Manitoba Historical Society
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Manitoba History: The Walrus and the Journalist [1]

by James A. Burns
Winnipeg, Manitoba

Number 70, Fall 2012

Lore is not history, and differentiating between them is usually difficult, sometimes impossible. Where lies the truth?

The Winnipeg Press Club was established 125 years ago by the local newspaper fraternity, most of whom were journalists, recording history and telling stories. We may suppose they abided as best they could by what the late Eric Wells, Editor of The Winnipeg Tribune, espoused as “the eternal question”, i.e., “Is the story right?” To be sure, Press Club members’ raconteurial skills were often influenced by the level of beverage consumption, but Wells was ever vigilant to maintain accuracy. A stickler for truth in reporting, he must be given the nod, and we his readers must accept his version of history (vs. lore) in the following item, because there are almost no other written records of these transactions. Even the Hudson’s Bay Company Archives is mute with respect to the Company-related events that follow. [2]

“‘The time has come,’ the Walrus said, …” These words from Lewis Carroll’s stories about Alice in Wonderland make an appropriate introduction to this story. Indeed, the time has come to try to explain how the Winnipeg Press Club (WPC) came by a prize of dubious value to anyone but a walrus, and a male walrus at that.

The object is a singular chunk of bone—a penis bone. Call it what you will, the scientific word for the bone—which is peculiar to males of several groups of mammals—is baculum, plural bacula. It has several other names, some polite, others not so much. The word has the same root as Bacillus (a genus of bacterium) and Baculites (a genus of extinct marine “shellfish”), which have rod-like shapes. Enclosed within the male genitalia of most species of Primates, and of all Rodents, Insectivores, Carnivores and Chiroptera (bats), it “lends firm support to a hard job.” [3] Given the dimensions of walrus bacula, one could not mistake them, but even in smaller mammals the baculum is distinctive and can be used to identify the original owner to species. Among those mammals that have a baculum, that of the walrus is easily the largest.

How is this relevant? In September 1961, 67 WPC members flew to England to participate in the London Press Club’s 79th anniversary celebrations, during which they presented the LPC with a walrus “trophy.” [4] In the best tradition of press clubs, there had been a lengthy, cordial and reciprocal relationship between the two clubs for decades, for London’s club is only five years older than the Winnipeg club! Twenty-one years later, Eric Wells provided briefing notes [5] to Don Aylard, who would lead a WPC delegation to the London club’s 100th anniversary, in 1982. The gift from Winnipeg to London, Wells suggested, was a “salute to the London Club in the traditional manner of the HBC.” This is reminiscent of the tribute rendered unto Caesar from the far corners of his empire. Aylard’s speech thus recalled the 1961 meeting and, of course, the baculum trophy presentation.

In this regard, Wells noted another special gift-giving tradition with connections to Winnipeg and the Hudson’s Bay Company (HBC). It seems the HBC accumulated walrus bacula from the northern sea coasts (probably a “guy thing” then, too), and the men in charge of the forts—the “factors”—stored the bones away for special occasions. Wells declared that in the HBC’s operational headquarters in Winnipeg lay a supply of walrus bacula “stacked up like cordwood.” A truly stunning image! “In distant days,” he wrote in 1982, “it was the custom of the HBC to present retiring officers of far northern posts with a walrus penis [bone].” (Editor’s note: Almost certainly a gold watch would have served the retiree better than a bone the size and heft of a small baseball bat, but the HBC brass were rarely that generous.) Moreover, the recipient of such a prize “could judge the appreciation of his life’s work in the North by the length of the penis he received upon leaving office.” Longer was better, implying deeper satisfaction with his service.

More recently, intriguing support for Wells’ story was provided in a retrospective “blog” posted on the Internet in 2006 by a man known only as “Ol’ Sam.” [6] The posting harkened back to Sam’s experience around 1962 when he worked in the Arctic. His employers had included a regional airline, an ice-roads trucking firm, and the Yellowknife Fire Department. Accompanying the blog photo he shot from an HBC Beaver aircraft over an Arctic community (perhaps Igloolik, he thought), he wrote:

… we stopped for a few days to take inventory … I was given the task of going to “that” shed and counting the contents there-in. The contents were almost exclusively Walrus penis bones, hundreds of them! I’d never heard of such a thing, what on earth does the Bay buy them for. “Ah” I was told, “the English make walking sticks out of them.”

