed through the Prime Minister’s office rather than in independent departments headed by an elected Cabinet Minster. All MP’s and Cabinet Ministers must follow party discipline, which means the Prime Minister is now a dictator with powers not seen since the Magna Carta, certainly more power than present kings or the US president.

To cement this dictatorship, rules were unilaterally enacted which means the Prime Minister gets to appoint all Senators, and even the Governor-General.  These are supposed to ensure the PM follows the law. Sort of like a prisoner getting to appoint his own guards and warden!

To add to the dilemma, we have forced all growth to our few largest cities for some decades, and our Prime Minister has declared we will change our voting system so that all our MP’s will be elected by these population centers, we rustic rural types who actually think for ourselves will be disenfranchised. Not that it makes a lot of difference as the MP’s we do elect have no power.

So, ‘Racist, sexist homophobic climate-denier bigot’ is not a joke, in fact it is a mantra, used by those slavishly pursuing those fashionable but misguided trends to describe any opposition. Trends which if unchecked will take us down the road most recently followed by Venezuela.  If you are not paying attention, that is a resource-rich, sophisticated, wealthy South American country very similar to Canada in many ways.  A country whose popular leader followed this same road to a dictatorship, which has resulted in prosperity changing to massive poverty and even starvation in less than 20 years.  Maybe we need to give this some thought.

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Back when I was a young Municipal Engineer, I took in every opportunity to learn more, including Municipal Engineers gatherings. At one such, during social hour I was comparing notes with a fellow from one of the Toronto boroughs, maybe Scarborough.

We were talking about soils, and how that affects design of streets. I mentioned the problem of our very frost-susceptible clay soil.  Our clay expands when it freezes, and we get a lot of frost, water mains have to be at least 7 feet down.   Seven feet of clay expands 4 inches at least when frozen, so the whole street comes up 4 inches during a cold winter.  If we backfill a 7 foot deep trench with clay, it seems to take at least two full seasons of freeze-thaw cycle before it stabilizes and we can repave.  If we backfill  it with gravel so we can pave it, the gravel does not expand with frost, so the trench will be reflected at the surface as a 4 inch hollow or trench in winter as the surrounding clay expands.  If we fill that hollow up in winter, it will become a 4 inch high bump when the frozen clay thaws in spring.

He said they avoid any of those kind of problems by building even residential streets strong enough to bridge any changes in the subsoil – a 12 inch thick base of steel-reinforced concrete, with at least 4 inches of asphalt on top (that is about the same standard as the American Freeway system, designed to carry millions of heavy trucks and stand up to atomic attack).

I said that must be hugely expensive, especially if you have a water main break or a sewer collapse, and have to dig through it and replace it afterwards. “That’s the beauty of it”, he declared, “We sock it to the Public Utilities Commission when that happens”.  A beautiful illustration of the over-governed, fragmented  government system in old Ontario, with municipalities, counties, conservation authorities, Pubic Utilities Commissions, Police Commissions, boards of health, regional governments and so on squabbling over who gets to rule while making what would be really bad decisions in the real world.  You pay the bill when the city ‘socks it to the PUC’.

It is also a beautiful illustration of the huge gap between ‘Old Ontario’ and the northern territories Ontario stole from Canada after Confederation. Old Ontario is seen as an important, worthwhile place, and all these competing jurisdictions and waste are just seen as the way things are.  While the northern territories are a source of revenue  (Toronto’s  golden towers are built on royalties from our northern resources),  they are not to be taken seriously as any worthwhile persons home.

While they build local streets to freeway standards, we have to fight the Province to allow us to build urban streets at all; the bureaucracy sees a bush road with ditches on both sides as entirely adequate for the lesser folk up north.  While there are finished highways connecting every burg to every other burg in every conceivable way in old Ontario, we are now 30 years behind in our share of the TransCanada Highway, and falling further behind as the province dithers.  Much less a network of local roads – a trip from Sioux Lookout to Red Lake is 70 miles as the crow flies, and 170 by highway.  Red Lake is only two hours by snowmobile trail from Winnipeg, but six hours by highway.  And so on.  No wonder there is a separatist sentiment.

