There was an excellent turnout at the MacBride Museum last Thursday night. In fact, it is a good thing that the museum decided to take the wall out where they once had a small meeting room beside the lobby, as about 135 people attended. They sold out the supply of books that they had for the event, and had to bring in more copies to meet the demand. Before and after the evening’s program, Pat Ellis was busily signing copies of the book for enthusiastic readers.
Last week I wrote a review of the new book by Ellis and friends titled The Squatters of Downtown Whitehorse. The book is currently sold out, but I have been assured that more copies will be available in time for Christmas.
Keith Halliday presided over the evening event, starting with a brief presentation of slides showing what Whiskey Flats looked like before it was lost to the inexorable push of progress during the 1960s. When asked by a member of the audience why the area of Rotary Park and the SS Klondike was named “Whiskey Flats,” Halliday responded tongue- in-cheek that there were no mountains nearby and that it was flat. This elicited a laugh from the audience that broke the ice.
To further answer the question, he referred to page 16 of the new book, which offered an explanation. Artist Jim Robb added that the area near Rotary Park was known as “Whiskey Flats,” while the area near the SS Klondike was known as “Homebrew Flats.” Further details were added to the naming later in the program.
Pat Ellis was the first person invited to step forward to speak. She is well known for her previous contributions to the remembering the post-war era. Her previous work include the books Yukon Sketchbook (1992), The Canol Adventures (2008), and The Survivors (2011), and articles periodically published in local newspapers.
Overwhelmed by the turnout, Ellis took only a few minutes to thank the Yukon Foundation for its financial support, to Leighann Chalykoff, of the MacBride Museum, who designed the layout for her book, and the various friends who contributed to the content.
Ione Christiansen spoke first. She lived briefly in Whiskey Flats for two months in 1949, while she and her parents were waiting to move into the home they had purchased in town. Wearing an “I Love Whiskey Flats” T-shirt, she recalled how the city seemed to turn its back on the waterfront after the sternwheel river boats were beached for the last time.
She remembered how different life was then: no electricity or water. Toilets were the outdoor variety, or tiny chemical affairs that were visited regularly by the honey wagon. They heated with wood, and washed their clothes by hand and hung them out to dry. Most didn’t have cars, so they walked where they needed to go.
Christiansen also noted that there was no property tax, and no light or fuel bills. You were your own master, but had to work hard for it. Nobody could afford big holidays; perhaps a trip to Marsh Lake. And your neighbours were also your friends.
Halliday inserted a reading from the new book, written by Bucky Koebke. In it Koebke referred to their next-door neighbours, Mr. and Mrs. L. who made and sold home brew. The Mounties would raid the place and throw Mr. L into jail, which he preferred over paying a fine. Meanwhile, Mrs. L. would cook up another batch of home brew while she waited!
Donna Clayson remembers that when she moved to Whitehorse from Haines Junction as a young girl, she wanted to live in Moccasin Flats. She thought the people were simply wonderful, down-to-earth and welcoming. When she brought her new husband to Whitehorse in 1983, she could hardly wait to show him Moccasin Flats. “That was where I felt more comfortable,” she said.
Jim Robb spent a lot of time sketching the people of Whiskey Flats and Sleepy Hollow in the 1950s and 1960s. He remembered Henry Charlie’s rabbit stew, and once wanting to sketch one little girl, who was cute as a button, but she refused to pose for less than 50 bubble gums and some nail polish! He was not interested in suburban Riverdale; instead, he found the inspiration for his exaggerated style in the quaint cluster of cabins on the river bank in Whitehorse, and the leaning buildings of Dawson City.
Bonnie Fordyce spent 10 years of her childhood living in Whiskey Flats. When their landlord passed away, he left them the house, and they eventually moved it to Jarvis Street. Instead of relating her memories, she read a poem written about Whiskey Flats by her sister, who now lives in Haines Junction.
Con Lattin moved to Whitehorse in 1952. When they arrived, he and his wife walked around Whitehorse. Seeing Whiskey Flats, she asked: “who would want to live there?” Con added that “on Monday morning, we got the truck from Taylor and Drury, and we drove her down to her new home (in Whiskey Flats).” Later, when he was hired by the army, and was provided with a home in Takhini, he said, she didn’t want to leave.
Caroline Oblak remembered that when she first came to Whitehorse, she and her husband Frank lived in North Whiskey Flats for five years. She could only speak Slovenian; since their neighbour was Ukranian, she learned Ukranian before learning English. She raised three children there, and kept fit lugging pails of water from the river.
Halliday concluded by showing pictures from the Joy Ruttle collection. One of these depicted the early winter flood in 1961, when the water froze right up to the front door of her Sleepy Hollow home.
Whitehorse went through terrific growing pains after the Second World War, and it took a long time for the community to catch up. Meanwhile, the squatter areas provided convenient and inexpensive housing for a third of the downtown population. Many of these people still live in the community, and many of them turned out for the presentation on Thursday night.
Pat Ellis was very humble about her new book, but she did a great deed in capturing glimpses of life from early post-war period. I enjoyed hearing the stories shared by other former residents of the squatters’ districts in Whitehorse.
Michael Gates is a Yukon historian and sometimes adventurer based in Whitehorse. He is currently writing book about the Yukon in World War I. You can contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org