Canada’s colourful characters series: Madame Bendixen

I have long maintained that the most interesting history of any nation is not found in its celebrities, but in the antics of its most colourful characters. Madame Bendixen is not a name that comes readily to mind, but she was certainly colourful.

If you know of any similar characters, don’t hesitate to send me a clue. Leave a comment, or email me, at: gerrybbooks@yahoo.ca. I’d love to hear from you.

Cowichan Valley Citizen

Barkerville, British Columbia. Main Street during its heyday.
Barkerville, British Columbia. Main Street during its heyday.

M. Bendixen and his stout wife erected the modest two-storey brick hotel, on the present site of the Eaton’s Centre, upon their arrival in the Crown Colony of Vancouver Island in 1862. For a while the St. George was Victoria’s finest, its “accommodating” host and hostess enjoying a profitable business.

That is, when the madame wasn’t “in one of her queer moods”.

For Mrs. Bendixen, it would appear, was as fiery and loud as she was stout, and not many ventured within range when she was on the warpath. When the town experienced hard times, the landlady’s notorious disposition became even worse, driving what few clients remained to seek other accommodations.

They’d have scarcely believed that, just eight years before, she’d been “one of the handsomest and daintiest of the smart set of San Francisco”. Many times, hundreds of admiring eyes had followed the beautiful woman in the shining carriage drawn by a magnificent team of horses along Montgomery Street. The mistress of a leading Bay City underworld figure, she enjoyed a life of royalty, with the finest of jewels, furs and silks.

Then, unaccountably, she changed almost overnight. Instead of the haughty paramour she became a tower of virtue, even announcing her forthcoming marriage. Retiring to a cottage, she attended church and shunned all association with her former cronies.

Her rejected lover reacted with gifts and kind words then threats. The police, riddled by corruption, turned a deaf ear to her pleas for protection. She refused to yield even when nitric acid was splashed across her gown. After two thugs beat her fiancé unmercifully and she miraculously survived the bombing of her cottage, she had endure “the most scandalous stories” that were spread about her.

Rather than break her spirit, wrote pioneer Victoria journalist D.W. Higgins, who’d known her slightly while in living in California, the terror campaign “only increased her religious fervour and tended to confirm her in a desire to reform”. When next he’d seen her, in Victoria, instead of the “shrinking, timid, handsome girl of several years before, she had developed into a fat, bold and quarrelsome, middle-aged woman”. So dramatic was the change in Madame Bendixen’s appearance that Higgins hadn’t recognized her at first.

For four years, Louis and Fanny Bendixen, who’d invested their savings in the St. George, struggled to keep it afloat. But Victoria was in a recession; businesses foundered and thistles grew in the dusty intersections of Yates and Government streets, the city’s busiest thoroughfares.

Finally, they sold, no doubt, at a loss. By this time, not even Louis could stand his wife’s shrewish tongue and he left for California, she moving to the Cariboo to open a modest saloon in Barkerville. Years later, word reached Victoria of her death at the age of 70.

She’d admitted to being 44.

Which brings us to a 1996 column in the Times-Colonist in which the late writer/historian Charles Lillard pondered Madame Bendixen’s real story. He’d read Higgins, of course, but what intrigued him most were fleeting references to Mrs. B in W.B. Cheadle’s classic Journal of a Trip Across Canada. Written 20 years after he and Viscount Milton made most history as being among B.C.’s first tourist explorers, Cheadle described their stay in Victoria in 1864, the leading citizens they met socially while staying at the St. George where, in stark contrast to her previously described notoriety and foul temper, they were “rapturously welcomed” by their hostess. At a dinner at the Thomas Harris home, Mrs. Bendixen “inveighed against the degradation of dining with le gros boucher,” their host and the city’s first mayor having made his fortune as a butcher.

In his book, Cheadle describes other dinners, others of the city’s and colony’s leading citizens, among them Gov. and Mrs. James Douglas and (so-called) Hanging Judge Matthew Begbie. Lillard found the references to the mysterious Mrs. B to be the most intriguing and glumly conceded, “I still don’t know the [real] identity of Mrs. Bendixen.”

In Barkerville, Richard Thomas Wright devotes two pages to “the enigmatic” Fanny ‘Bendixon’ who arrived in Barkerville aged about 25, to become owner, over the years, of several saloons (among them, shades of Victoria, the St. George) and, quite likely, a brothel keeper. By then she was thought to weigh in excess of 300 pounds, so large that she straddled two chairs while dispensing drinks to patrons, and prompting Judge Begbie to refer to her in a letter as being of “undiscoverable girth although she was always of goodly diameter”.

