Saturday, October 27, 2012

En Roulant Ma Boule

Right around Spring of 1980, we sold our home in St. Paul, MN and moved into a small rickety mobile home on 20 acres near Pine City, MN. The land was at the water’s edge, right on the Snake River between Cross and Pokegama Lakes. A small dam at the East side of Cross Lake allowed the river to flow slowly past our home and be more like a lake than a river.

The view upstream from our home along the Snake River, Pine County, MN
The Northwest Company Fur Post Historic site is located right around the point that can be seen at the Left in the photo.

But a river it was, and back in 1803, a competitor of the famed Hudson Bay Company called the Northwest Company, opened shop along the banks of the Snake River, long before the dam was built. This place was a small structure of a line of rooms surrounded by a stockade and run by a partner of the company and his staff of voyageurs. It was a wintering place. A trading post used in Winter to gather fur hides for the hat trade in Europe.

Arthur Heming's untitled painting of voyageurs plying the rapids in a large Canadian birch bark canoe

These trading posts would have the local Native people do their hunting for food and the valuable furs and the voyageurs pack the trade goods in and the furs out, down stream and up stream via large birch bark canoes, using the waterways to get them to their ultimate destination.

Stock photo of the Northwest Company Fur Post historic site at Pine City, MN

So little is mentioned about fur trade history. But so much is available. You see, the partners that ran the wintering posts kept comprehensive journals of everyday goings on, the movement of beaver hide, how much was hunted and gathered for food, the weather, the terrain, personalities of the voyageurs and the Indians, everything.

The Northwest Company Fur Post Historic site, run by the Minnesota Historical society, was up stream from our little patch of land just a ¼ mile or so. Mrs. Spadoman wandered over there one day and before long, we found ourselves working there as tour guides doing costumed living history.
I used my own name, and took the liberty of making it French, to become Josef Spadeau, French Canadian Voyageur. This was just a day 'working' at the historic site in the 1980's 

Many times, we would paddle across the river to go to work. We were aware of the historical significance of using the waterway to get to our place of employment. In fact, we lived “in character” for some of the time even on days we didn’t work. It's been a while since I thought about being a tour guide and demonstrating fur trade history by living it. The title of this post stems from a widely known Voyageur song and these songs rang through our household on a daily basis.

Mrs. Spadoman played the part of Le Chienne, the Dog Woman, who was mentioned in Sayers journal several times as a female Indian hunter. Here she is giving one of the tours at the historic site

But talk about living “In Characrter”?  This special friend of ours that was the director of  the site, and was an employee of the Minnesota Historical Society when we met him, took his character seriously. Everyone called him Jacques, the name stemming from a voyageur, whose name was written in the original journal by the partner that ran the post in the winters of 1803 and 1804. Jacques Deseve is his name and he has been known as Jacques for the 30 plus years that we have known him.

Jacques was a working man, a voyageur on the staff of the partner, a Mister John Sayer, the writer and keeper of the journal for the Snake River wintering post in 1803 and 1804. Jacques grew up in St. Paul, MN and had a ‘real’ name, but I am not at liberty, nor will I ever be, enough to divulge his birth given name. Besides, he was known far and wide as Jacques and still is. Although he did take on the persona of John Sayer for a while. Long enough to be carried from a birch bark canoe to the shore of the Great Lake Superior at Duluth, so as to not get his 'fancy' shoes wet, complete with bagpipe accompaniment.

A bearded Jacque Deseve, on the left, breaking bread with my three children, my wife, (taking the picture), and myself. We enjoyed many a dinner  together, especially during the holiday season.

Jacques did presentations of fur trade history throughout the area, in schools and at civic functions. He was a teacher and entertainer extrordinaire. He is retired now, but still dons a costume of the era and now takes on the persona of a character from this historical time and mesmerizes us all with his wit, wisdom and charm. One thing that has never left him is that so many people only know him as Jacques and have for so many years.

Jacques is a self proclaimed hermit. When we met him, he lived in a hand hewn one room log cabin with a small sleeping loft. He had an outhouse, used a sauna to bathe, carried water, chopped wood and read his many and varied collection of books by oil lamp and candle light.

Nowadays, in 2012, he still lives in a log cabin, it is basically one room, a large one, and has a sauna built right inside. He has accepted electricity on the premises and a telephone line. He still carries his water in bottles filled from local sources, but uses an outhouse for other matters. He reads his now tripled in size hard bound book collection by electric light.

Jacque now has taken on the role of Charles Jean Baptiste Chaboillez, a senior retired partner of La Companie, The Northwest Company. He shaved his beard of 42 years for this occasion, but now it is in full growth mode again.

The wood stove is gone and has parlayed into a propane burning affair that is so much easier to manage than the gathering, (or buying), along with the chopping, cutting, splitting, stacking and hauling of fire wood.

He sleeps in a bed that is on the main level of the cabin now. A fall or two from the warmer nether regions of the loft helped him make this decision.

The reason I know all this about the more recent times in his life is because we got together and rekindled our close relationship just recently. Being with Jacques again is delightful. We continued our conversations, reminiscing, hockey discussions and silliness right where we left off when we left Pine City in 1989.

Jacque lives in Northwestern Wisconsin. Over the past ten years, I can safely say I drove past, or very near to, the township, or at least the County, where he lives several times per month. It’s not such a veer off of our fetching water trips that we couldn’t fit a visit in. I’m going to try to make that a reality as I realize how important having and sharing life with a good friend can be and how important it is to each other.

You know that saying that says People are in your life for a reason, a season or a lifetime? All three fit here. Jacques started being in our life back when we met him, and although we moved on and only saw Jacques now and again over the years, with the last time some 12 or 13 years ago, he never left our thoughts. 

But that’s what true friendship is. Always being friends. Not judging other’s actions and motives. Not forgetting them because our life’s journey has taken us far away and kept us busy seeking other adventures. Now, we’ll share with each other what we’ve been up to with our old friend. We’ve got a lot of ground to cover.



Jeannie said...

Glad you had the chance to reconnect - it's a fine thing. You have certainly lead a very diverse life! I like reading your recollections.

Mel said...

LOL I love the hat!

And what a devoted fella--it's probably 'okay' that he gave in to some of the 'finer' things in life. Good grief--I try to wrap my head around doing without some of those things that I take for granted for just a couple of HOURS and I start getting twitchy!
Imagine doing that willfully for a long period of time and I just can't make my brain work in the ins and outs of what that'd mean.

Oh, but what fun to catch up--and what an opportunity to stay caught up and enjoy each other's company. :-)