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Hi friend   —  I generally post to my blog in concert with submitting my column to the Dryden Observer.  It has not published for several weeks, nobody seems to know what is happening, anyway as a result I have also neglected my blog.  Here is some Willie and Joe     thank you for your patience    Mel


A Page from Willie Brant’s diary —   I got a Christmas present — a fancy contraption which tapes stuff, so just for fun I taped my conversation with Joe yesterday.  Here it is, I edited out the ahh’s and um’s and snorts and so on.

Joe:   My daughter sent me a jar of cream with CBD in it for Christmas.  I asked her what it was for, and she said it is magic, just rub it on whatever hurts or isn’t working properly, everything from an ingrown toenail to Alzheimer’s, and it will fix you right up.  I asked what it is, and she said it is oil from hemp, being careful to add it is not marijuana and will not give me a high.

Willy: So maybe you could use a bit of a high, you have been pretty grouchy lately.

Joe: Yeah, well, I asked her if it is food or drug or medicine, and she seemed stumped by that one, so I said that food or drugs or medicine each come under legislation, rules about telling you what is in it and what it is good for, but this doesn’t seem to follow those rules.  She said it was legal now that marijuana is legal, so I shouldn’t worry about stuff like that.

Willy: Well, you do worry a lot.

Joe: I said that before a medicine can be put on the market, there is all kinds of expensive university research, teams of scientists, bands of volunteer test subjects, technical papers, then it is accepted but you have to list all the side effects and so on.  This container doesn’t tell you anything.  I wonder if any scientific testing was done to prove it is safe and does what it is supposed to, who did the testing, and who paid for it.  She got mad, called me an old stone-age fossil or something like that, and hung up.

Willy: Well, you did have a point.  What research has really been done?  Who paid for it? In fact, if we use your rule of ‘follow the money’, we have to wonder, who is getting rich off this new miraculous stuff?  We even have to wonder, if it is so good, why would it be kept off the market when it could save so much suffering?  Just because it comes from the same plant as the hippies drug doesn’t seem good enough reason.

Joe: Well, it gets all mixed up with the medical marijuana idea, maybe there is some research there that helps.  My problem is that the government announces it is going to make marijuana ‘legal’ as soon as they figure out how  —

Willy interrupts –  Of course making it legal means it is treated like, say, a turnip, anybody can grow, buy, sell, consume it, but that is not what they mean by ‘legal’.  They just want to muscle in on the underworld’s racket and tax the stuff, sort of like when they repealed Prohibition  —

Joe interrupts — they announce marijuana will be legal one day, and suddenly we have all these miraculous products, unproven and untested, available everywhere.  Something wrong with that picture.

Willy: Speaking of pictures, remember that picture that circulated a while ago of an elaborate medical instrument which looked like a probe on one end and a bellows on the other?  It was used a hundred or more years ago to blow tobacco smoke up a patient’s wazhoo as a medical procedure.  This whole scene reminds me of that picture, that’s where the saying ‘blowing smoke up my a—‘ meaning ‘con job’ came from!

Joe: Actually tobacco smoke does have some medicinal properties, and maybe this stuff does too.  But you hit it right on the head, it is just too slick.

End of recording.

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So, who supplied the bread to the Guy Lake and Bob Lake gold mine camps back in 1897? I claim it was F T Brignall from his bakery in Dryden, hauled in daily on the regular steamboat run from the Steamboat Dock in Dryden!

OK, that’s pretty wild, I better document it some. F T Brignall was one of our most entrepreneurial pioneers, arriving here with his family in 1897.  He had worked as a young man at a bakery near his hometown in old Ontario.  There is documentation to support that very first summer he built a bakery and was shipping bread via steamboat to the gold mines, but only for perhaps a year or two, after which he acquired a homestead near Oxdrift  and started a portable sawmill business there, including our district’s first steam tractor.

Sometime before 1907 he started a saw mill at what would be the north end of the present mill parking lot on Earl Avenue, partly powered by Wabigoon River water through a water wheel. He moved quite a substantial farm house from a farm at Davis and Van Horne, and put it next to the sawmill; some might remember it as the Doris Powell house which burned down I think sometime in the 1990’s.

