When I was a school kid growing up on Strickland Street, colourful characters were the norm. It was not unusual to find my Dad and Wigwam Harry sharing a story or two at our kitchen table.
Andy Hooper could be seen hauling another old building to some new lot with this American army lift truck. BuzzSaw Jimmy was always around cutting trees with his homemade wood sawing contraption.
Tuffy Cyr roamed the back alleys collecting the contents of the ubiquitous honey buckets and dumping them into a home-built container made of 45-gallon drums. Characters were...well, to me they were normal. Nothing out of the ordinary.
And at the end of Strickland, near the hill leading to the airport, in a tiny shack, lived an old lady I seldom saw.
Her name was Lucille Hunter. Born in Michigan, she married Charles Hunter when she was just 16. In 1897, when she was 19, the couple joined the Klondike Gold Rush, travelling to the Yukon via the Stikine Trail.
The journey was remarkable for two reasons: she and her husband were among a handful of African-American stampeders who came to the Klondike, and Lucille was nine months pregnant at the time. In Teslin, Mrs. Hunter gave birth to a baby girl whom she named...Teslin.
For the local Native people, the hoard of white prospectors in their midst was an unusual sight, but never before had they seen a black person. Not quite sure what to call the Hunters, they simply described them as "just another kind of white person".
Charles and Lucille travelled by dog team to the Klondike. To undertake this journey in winter, Charles may have had experience as a trapper or miner.
Without survival skills, the young couple would have perished in the -60° temperatures over hundreds of miles of wilderness. They arrived in Bonanza Creek in February 1898, well before the main throng of stampeders arrived. Here they staked three claims. Lucille worked alongside her husband digging for gold, while raising daughter Teslin in extremely primitive conditions.
A few years later, the Hunters moved to Mayo where Charles staked and worked some silver claims. In June 1939, Charles died at age 65, leaving Lucille alone with her grandson, Buster, to carry on mining. Her daughter Teslin had died earlier, leaving Lucille to raiseBuster.
In 1942, when Alaska Highway construction began, Lucille and Buster moved to Whitehorse. Lucille set up a laundry business while Buster made the deliveries around town.
A few years later, Lucille moved to the tiny clapboard house on 8th Avenue, where she lived alone. As kids, we used to ride our toboggans down the nearby hill and we could hear the sound of the radio coming from inside as we slid silently past her home.
Mrs. Hunter had gone blind, but kept up with the world and local affairs through the constant playing of her radio.
The small home, her many visitors said, was filled with stacks of newspapers, magazines, and other flammable stuff stored dangerously close to her wood stove, and friends worried about the danger of fire.
One fateful night the house caught fire. Firefighters had a difficult job breaking through the security locks to rescue Lucille whose clothes were ablaze when she was rescued.
She recovered from minor burns, but her little house on Strickland Street was gone so she moved to a small basement apartment downtown, where she continued to entertain guests with her fascinating stories and, of course, listened to the radio until her death in 1972 at the age of 93.
A CKRW Yukon Nugget by Les McLaughlin
The year was 1967. Everyone in the country was celebrating a big birthday. Canada was 100 years old. It seemed a fine time for giving, and sharing the bounties of the big land. In Whitehorse, City council was not so much in the mood for sharing as for taking. It seems that parking was becoming a problem in the growing frontier town of about ten thousand. Taking a page from really big cities, the city council decided to install parking meters on Main Street. What would they think of next? Traffic lights, no doubt.
By the spring of 1968, the meters were ready to accept a nickel for a half-hour stay. The meters did not produce much revenue until 1972, when Whitehorse hired an energetic local woman, Valerie Matechuk, to patrol the meters and hand out two-dollar tickets to overtime parkers.
Hot-footing it around her circuit at least twice an hour, Valerie issued thousands of dollar's worth of citations. Soon downtown merchants were crying foul - that the meters would drive business to the boondocks, wherever they were. The dreaded meters were here to stay, and the complaints rolled in.
