Weekly Ponderings: People brought character and culture to Peace River (Part 16)

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Baldy Red, baptized George Yeoman, was the most recent character about whom we have learned. Writer Muriel Oslie tells a Baldy Red story: “Col. James K. Cornwall plied his steamboats on the Athabasca River for hauling when the river was open in summers. He often stopped at Baldy’s stopping place in Grouard. It was a good-sized town by then and growing fast. The fur trade was flourishing, so roads were needed. Men working on the roads would depend on Baldy to bring in their monthly supply of liquor. By permit from the RNWMP each person was allowed one gallon, or six bottles a month. It would never ‘last out’, so Baldy’s service was in good demand.

“Drinking was not allowed on the jobsite. [So] at one camp, the men hollowed out a stump and put a cover over the hole. The receptacle was well camouflaged. Baldy made regular visits to the camp delivering the liquor and taking his fee in return.”

One version of a well-documented time in Baldy Red’s illicit refreshment purveying career has him hauling goods from Grouard to Peace River during which he came upon a couple of Catholic nuns wending their way to St. Augustine Mission along Shaftesbury Trail. Although not particularly religious, he was nevertheless gallant.

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Or, so it seemed.

He offered them a ride. To make the unaware Sisters comfortable on the 90-mile journey to their destination, the bootlegger rearranged boxes on his wagon – six of them – each bearing six bottles of whisky, which he covered with robes. Along the way, the travellers met a suspicious North West Mounted Police member, some sources suggest was Sgt. K.F. Anderson, who was suspicious enough to pull over the freighter and his passengers for questioning. Reluctant to disturb the nuns, he could not confirm his suspicions of illegal transportation of alcoholic beverages. Thus, he sent the trio and cargo on its way.

Baldy dropped the nuns off at the Mission, and the booze on which they were unwittingly sitting, to its prescribed customers. The anecdote continues with the member’s realization – he had been duped, when his jail was crowded with drunk and disorderly inhabitants that night.

Duping did not always favour Baldy Red. There were times when the wily fox was himself outfoxed. One time involved another animal species. This time Baldy appeared in court in front of a magistrate, perhaps Johnny Gaudet, for stealing a cow. Baldy’s solemn defence was – he saw the rope lying on the road, “So I picked it up and threw it into my wagon. How was I supposed to know there was a cow tied to the other end of it?”

The magistrate was not amused. He did, however, provide the guilty cattle thief with an alternative – a $200 fine, or six months in the pokey. It is said, Baldy chose to pay the fine and be free to continue his escapades.

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Dorothy Watson, in Peace River Remembers writes: “Another friend of the family, who was a quaint fellow, was Baldy Red. One time this fellow saw a horse tied by the side of the road, and a police officer taking a snooze beside it. Baldy decided that he was tired of walking, so he untied the horse and rode off. He took white polish to the horse, and it ended up with white face and feet. The police went out looking for the animal; they rode by it day after day, but they didn’t recognize it until it got out in the rain, and the polish washed off.”

Then there was the time …

Bill Andrew, a blacksmith in Peace River, who shod the prankster’s horses, is quoted as describing George Yeoman, thusly: “Baldy Red was as real as can be.”

The Western Producer in its June 24, 1976, edition wrote: “When George Yeoman passed away some 50 years ago [Feb. 14, 1936], the Peace Country bade farewell to one of the most colourful pioneers and certainly one of its most prodigious pranksters. George Yeoman(s) burial is recorded in Hythe Cemetery – 1877-1936.

Jean Cameron Kelley, herself a Peace River culture-bringing character, wrote The Ballad of Baldy Red, which follows:

A bootlegger bold was Baldy Red
As he thumbed his nose at the law
As he plied his trade from Lesser Slave Lake
To the Post at Sa-ke-te-wa.

One winter day he loaded his sleigh,
With cargo of liquid sin,
And started his team when a Métis yelled,
“Hey, Smoggen’s a-closing in!”

“Oh, what the hell!” cried Baldy the Red,
“The Horsemen are after me!
And Sergeant Anderson is the worst,
Of the Royal North West Mounted Police.

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Three gentle sisters nearby stood
With hearts and faces clean,
Awaiting a chance for a long, cold ride
To the Mission of St. Augustine.

Then Baldy Red snatched off his cap,
And bared his head to the frost,
And frantically tried to save his hide,
And his cargo ere both were lost.

“Oh, ladies, he said, “Before you, you see,
A rough and ready man,
But I love the Church and all its good works,
And I’ll help them whenever I can.

So if you care to ride with me,
Though winter wind be keen,
I’ll be happy to drive you all the way,
To the Mission of St. Augustine.

Then Baldy Red very gallantly spread,
O’er his cargo of liquid sin,
A buffalo robe, where the ladies sat,
Never dreaming what lay within.

The gentle nuns thanked Baldy Red,
That knight of the road so kind,
While the Royal North West Mounted Police
Came galloping up behind.

The Sergeant gave Baldy a dirty look,
Though all seemed fair and square,
But late that night at the barrack’s jail,
He cussed and tore his hair.

“Now Baldy Red brought nothin’”, he said,
“But the sisters and their trunks,
So why the hell, can somebody tell,
Is the calaboose full of drunks.”

O Baldy Red was a bootlegger bold,
And a wayward cuss was he;
But once in his life of sin and strife,
Baldy made it home free.

More Peace River character insights in next Ponderings.

Sources: Peace River Remembers; Peace River Museum Archives and Mackenzie Centre files; Fort Vermilion Mercy Flight of 1929; Alberta Aviation Museum, Edmonton; Record-Gazette; Edmonton Journal, June 6, 1936; New York Sun; Alberta Dental Association Updater, October 1997; Archives Canada; Answering God’s Call, Rolland C. Smith; Joseph Cardinal, Feb. 26, 2009; Don Weaver; Alliance Review; Métis Archives; Portrayal of Our Métis Heritage by J. Overvold; Land of Hope and Dreams; Bricks Hill, Berwyn and Beyond; Peace River Record, April 25, 194; Delayed Frontier, Lure of the Peace and The Last Great West by David Leonard; I Remember Peace River, Alberta and Adjacent Districts, 1800s-1913; Land of Twelve Foot Davis by McGregor); Turning the Pages of Time, History of Nampa and Surrounding Districts; Colourful Historic Pioneers of Peace River by Muriel Oslie; Western Producer, June 24, 1976

Beth Wilkins is a researcher at the Peace River Museum, Archives and Mackenzie Centre.

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