It takes pride of place and great determination to preserve the past. One Yukoner had all these qualities and, as a result, the Yukon’s colourful history is well preserved.
W.D. (Bill) MacBride was born in Montana in 1888. Orphaned as a baby, he was raised by relatives Nellie and Frank Miles. Still, young Bill graduated from teaching college in 1907, and taught high school until 1909. After completing a business course in Spokane, he hired on with the Idaho and Washington Railway. It was the beginning of a long career in the railroad business.
By 1912, the northern bug had bitten Bill and he joined the Northern Navigation Company, and spent the next two summers in Alaska. When the White Pass & Yukon Route bought out the NNC in 1914, Bill transferred to Whitehorse.
Here he married school teacher Eva Tesley in 1919. Neither could have known back then that he would spend almost fifty years with the White Pass, and become the most knowledgeable Yukoner when it came to historical episodes and artifacts.
Bill was a consummate packrat, keeping obscure books, photographs and artifacts. He recorded details of Yukon history through many of his essays, letters and articles.
On December 20, 1950, a group of 13 men and women, led by Fred Arnot and Bill MacBride, established the Yukon Historical Society. In 1952, with the growing collection displayed in the old Whitehorse Telegraph Office on First Avenue, Yukon’s first museum opened to the public. It operated in the early days as a one-man show, and Bill was always on hand to explain the Yukon’s colourful past to the few tourists who ventured north, either by rail from Skagway or via the dusty Alaska highway of the 1950s and early '60s.
As visitor traffic increased, the need for a new facility became apparent, and when the new log museum was built in 1967 and was officially opened by Princess Alexandra, it was named MacBride Museum to recognize Bill MacBride’s role in maintaining the Yukon’s heritage.
However, Bill was not there on that warm May day when the museum opened. His wife's ill health had forced him to move south to Vancouver in 1961, where his beloved Eva passed away 1966.Nonetheless, Bill continued his work of recording the history of the Territory until 1973. When he passed away that year, White Pass historian Roy Minter wrote this tribute to his long-time friend.
“This fun-loving raconteur aged, but never grew old. He spoke with authority and compassion, but never without the joyful touches of humour that were his trademark. Indeed, he was a most attractive man, whose energy, creativity, and determination were the driving forces behind the early acquisitions of northern documents and artifacts.
“He was known far and wide outside the Yukon by historians, writers, publishers, and broadcasters, none of whom would think of passing through Whitehorse without contacting Bill MacBride.”
So the next time you visit the MacBride museum and marvel at the magnificent displays of Yukon memorabilia, remember for a moment the man who made it happen - William David MacBride.
A CKRW Yukon Nugget by Les McLaughlin
The man who wrote the ballads that define the Yukon’s colourful history and lifestyle may well have done the same thing in Saskatchewan or Alberta, except for a fateful day in June, 1957.
Al Oster had been touring the Peace River country with another musician when, on a whim, they decided to take a few days off and travel north on the Alaska Highway to Whitehorse, just to have a look. At the time, he had just sold his interest in a building supply firm and was living in Langley, B.C.
Al had heard many tales about the Yukon’s colourful characters and stories. The brief visit to Whitehorse did not disappoint him.
When he returned to Langley, Al talked his wife Mary into moving north to explore new challenges. She agreed. The 10-day journey over the very rough, muddy, dusty road ended in Whitehorse on July 30, 1957.
At the time, the town was at milepost 918. Al, who had written country balladssince he was a kid growing up on a poor dust-bowl farm in Saskatchewan in the dirty thirties, instinctively knew the Yukon was the place for a songwriter. The song “918 Miles” was born.
Like most singers of an earlier era, he had come to love country music while listening to old-time country radio stations on his parents “Zenith” battery-powered radio on the Prairies.
Years later, he bought a guitar and learned to chord western songs while working in Alberta logging camps in the winter, and on cattle ranches in the summer.
Al, who had been discharged from the Canadian army in Calgary in 1946, earned the nickname “Calgary Slim” while roaming around with his “dobro”-playing buddy “Ray, playing theatres, restaurants, and dance halls in the Calgary and Edmonton areas. They called themselves “Slim n’ Ray”.
Then Al headed for Vancouver where he met his wife Mary. By 1957, when they moved to the Yukon, they had two children.
In Whitehorse, Al worked briefly at Campbell’s Lumber Yard, and then in Hougen’s Hardware department.
He also played in a country-and-western band with Johnny Hutsul, guitar player John Irwin, steel player Andy Donais, and drummer Cal Waddington. The group sometimes played that new-fangled music called Rock n’ Roll.