By then she was known, particularly to children, for her genial disposition although her fiery temper lurked, as always, just beneath the surface and required little to spark an eruption of profanity. Her death, in January 1899, prompted a civil suit over disposition of her valuable earrings.

We’ll leave the last word on this mystery woman to Richard Wright: “Even in death Fanny Bendixon was a woman who captured the imagination of many and likely the hearts of many a miner and businessman along the creeks.”

– Source:  http://www.cowichanvalleycitizen.com/living/history-blank-who-was-madame-bendixen-1.867484#sthash.x4vPl0Wc.dpuf

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Pioneer education in Canada, Part II

Taught to the tune of the hickory stick…

sod school - Winona School (1908)  forty miles west of Saskatoon
sod school – Winona School (1908)
forty miles west of Saskatoon

It was difficult to find teachers for all the one-room schools that were built on the prairies. In order to qualify for a teaching certificate, a person had to go to school to be trained. The amount of time spent training varied. Some went to school for a couple of months. There were teachers (including my sister) who were sixteen years old, as old as some of their students.

One teacher taught many grades in a rural one-room school. The main subjects were the three R’s : reading, writing and arithmetic. Older students helped with the younger students. Text books and supplies were lacking. Some students could not speak English.

One-room schools were cold and drafty in the winter. A teacher in the early days was expected to do many things besides teaching. The school was to be kept clean. There were extra duties for the teacher such as: filling the oil lamps; cleaning the chimney; bringing in water for drinking and for washing hands; bringing in firewood; keeping the classroom warm; sharpening the pens.

All this for between $26 and $35 per month.

J.L. MacDonald, teacher, and students, School District #3, Glenelg, Ontario, 1910
J.L. MacDonald, teacher, and students, School District #3, Glenelg, Ontario, 1910

Rules for teachers 1872

1. Teachers each day will fill lamps, trim wicks and clean chimneys

2. Each morning teacher will bring a bucket of water and a scuttle of coal for the day’s session

3. Make your pens carefully. You may whittle nibs to the individual taste of the pupils.

From the 1920s to the early 1960s, children who lived in remote parts of northern Ontario went to a very special school. Their school came to them once a month or so and stayed a week at a time. School was part of a railway car pulled by a train. Half the car was the teacher's home, the other half was a classroom. It had desks of different sizes for students of various ages, blackboards, maps, textbooks and books to read. Most of the schoolchildren's fathers worked for the railway, others were trappers, miners and farmers.
From the 1920s to the early 1960s, children who lived in remote parts of northern Ontario went to a very special school. Their school came to them once a month or so and stayed a week at a time. School was part of a railway car pulled by a train. Half the car was the teacher’s home, the other half was a classroom. It had desks of different sizes for students of various ages, blackboards, maps, textbooks and books to read. Most of the schoolchildren’s fathers worked for the railway, others were trappers, miners and farmers.

4. Men teachers may take one evening each week for courting purposes, or two evenings a week if they attend church regularly

5. After ten hours in school, the teachers may spend the remaining time reading the bible or any other good books.

6. Women teachers who marry or engage in unseemly conduct will be dismissed.

7. Every teacher should lay aside from each pay a goodly sum of his earnings for his benefit during his declining years so that he will not become a burden on society.

8. Any teacher who smokes, uses liquor in any form, frequents pool or public halls, or gets shaved in a barber shop will give good reason to suspect his worth, intention, integrity and honesty.

9. The teacher who performs his labour faithfully and without fault for five years will be given an increase of twenty-five pence per week in his pay, providing the board of education approves.

In the early years men dominated the teaching profession, retired soldiers, etc.. According to beliefs of the day, a woman’s place was in the home, and besides, there was no way a woman could be expected to maintain discipline in a classroom full of unruly students. However, by mid-century, rising immigration, ballooning birth rates, and rapid territorial expansion had caused a crisis in education. There were simply not enough good teachers to go around.

A single teacher taught five to eight grade levels, all subjects. In many cases, the teacher would arrive very early to start a fire in the pot belly stove, and prepare a hot meal for the students, and clean the classroom. All this was in addition to their usual duties of preparing lessons and grading papers. While one-room schools were responsible for graduating many successful Americans, such as astronaut Alan Shepard, the teachers themselves rarely earned any significant recognition or income (“One-Room School”). Average wages for teachers was between $26 and $31 dollars per month.