The meter controversy seemed as endless as ice fog at fifty below. So in 1972, Bob Erlam, publisher of the Whitehorse Star, whose storefront was on Main Street, decided to take matters into his own hands.
He said the city's meter maid was being over-zealous. Erlam claimed that the meters had already paid for themselves, were driving away business and were no longer needed to solve over-parking and traffic problems. Maybe he was right. City income from the meters during the first nine months of 1972 was more than $ 40,000.
Bob took an ad out in his paper. It was for a job. Twelve people applied for the position of "anti-meter maid", who would make the same circuit as Valerie, the meter maid, and feed the "almost expired meters" with nickels, instead of issuing tickets. The salary of $ 90 per week, plus expenses, would be paid by Erlam, and Hougen's Ltd., along with contributions from grateful non-ticketed motorists.
Twenty-year-old Joanne Schrioch got the job and soon became the town's newest heroine. She started work on November 8, 1972, armed with a supply of nickels and leaflets explaining her job to vehicle owners, and suggesting donations. At one point in her career, she had put coins in 900 nearly-expired meters. To avoid any conflict with the law, she didn't touch the fully expired ones, leaving those to Valerie's mercy.
Joanne's anti-meter activity got a warm reception in frosty Whitehorse. She even got along well with Meter Maid Matechuk. Often the meter and anti-meter maids were seen having lunch together.
How much was accomplished in this meter stage may never be known, but Whitehorse did get a lot of outside publicity, including a lengthy story in Time Magazine in the summer of 1973.
A CKRW Yukon Nugget by Les McLaughlin
No one is quite sure when he arrived in the Yukon, or how he got here for that matter. Some say he came over the Chilkoot Pass at the beginning of the Klondike rush. What is certain is that he got no further than Carcross, and there he lived out his days. He also spent some time at Conrad City on Tagish Lake with Captain James Alexander, who owned the Engineer Mine. But poor Captain Alexander was a victim of bad timing when he chose to leave the Yukon on the last boat of the year in October 1918. That boat out of Skagway was the S.S. Sophia, the CPR liner that hit a rock and sank in the Lynn Canal, carrying all 353 people to their deaths.
Luckily, Captain Alexander had left Polly at the Caribou Hotel in Carcross before embarking on his fateful final voyage. Alexander called him Polly, no one know why, or how old Polly was when he arrived at the Caribou hotel, but some guessed as old as fifty years. Now Polly isn’t much of a name for a male, kind of like a boy named Sue. But like the song, Alexander had prepared a boy named Polly for the rough life to come. From 1918 to 1972, Polly lived at the Caribou, the most famous hotel in the Yukon. There he survived blizzards, fires, drunks and insults for almost fifty-five years. In the hotel, Polly sang opera, spewed profanity, and bummed drinks for half a century. That wasn’t hard to do since he usually stayed in the restaurant, which was just outside the tavern door. He liked Scotch, but would take a beer if that was going around. Lord knows he never paid for a drink, and would spout some pretty foul language if a tavern patron passed him by.
When I knew Polly in the 1960s he showed no signs of his age, nor of his unhealthy habits. By then he had come to dislike alcohol, and even the smell of beer coming from the nearby tavern would sometimes result in a flow of foul language. That’s why Polly was a major attraction at the old Caribou. He was even featured in major national Canadian Press news story, which resulted in hoards of journalists arriving at the Caribou to see if Polly really existed. They found, to their delight, that he did. And so when Polly died at the hotel in November of 1972 it became a story of international significance. A funeral train from Whitehorse to Carcross carried many Yukon dignitaries, while carloads of Polly fans arrived from all over the territory. Johnnie Johns, the famous hunting guide from Carcross performed the eulogy, and sang ‘I love you truly’. Then, with special dispensation from the territorial government, Polly was laid to rest in the Pioneer Carcross Cemetery where Skookum Jim, Dawson Charlie, and others are buried. You see, Polly needed special permission because it’s not usual for a parrot to be considered a Yukon Pioneer.
A CKRW Yukon Nugget by Les McLaughlin