One Saturday evening, they were booked to play a dance at the Whitehorse High School. Al always wanted to write a rock n’ roll song especially for the highschool crowd, and the song “Midnight Sun Rock” was born.
Later, while working for Husky Building Supplies, a customer came in to buy some special-size brass screws.
“We didn’t have any in stock,” said Al “so I gave the standard Yukon excuse. They are coming in on the next boat which will arrive next Thursday.”
The unimpressed customer replied that everything seemed to be on the next boat. Al went home for lunch and in 10 minutes wrote the song “Next Boat”.
“Midnight Sun Rock” and “Next Boat” were recorded on a single 45 RPM record, his first release. The first order of 1000 45’s sold out and in 1959, Al re-recorded those songs on his first album called “Yukon Gold”. That version of Midnight Sun Rock was inducted into the Nashville Rockabilly Hall of Fame in 2002.
In 1958, WHTV began a cable service, and manager Bert Wybrew accepted a proposal for a half-hour weekly television program called “The Al Oster Show.” It ran for two years.
Al also worked five evenings a week at WHTV as their first announcer/operator after finishing his regular day job at the RCAF base as a clerk.
By 1961, he had a growing collection of Yukon songs. In December, the CBC offered him a 15-minute radio show called Northland Echos. After a few miscues while taping at the CBC studios, Al began recording the show in his basement. The program aired for three years.
His band played the “Kopper King” and the “Bamboo” on weekends. Al didn’t much enjoy the bar scene but, at the time, he didn’t mind touring. With the release of his first LP, he was invited by Jake Doell’s band from Vancouver to tour through northern Alberta. They developed a routine called the “Yukon Gold Show Tour.”
The group featuring Al, Jack Doell, Ed Isaac and Grant Wilson, staged an hour and half of singing, a magic segment, a comedy routine and Johnny Cash impersonations, while travelling as far north as Hay River, NWT.
The main theme was to promote the beauty and intrigue of the Yukon. Al sold well over two thousand “Yukon Gold” LP’s during the trip, and wrote most of his famous “Paddlewheeler” song while driving between bookings with his bass-playing sidekick, Ed Isaac.
On the way home to Whitehorse after the three and a half month tour, they staged the show in every Alaska Highway maintenance camp.
Al remembers that “they had a ball, but never again for me,” he said. “It’s a rough life for a musician.”
In the mid-60s, Al was a headliner on the first pan-north radio show out of Whitehorse, called Northern Jamboree, with the youthful voice of Les McLaughlin hosting the show.
In 1967, Al, with Hank Karr and his group, performed at the Canadian Pavilion at Expo 67 in Montreal. While there, the CBC recorded an LP, featuring Hank and Al, called “The Yukon Stars.”
In 1968, his ballad “Irena Cheyenne” earned him the first songwriter award ever presented in Canada by BMI.
And what of his other music?
Al’s classic song, “My Book of Yukon Memories" was written "totally from the heart”, he says.
“It still creates a feeling of ‘longing’ when I sing or hear it. The music and lyrics came so easily.”
“Paddlewheeler” is also his favourite because of how easily the lyrics flow together and, says Al, “it’s an easy song to memorize and sing.” Like all of Al Oster’s material, it tells a great story of the historic Yukon days gone by.
His song “Waltz Of The Yukon” is included in the Boy Scout and Girl Guide camp “sing along” song book, and at one time, “My Book of Yukon Memories” reached number 30 on the Billboard charts.
Today, Al Oster lives in Salmon Arm, where he operates a CD and DVD duplication service, but his attachment to the Yukon remains and his collection of Yukon CDs are sold throughout the territory, creating a lasting memory of people, places and events that have shaped the Yukon’s history.
For his role in recording Yukon stories in a musical format, Al Oster was awarded the Order of Canada in 1999.
A CKRW Yukon Nugget by Les McLaughlin
Ever wonder what it is about the Yukon that inspires people to become artists?
We know Ted Harrison's inspiration comes from colours and shapes of the natural environment.
Jim Robb's gift comes from the character of the people and the wonky shapes of old stuff. Mary Dolman is inspired by the awesome power of the natural elements. Doug Smarch describes his work as conceptual, made for a native tribe he invented and open to various interpretations.
For Ted Colyer, it was - at least in part - the lack of television, along with the inspiration of his parents and the dedication of his Whitehorse High School art teacher, Lilias Farley.
He arrived in the Yukon with his family from Ottawa in 1961, as a 13-year-old grade-nine student. His father, Hank Colyer, was an Army engineer who had been transferred to Whitehorse to work on upgrading the Alaska Highway.