School Days

pioneer education - boy coca-colaSchool days, school days
Dear old golden rule days
Readin’ and ‘ritin’ and ‘rithmetic
Taught to the tune of the hickory stick
You were my queen in calico
I was your bashful barefoot beau
And you wrote on my slate
“I love you, so”
When we were a couple of kids

Nothing to do, Nellie Darling
Nothing to do you say
Let’s take a trip on memory’s ship
Back to the bygone days
Sail to the old village school house
Anchor outside the school door
Look in and see
There’s you and there’s me
A couple of kids once more

School days, school days
Dear old golden rule days
Readin’ and ‘ritin’ and ‘rithmetic
Taught to the tune of the hickory stick
You were my queen in calico
I was your bashful barefoot beau
And you wrote on my slate
“I love you, so”
When we were a couple of kids

‘Member the hill
Nellie Darling
And the oak tree
That grew on its brow
They’ve built forty storeys
Upon that old hill
And the oak’s an old chestnut now
‘Member the meadows
So green, dear
So fragrant with clover and maize
Into new city lots
And preferred business plots
They’ve cut them up
Since those days

School days, school days
Dear old golden rule days.
Readin’ and ‘ritin’ and ‘rithmetic
Taught to the tune of the hickory stick
You were my queen in calico
I was your bashful barefoot beau
And you wrote on my slate
“I love you, so”
When we were a couple of kids

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Point Blankets … a.k.a. “Hudson Bay Company Blankets”…

The Origin of the “Hudson Bay Company” Point Blanket

point blanket - folded“Point” blankets are wool blankets marked on one edge with black or indigo stripes. They were a very important item in the fur trade. The Native peoples valued them for several reasons – they were warm, durable, light-weight and very useful as clothing. The bright colors were popular, but the white blankets also sold well in the winter when they were useful for camouflage in the hunt.

For over a century, point blankets were an essential item imported to Rupert’s Land in the fur trade. They continue to be sold today, though they are now inextricably associated with the Hudson’s Bay Company, and are even sold by other companies as “HBC blankets.” But the first so-called “pointed” blankets were made for French trading companies for sale to Aboriginal buyers.

There are references to “point” blankets in early French trade records dating back at least to the very early 1700s. The Hudson’s Bay Company did sell “blanketing” or “duffle,” a heavy wool cloth, but not point blankets before 1780. In 1779, Thomas Huchins at Albany House was approached by a Canadien fur trader, Monsieur Germain Maugenest, who offered to help the Hudson’s Bay Company improve its trade.

Maugenest was sent to London on the next supply ship. Arriving in London he was quickly hired by the Hudson’s Bay Company as an advisor and trader. Maugenest made several suggestions for new trade items, including lidded copper kettles, which became a staple trade good, and he also suggested that the HBC start trading blankets similar to those produced for Montreal-based companies. The company took up Maugenest’s suggestion and approached a woolen manufacturer, Thomas Empson of Whitney in Oxfordshire, to make up a trial order of 500 point blankets – 100 in 1, 1 1/2, 2, 2 1/2 and 3 point sizes.

In 1780, the first HBC point blankets were shipped to Fort Albany on James Bay, where they proved so popular that they became a standard trade item. Before long, several firms were producing this type of blanket for the HBC, North West Company and other fur trade firms.

The Meaning of Points

The points were used to determine size and weight without unpacking them.
The points were used to determine size and weight without unpacking them.

The stripes on the blankets were about 5 1/2 inches (14 cm) long to indicate a full point, and half that long for half a point. Today point blankets are manufactured in sizes up to 6 points, which fit king sized beds. But in the fur trade period the largest blankets were 4 point blankets.

Point numbers refer to the size of the blanket (essentially its width), and thus the approximate cost. A 1 point blanket was originally set at 2 feet 8 inches wide and 8 feet long (although they could vary slightly) and it weighed just over 3 lb. (or roughly 1.5 kg.). Many sources suggest that, for the HBC, a general rule of thumb was that 1 point blankets sold for 1 made beaver (the value of one prime beaver pelt) up to 4 made beaver for a 4 point blanket. This is an oversimplification and the actual cost of a blanket varied from post to post and over time. As well, the points are not always an indication of the quality of the blanket, because blankets of quite different quality – and thus price – could have the same point number (for example, see list from the Columbia Dept below). But eventually, because the Native consumers demanded a particular standard, the trade companies ordered their blankets from a decreasing number of manufacturers, making the size and quality of the point blankets increasingly predictable.

What Blankets Cost

Circumstances such as local demand, transportation costs, amount of competition and other factors mean that the actual cost of a blanket at any one time at a post needs to be determined using account books and standards of trade. For example, the prices at Moose Factory in 1784 were 1 made beaver for a 1 point blanket, 2 made beaver for a 1 1/2 point blanket, 2 1/2 made beaver for a 2 point blanket, 3 made beaver for a 2 1/2 point blanket and 4 made beaver for a 3 point blanket. Still the equation of 1 point per1 made beaver is a good rough guide to price. Blankets also came in different qualities, so points should not be taken as an exact indicator of price in all cases.

