by Bruce Cherney (part 1)
Among those witnessing the fire that destroyed the Deer Lodge on February 10, 1907, was Chad’s Bear, which at the time was noted as the most famous attraction at the roadhouse founded in 1882 and located along Portage Avenue where the Deer Lodge Centre now stands.
According to a February 11, 1907, Manitoba Free Press article, Char’s Bear was viewing the fire from the safety of “a lot in the rear” of the hotel.
The hotel was owned by Homer A. “Chad” Chadwick, after whom the bear was named, although the brown-coated bear was sometimes referred to as “Whiterock Pete,” since he was particularly fond of tossing back ginger ale made by U.S.-based White Rock Beverages. In order to down the pop offered by visitors to the hotel, which was commonly called Chad’s Place, the bear would sit on his haunches, grasp a bottle in his two huge front paws, bring it to his gaping mouth and drain its contents.
It is an unnatural act for an animal that by any other standard is a wild creature, but a long association with people had made the bear quite tame and unfamiliar with the daily activities of his kin residing in the countryside.
Before Chadwick’s acquisition of the property, Deer Lodge and the bear were owned by James McKay, a larger-than-life, multi-lingual local Métis pioneer, who was noted for being “immensely broadchested and muscular,” as described by Hudson’s Bay Company Governor George Simpson in 1859. James Carnegie, the ninth Earl of Southesk, who had visited Western Canada in 1859-60 at age 32, said McKay, who would later become the first speaker of the Manitoba Legislature, weighed 18 stone, or about 260 pounds, “yet despite of his stoutness he was exceedingly hardy and active, and a wonderful horseman.”
Both McKay and his wife, Margaret, (nee Rowand) died in 1879 and their home at Deer Lodge stood vacant until it was bought by Chadwick and converted into a roadside inn. Fortunately for Chadwick, the bear and a menagerie of other animals formerly kept by McKay, were included in the purchase price.
But it was Chad’s Bear that young and old alike wanted most to see when they visited Deer Lodge.
“It was said that he would drink anything offered to him,” wrote Mary McCarthy Ferguson in her book, A History of St. James. “Little children would be angelic in behaviour all week if promised (should they be good) a trip on the weekend to ‘Chad’s Place,’ and a bottle of pop to give to the bear.”
According to an account by an “Old Timer” in the September 14, 1921, Winnipeg Tribune, Chad’s Bear “used to drink ginger ale, beer, or any other bottled beverage with unfailing evidences of thirstiness.”
The bear performed other stunts for visitors. It “was ready to wrestle all comers and many a match delighted the children,” wrote Ferguson.
The Winnipeg Tribune on August 3, 1903, related the tale of one famous wrestling match between Chad’s Bear and “a real estate man” named Clarence Bergland from Minneapolis, who visited the bear pen with local residents Alex Stranger and Arthur Keenan. It was an unintended wrestling match that was instigated by the unwise actions of Bergland.
“‘Pete’ was regaled with several bottles of pop, and then the trio thought it was a shame to give the bear so much liquid refreshment without more solid food. Mr. Bergland purchased a couple of bags of peanuts and proceeded to feed the bruin. He began by placing the nuts on an upright stake in the middle of the pen, but this was too slow for ‘Pete,’ who made a grab for the bag.
“Bergland withdrew the bag and placed it in his pocket.”
The frustrated bear then resorted to the deft holds he had used during previous wrestling matches to regain the earlier offered treat.
“The bear was not to be baulked, and stretching out his mammoth paw he seized the stranger” continued the newspaper’s account of the incident.
“Then followed one of the most spirited contests that the west has seen for some time. Bergland’s efforts to extricate himself were useless, and his companions were powerless to release him. ‘Pete’ kept up the struggle until he had got away with all the nuts.
“Bergland’s clothes (apparently a new suit) were almost entirely ripped from his back, but fortunately the bear was not angry, and did not make use of his claws with wicked intent.”
The newspaper reported that the encounter with the bear “will cost the American a new suit of clothes.”
Judge Harry Whitla, who came to Winnipeg in 1882 at age 8 with his parents, recalled another incident involving Chad’s Bear, as reported in the Winnipeg Free Press on May 3, 1949.
According to Whitla, the bear had one night invaded the Deer Lodge Hotels’ ballroom and mingled with the dancers.
“It was a great sight to see the women scrambling to get out of the room,” he said.
One natural task performed by the bear was bringing news to Winnipeggers of the impending arrival of spring. As with other members of his species living in the wild, Chad’s Bear hibernated through the winter months.
His eventual arousal from his winter slumber was closely monitored by Chad for the benefit of local newspapers.
A March 7, 1906, report in the Tribune, noted that the bear woke up from his hibernation and left his den at 11:15 a.m. The bear had gone into his retreat on November 28 to doze through the winter.
“He is looking fine and you would think he had been asleep for only an hour,” Chadwick told the newspaper’s reporter.
The reporter ended his article by stating, “The awaking of the bear from his winter sleep is generally accepted as a sure sign of spring.”
The bear had another public role; that of a foil in a daily newspaper for political figures and government offices that in its bias were viewed with contempt and worthy of scorn. It should be noted that the norm for newspapers in those days was to support one political party at the expense of another.
The bear’s widespread fame made it easily adaptable in the Tribune’s pages to the world of political intrigue.
In the Tribune, Chad’s Bear was used by political cartoonist George Shields throughout 1906 to heap abuse on those who the newspaper saw as in need of criticism. In the politically-oriented cartoons, the bear was always shown with a pop bottle nearby or in its paws.
(Next week: part 2)