Moving houses was not a big deal in those days; no plumbing or wiring or overhead wires. The foundation was generally tamarack logs, they would jack it up and put poplar logs underneath to serve as runners, and tow it with a large steam tractor, F T ‘s being one of the first in the district.  Some quite large buildings were moved from Wabigoon to Dryden in those early years as gold-mining declined.. It has been reported that they would wear out a set of poplar log runners and have to replace them before getting to Dryden. The barn on our Glengoland farm had started as a sizable house,  moved from a homestead closer to Oxdrift, perhaps by F T and his steam tractor, perhaps from F T ‘s own homestead before he moved to town!

So, exactly where was that bakery? That is where things get interesting.  I suggest it would have been close to the steamboat dock, somewhere west of Earl Ave.  That whole area between Earl Avenue and the river, from the CPR to Duke Street, was not part of the original CPR subdivision which is the core of what became Dryden; it shows on the earliest maps as a ‘Park Lot’.  It is not covered in A E Anness’s Homestead Log Book, where he recorded who claimed what lot in the entire district in those early years.

The first mention of this Park Lot I can find in the Ontario Land Titles System in Kenora is a Plan of Subdivision dated 1907. By then there had been some development on this property – the Brignall sawmill and house, and perhaps the bakery.  I believe the Traders Bank, the imposing building still at the corner of King and Earl was already there, or perhaps under construction.  The plan shows the property cut up into odd size and shape lots as though taking into account buildings and development already there.  Clearly it had been divided up and there was development before 1907, but I can find no formal records.

In 1907, a Plan of Subdivision was registered to Doctor Blair, a prominent investor in Dryden at the time. Many of the lots in the subdivision were immediately transferred to a variety of people.  Except the southern-easternmost part, which would have been the steamboat dock area – it was shown on the plan but not transferred to the sub-divider nor sold.  In fact when the town sold this entire property to the mill for their parking lot in the 80’s, they were embarrassed to find they did not own a big chunk at the corner of Duke and Earl; it was still ‘crown land’.

About 1910 the new Municipality of Dryden and the new paper mill were under study. The mill would be powered by water supplied from a dam to be built on the river, replacing the low dam built a decade before for navigation purposes. This new dam is still there, though its powerhouse was demolished some years ago. It seems fair to assume the water being diverted around the island through Brignall’s sawmill was wanted; at any rate Brignall abandoned the water-powered sawmill site in town, sold his large house and built an even larger one on a farm he purchased near Oxdrift.

Getting back to the bakery, drive down Earl Ave, and you will see the small garage-like building built unusually close to the Earl Ave property line at 34C Earl Avenue.  It has been newly renovated and I must say a very nice job.  But look at it closely; the lot is very narrow, and intrudes into what would normally be an extension of Princess Street, so is not totally logical.  It is built on the edge of the hill, where one might expect bedrock is not far below (the land fell away to the south to the small steamboat dock bay). In the 19th century bakeries had masonry ovens which needed a substantial foundation.  It is built right to the Earl Ave property line, in 1897 that line would have been cut by surveyors, but otherwise the whole area would have been scrub brush.  The lot size and shape suggests the building was built before the lot was surveyed.

The building is all built of finished lumber. Once local sawmills got going, structural lumber such as under the floor would have been rough local lumber, so that suggests it was built very early, before 1898.

The building size and style can, with a bit of imagination be seen to be modelled on the eastern bakery where F T worked so many years ago. In fact, if you study the accompanying photo of that eastern bakery, there is some similarity in the dimensions; in the arrangement of windows and doors, in general layout, ignoring the add-on signboard and lean-to of course.  One might imagine that both were prefab building kits, perhaps ordered from Eaton’s Catalog!

So, a very old building, on a solid piece of ground, as close as practicable to the steamboat dock, a quickly available building package. My best guess is that this is indeed one of the oldest buildings in Dryden,  our very first Bakery!  Supplying bread to the western Wabigoon gold mines via the steamboat dock just across the creek to the south.  Eureka!

An interesting wrinkle, the present owner of this building and author of that very clever renovation is F T Brignall’s great-great-grandson!


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