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Pioneer Schools and Education

Taught to the tune of the hickory stick.

What Were the Schools Like?

Teacher and students, Muskoka Lakes, Ontario, 1887
Teacher and students, Muskoka Lakes, Ontario, 1887

The one-room schoolhouse was often a source of pride for the community who had built it. It was also the centre of community activities, meetings, dances, and social gatherings. The early schoolhouses, built with either wood, stone or brick, were often poorly heated and ventilated. Good lighting was also a problem. Some schools had very little in the way of equipment, such as blackboards, maps, globes and textbooks. With time, the government passed school acts to ensure the improvement of school accommodation for all students.

I Remember . . .

Maisie Emery Cook was a student in Leduc, Alberta. She remembers when the first school was built:

“In 1900 when there were six school-age children in the area, a school district was formed. Logs were hauled in and a small building was erected, and that fall a high school student from Edmonton was installed as teacher [the school year lasted just three months]. . . . In 1901 we had a four month term and also in 1902, each with a different teacher.”

Maisie Emery Cook, Memories of a Pioneer Schoolteacher (Edmonton: The Author, 1968), pp. 2-3.

A typical cast iron, pot-belly stove.
A typical cast iron, pot-belly stove.

After years of various models of pot-bellied stoves, the most popular stove used in one-room schoolhouses became the Waterman-Waterbury Heater, manufactured by the Waterman-Waterbury Company of Minneapolis, Minnesota, in the United States with Canadian West headquarters in Regina, Saskatchewan. This massive stove was usually placed in a back corner of the schoolroom and connected to the chimney by a length of overhead eight-inch stovepipes. The theory being that the longer the pipe the more heating surface there was to heat the room.

I Remember . . .

“A boy from down the road had the job of cleaning out the stove and lighting it. I think he got 25 cents cash. A quarter in those days was a lot. It could be more than his father had in his pocket at any one time. Usually the boy got the fire going and the first hour might be cold, but you pack 30 or 40 kids in nine grades into one of those little schools and they warm up pretty soon.”

Barry Broadfoot, The Pioneer Years, 1895-1914: Memories of Settlers Who Opened the West (Don Mills, Ont.: PaperJacks, 1978), p. 285.

On Blackboards

Blackboards were considered an essential part of any schoolroom. They provided a place for both the teacher and the students to write and work out math and grammar exercises. Some blackboards were made from slate. Others were made by painting a wooden board. The wood boards had their drawbacks. “The objections to the wooden surface are, that it is liable to warp and crack, is costly, and requires to be painted very frequently.”

What Was It Like to Be a Student?

J.L. MacDonald, teacher, and students, School District #3, Glenelg, Ontario, 1910
J.L. MacDonald, teacher, and students, School District #3, Glenelg, Ontario, 1910

Even when a community was fortunate enough to have a schoolhouse, there was no guarantee that every child would attend school. Some families could not afford the school fees, which were paid as taxes. Other families depended on their children to help on the farm. This meant that they might not attend school for long periods of time, especially when crops needed to be planted or harvested. Some children had to stay home in the cold months because they had no coat or boots to wear for the long walk to school and back!

J. George Hodgins, The School House, Its Architecture, External and Internal Arrangements: With Additional Papers on Gymnastics, the Use of Apparatus, School Discipline, Methods of Teaching . . . (Toronto: Lovell and Gibson, 1857), p. 81.

Rules for Students:

  1.  Respect your schoolmaster. Obey him and accept his punishments.
  2.  Do not call your classmates names or fight with them. Love and help each other.
  3.  Never make noises or disturb your neighbours at work.
  4.  Be silent during classes. Do not talk unless it is absolutely necessary.
  5.  Do not leave your seat without permission.
  6.  No more than one student at a time may go to the washroom.
  7.  At the end of class, wash your hands and face. Wash your feet if they are bare.
  8.  Bring firewood into the classroom for the stove whenever the teacher tells you.
  9.  Go quietly in and out of the classroom.
  10.  If the master calls your name after class, straighten the benches and tables. Sweep the room, dust, and leave everything tidy.
Pefferlaw Public  school (S.S. #9, Georgina) with the class of 1945. (By the way, That's me in front).
Pefferlaw Public
school (S.S. #9, Georgina) with the class of 1945. (By the way, That’s me in front).

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