His mother, Betty, worked for the Territorial Government to set up the fledgling Yukon library system and to help build the new main library in Whitehorse.
Ted remembers those days in the Yukon as a joyous time. The family had a cottage and boat on Marsh Lake, where the camping and fishing was world class.
In the winter, he curled and played hockey. "We never had a television, so our parents encouraged us in our music and artistic interests."
He recalls a very special time of both isolation and change in the North - especially for the class of 1964 at FH Collins high school. The friends reminded Ted of the TV show Happy Days.
As with many students of that time, art teacher Lilias Farley was a big influence on Ted's artistic development. He had been drawing and painting since he was about four years old, but he recalls that Miss Farley pushed him to try a lot harder and not to get complacent. She encouraged him to take a figure-drawing class at the Banff school of Fine Arts when he was just 16.
He was the only high-school student, but won a scholarship to return the next year, largely, he says, because of the training he received from Lilias Farley.
Ted attended UBC and then Mount Allison University where he studied painting, drawing and printmaking. After graduating in 1971, he moved to Japan to learn more about Japanese woodblock techniques.
His first exhibition in Tokyo that year was a big success, and he's been able to make a living as a professional artist ever since.
He and his wife returned to Canada after 17 years in Japan, and have lived in Vancouver since 1988.
Today, Ted Colyer works mainly with watercolour and acrylic painting as well as printmaking in his Vancouver studio, but he gets back to the Yukon whenever he can.
His oldest sister, Jacquelin Fowler, and her husband Jim, have lived in the Yukon since the 60's, and his older brother, Ford, works as a photographer for the Yukon government archives.
Ted says, "I think most people who have lived in the Yukon realize that it is a very special place. The "call of the wild" stays with you. I love a city like Tokyo - the masses of people rushing around, and the energy, but last year, when I got out in the bush, nobody for miles, looking at the reflection of autumn colours from an island in Big Salmon Lake, tramping around in the muskeg, catching grayling on a first cast on the Sandy River, I had to wonder why I ever left.
A CKRW Yukon Nugget by Les McLaughlin
Robert Crawford was born in a little cabin in Dawson City, in July of 1899. His father had been the bailiff for the city of Seatlle before joining the hordes of gold-seekers heading for the Klondike in 1897. The Crawfords moved to Fairbanks in 1904 where young Robert went to school. His older brother, Sam, had a Victrola phonograph. Robert loved listening to his brother's substantial collection of classical recordings. In 1915, he wrote his first song called 'My Northland'. It became a quite popular and gave Robert recognition both in Alaska and Seattle.
As if to strengthen his love of the northland, he became president, at the tender age of 13, of the newly formed group called Native Sons and Daughters of the Golden North. This youth organization was sponsored by the Arctic Brotherhood. When it came time to enter high school, Robert Crawford was sent to live with relatives in Washington state. In 1921, he enrolled in Princeton University's school of music. His love of music continued to grow and he eventually studied at the American Conservatory of Music in Fontainbleau, France, and at the Juilliard School of Music in New York.
Apart from music, aviation was his other love. He took flying lessons in New Jersey and bought a two-seated English Avian aircraft. In 1932, as his singing career grew, Time magazine dubbed him "the flying baritone". He returned to Alaska many times during the 30s to hold stage performances. In September, 1938, Liberty magazine sponsored a contest for an official song for the then-called Army Air Force. Robert Crawford entered his composition, which won the first prize of one thousand dollars. The official name of that song, which to this day is the official theme of the United States Air Force, is "The Air Force Song". But it's better known around the world as the rousing call to arms "Into the Wild Blue Yonder". During the Second World War the song was credited with enlisting more men into the air force that any speech or poster had done.
Crawford, a Lt. Colonel in the United States Air Command during the war, went on to become a professor of music at the University of Miami. But he never lost his love of the north. In 1958, the Anchorage Symphony Orchestra premiered his composition called Alaskana. Robert Crawford said the inspiration for the symphony came from a line in Robert Service's poem, 'The Shooting of Dan McGrew'. The line that struck him was "were you ever out in the great alone". In 1958, he left the University of Miami and headed for New York to write Broadway musicals. Some of the song titles in his first play were "Alas, I'm a Lass from Alaska", "There Must be a Heaven for My Dog", and "Parking' in a Parka". Alas, the play was never finished. Robert Crawford died suddenly on March 12, 1961. The Fairbanks Miner noted his death with the line "the singing spirit of Robert Crawford has gone into the wild blue yonder of his famed air force song".
A CKRW Yukon Nugget by Les McLaughlin