The Mayor of Forest Bank
Road weary after a three-day trip from Vancouver, I sit in the car clutching a homestead map from the Saskatchewan Provincial Archives and gaze at an undulating ocean of green prairie. I am at the end of a long journey that began with a story I heard from my mother-in-law, Mary Banks. When Mary, a war bride from Lancashire, England, boarded the Queen Mary to join her Canadian husband, she was following a trail blazed by a Banks family legend.
“My Uncle Bill came to Canada and founded a town,” Mary told me. “It was called Forest Bank after him and a man called Forest. Uncle Bill was the town mayor.”
According to Banks family lore, Bill left the old country under scandalous circumstances. Bill and his friends, Dick Forrest and Arthur Finch, were all courting the same village lass. Finding that she was in the family way, she decided Bill was a good catch because he drove a milk wagon. Banks Senior told his son to man up to his family responsibilities. Bill protested. He was sure she only wanted him for his milk round because he had never taken her for a roll in the hay. Bill’s father gave him some money and told him to get as far away from Lancashire as possible. Western Canada seemed like a good choice. It was not only far away, but Dick and Arthur were already headed there.
Mary told me she had read about Bill in When the Golden West was Young, a Saskatchewan centennial project by Christine Pike, which I tracked down through my local library. When I opened the book, I saw a fuzzy photograph of Bill which showed an awkward-looking young man with a handlebar moustache. He wore a white collarless shirt with over-long sleeves that hung down to his knuckles. Pike described Bill as “a very honest, fun-loving fellow” and mentioned that he was a Barr colonist.
I followed up on this seemingly important snippet of information by reading Muddling Through by Lynne Bowen. I learned that the Barr Colony was a dubious venture organized by two Canadian ministers, Isaac Barr, a reverend with the heart of a sideshow huckster, and George Lloyd, who gave his name to the city of Lloydminster. Barr planned to recruit 500 people to establish an all-British colony in north-western Saskatchewan. The response was overwhelming, and the size of the company swelled from 500 to 1,962.
In the autumn of 1902, Bill gave Rev. Barr two pounds sterling for a paper granting ownership of an “estate” somewhere west of Saskatoon.
On March 25, 1903, the 1,962 colonists set sail from Liverpool in the 700-berth S.S. Lake Manitoba. The ship was overcrowded and unsanitary, and food supplies were both inadequate and unappetizing. The passengers were furious at Barr, who hid in his cabin drinking whisky while Lloyd attempted to keep the peace.
Things did not improve. The Lake Manitoba arrived in St. John on Good Friday. Because it was the Easter weekend, the ship was not unloaded for three days. Barr arranged trains to take the colonists from St. John to Saskatoon but neglected to provide food for the five-day journey. Having no experience with prairie winters, the colonists then faced a ten-day overland trek from Saskatoon in temperatures that frequently dropped to 60 below.
Barr “assisted” the colonists by selling them Boer War surplus army tents and horse blankets. He charged $3.50 to transport luggage by wagon and sold provisions from supply stations set up at 20-mile intervals along the route. Some colonists died of exposure and many gave up. However, Bill survived and was granted entry to his homestead on June 20, 1903. To claim ownership, he had to build a cabin, live on his land for half the year, and break 30 acres in three years.
I was fascinated to track Bill’s progress through his annual sworn statements before the Land Agent in Lloydminster. In 1903, he built a log cabin valued at $150. He broke five acres but produced no crops. The following year, he acquired a horse, broke another five acres and cropped ten. He also built a stable and granary valued at $80 each. In 1905 he broke another ten acres and cropped ten. In 1906 he replaced his horse with two oxen, broke two more acres and cropped fifteen.
Supported by the sworn statement of his friend and neighbour Richard Forrest, Bill applied for an ownership patent in 1906. He still had 138 acres of unbroken land and had not built a fence. He was single, and there were no minerals on his property. On November 19, 1906 he was granted freehold ownership of the North-West Quarter of Section 10, Township 49, Range 24, West of the 3rd Meridian.
This was the land I was trying to identify from a confusing network of gridlines on an old homestead map. In the car with me were my husband Mike and his visiting Lancashire cousin who was also called Bill Banks. Just as I was about to give up on my futile attempts at map reading, a small green and yellow tractor puttered into view, driven by a grizzled old farmer in faded coveralls.
“I bet he’ll know,” said Mike and stuck his head out of the car window. “Excuse me. Can you help us? We’re looking for Bill Banks’ farm.”
The old farmer swung his legs out of the tractor, stood up stiffly and shuffled over to the car for a chat. When we introduced young Bill, his eyes lit up.
“You have to visit my sister,” he said. “She wrote a book. Follow me.”
It turned out that the farmer was Harry Pike and his sister was none other than Christine Pike, the author of When the Golden West was Young. Christine invited us in to her parlour and entertained us with tales about Bill Banks as the pale spring sunlight filtered through cream lace curtains onto a room full of dark, 1930s-vintage wooden furniture.
Everyone liked Bill, Christine told us, especially the children. They loved to ride on his back while he played “horsey” with them for hours on end. As popular as he was, however, he was shy around the ladies.