Was this the basis for Wells’ baculaureate thesis on warehoused walrus pizzles? Lore and history come neckand- neck here, but Sam’s blog account lends verisimilitude to Wells’ claim.

That Ol’ Sam was told they used the bones to make walking sticks—surely the seed of future folklore if not nipped at the tip—has a kind of parallel. WPC Past- President Ian Sutherland (1973) discovered in HBC records that the captain of the first ship to dodge the spring ice floes on Lake Superior and tie up at HBC’s Fort William docks used to be awarded a fine walking-cane. Speaking of walrus “walking sticks,” is there a theme here? There’s more. In 1931, the Dalgliesh Steam Shipping Company, of Newcastle-on-Tyne, loaded the first grain ever shipped out of the port of Churchill, Manitoba bound for the UK; [7] townsfolk offered a gift—so it is said—to the first skipper to arrive in the Bay that year, and to subsequent first-arrivals for some years after. Going with the floes in a moment of pure imagining, Sutherland—raconteur, humourist and latter-day historian—proposed that the captain of the first ship arriving in Hudson Bay each spring ought to have been rewarded with a walrus baculum trophy. [8] This is how lore is born.

The staff-of-office that represents the power and authority of the WPC—a moderate 19 inches long—is mounted on an oak plaque. The engraved brass plaque affixed to it conveys those four immortal words of Lewis Carroll’s, “The time has come …” They conjure up several things: the image of a magnificent animal with a face only a mother could love; a wonderful poem by the creator of the well-known Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland; and a poor pun.

It is uncertain, even now, how the WPC came by its prize. Perhaps it was culled from an HBC “cordwood” pile at the same time the London specimen was selected (circa 1961). The LPC presentation was contemporary with a 1961 photo featuring Tribune reporter, MLA, and future Manitoba Premier, Sterling Lyon, next to news photographer and former Club president Hughie Allan (1958), the two proudly holding the beribboned specimen that is still held by the Winnipeg Press Club.

Winnipeg Press “Club”. Winnipeg Tribune photographer Hugh Allan (1917–2004, left) and former Free Press reporter turned Conservative politician Sterling Lyon (1927–2010, right) show off the Press Club’s prized walrus baculum in 1961. A similar trophy was presented by the Winnipeg Press Club the same year to the London Press Club in England.
Source: University of Winnipeg, Western Canada Pictorial Index, 39636.

The item has served to excite and titillate many who have gathered in the rooms of the Press Club over the decades. In 1975, one such visitor—New York madame, Xaviera Hollander—handled the “situation” with élan. Others, maybe not so much.

“As one old walrus put it: ‘Speak softly and carry a big stick.’” [9]

Notes

1. With all due respect to Lewis Carroll, this is a word play on the poem “The Walrus and the Carpenter” as recited by Tweedledee to Tweedledum and Alice, from Carroll’s book Through the Looking-Glass, and What Alice Found There (1871), the sequel to Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland (1865).

2. Anna Shumilak (Research Assistant, HBC Archives, Winnipeg) searched the Company’s Archives exhaustively in August 2012. I thank her for her sterling, but unrewarding, efforts.

3. John J. Burns, 1975, “The Baculum”, page 27 in BioGraffiti: A Natural Selection. W. W. Norton & Co., New York.

4. Winnipeg Press Club 1962 Yearbook / Beer & Skits Program, page 36.

5. Eric Wells, [1982], unpublished briefing notes, on file at the Winnipeg Press Club.

6. http://icemannwt.wordpress.com/2006/09/27/taloyoak-spence-baynu/ — This is not verification without fact-checking; unfortunately, there appears to be no means to contact “Sam” to validate the story.

7. Andrew Taylor, 1993, “Churchill Chapter”, Manitoba History No. 25. Accessed at http://www.mhs.mb.ca/docs/mb_history/25/ churchill1931.shtml

8. Ian Sutherland, personal communication, August 2012. Ian has been very helpful in this research.

9. Burns, op. cit. This quotation no doubt refers to US President Teddy Roosevelt. Some folks fancy his countenance had an uncanny resemblance to a walrus.

Page revised: 27 November 2017

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