“My Aunt Blanche was very pretty,” said Christine. “One day Bill showed up at her front door with a box of chocolates. Aunt Blanche wasn’t sure what to do because she could tell he’d taken a nip of Dutch courage.”
Bill went nervously into the parlour, sat on the floor in front of the heater and opened the box of chocolates. To calm his nerves, he ate a chocolate. Then he ate another, and another, until not one chocolate was left for Blanche.
Bill was often the focus of goodnatured teasing about his broad Lancashire accent. Once, he saw a bear looking through his cabin window. Terrified, he ran over to the neighbours yelling out a Lancashire warning.
“Theer’s a beer! Theer’s a beer!” screamed Billy.
“Wheer?” teased the neighbour, to which Billy answered “Theer! Over theer!”
I told Christine I had read how unprepared the Barr Colonists had been for homestead life.
“They were much better off than other pioneers,” Christine pointed out. “This was prime land. Look around. There are only a few stands of trees here and there. Because there were so few trees, they didn’t have to clear the land before they could begin farming.”
Eventually, our conversation turned to Bill’s status as a Banks familylegend. I remembered reading the following excerpt from the official record in Christine’s book: “At a meeting called and assembled on the first day of January 1906 the residents of the township 49, range 24, west of the third meridian, at the home of Richard Forrest, sec. 10 of the said township, resolved that the name of this township be Forest Bank, in honour of the first two settlers.”
Although this confirmed that the township had, indeed, been named after Bill, I was not convinced that he possessed any mayoral qualities. I was not surprised, therefore, to learn that the whole idea of Bill becoming mayor began as a joke played by the local bachelors.
“Now that we’re an official town,” joked one of them when they were sitting around one day, “We need a mayor. I nominate Bill Banks. He’d make a great politician. He’s such a great talker.”
Then one of the other bachelors grabbed a cow tie chain.
“If you’re going to be mayor, Bill, you need a chain of office!” he laughed as he threw the chain around Bill’s neck.
The editor of the Saskatchewan Herald, Bill’s friend Arthur Finch, printed an “official” notice proclaiming William Banks Esq. Mayor of Forest Bank. Happy to go along with the joke, Bill took to wearing his chain of office at district events.
The April 9,1908 edition of the Lashburn Comet reports that “The residents of Forest Bank are pleased to see their Mayor, Mr. Banks, about after his accident. He fell out of a sleigh about three weeks ago and bruised his side badly.” Another article in the Comet reports that the Mayor had been seen ignoring proper Lord’s Day observances by stacking sheaves on a Sunday. When challenged, Mayor Banks was happy to set a better example to the community because he felt that six days labour was more than enough for him.
After our visit with Christine, we went to the local museum in Lashburn where I bought one of the last remaining copies of Mary Hiemstra’s memoir Gully Farm which portrays Bill as well-liked but somewhat irresponsible. Hiemstra remembers that one Christmas Bill invited four families to his cabin for dinner. He picked everyone up in his sleigh, but his horses had trouble pulling the overloaded sleigh through deeply piled snow and he was running late. After a freezing two-hour sleigh ride, everyone crowded into Bill’s shack. They jammed round a makeshift table made of bare boards which was laid with an assortment of dented and chipped tin and enamel plates.
What Bill lacked in elegance, he made up for with good humour. He served everyone a nip of Christmas cheer to warm them up and entertained them with stories as he carved the meat. After dinner, he encouraged his guests to take turns singing and telling stories. Bill had a squeaky singing voice but made up for his poor singing with his lively mouth organ playing.
According to Hiemstra, Bill enjoyed visiting his neighbours more than working alone on his homestead. He was always happy to make the 85-mile trip to Battleford to bring in supplies, deliver the mail, and share news and gossip. One winter, Mary’s father asked Bill to drive him into town for supplies. He was gone so long that by the time they got back the family was starving and had run out of firewood. Mary’s father blamed Bill’s lackadaisical attitude. He said the trip to Battleford took twice as long as it should have because Bill kept stopping along the way. When they finally arrived in town, Bill was more interested in visiting his friends than returning home.
In 1914, the Mayor of Forest Bank decided he had done with farming. He sold his homestead and disappeared, leaving an unfelled stand of trees on his land which is still called Banks’ Bush. Nothing more was heard of him until 1920 when he turned up in Lancashire. He knocked on Mike’s uncle Henry’s front door in the small hours of the morning, waking him up from a sound sleep. Nobody knows where Bill went after he left Forest Bank, but young Bill had a theory.
“When he came home,” he remembered, “he had a pot eye. I heard he went to B.C, so he could’ve lost his eye in a logging accident.”
Bill remained single and lived in a small caravan in Henry’s back garden. When he told people about his life in Canada, they thought his stories were too far-fetched to be true. He was no longer the beloved unofficial Mayor of Forest Bank. He was now “Crazy Bill” who entertained the local children with fantastic yarns. Their parents told them to stay away from him and dragged them to the other side of the street when they saw him coming, so he was limited to telling his stories to an audience of one, Mike’s cousin, young Henry Banks.
Bill lived to be over eighty years old. When he passed away, he took the mystery of his lost Canadian years with him to the grave.