“To Dawson town came Percy Brown from London on the Thames…”
So begins The Ballad of the Ice-Worm Cocktail, a classic work of Robert Service poetry from his 1940 book of verse, Bar Room Ballads. It was one of my favorite performances in the Frantic Follies, which I attended many times over the years.
It is the story of a cheechako named Major Brown, one of those stuffy British upper class twits who liked to put on airs. Some Dawson locals decided to put the squeeze on the overstuffed English gentleman by serving up a specialty drink that contained an ice worm, which was, in fact, nothing more than a strand of spaghetti upon which ink had been applied to create the impression of eyes.
The Englishman drinks it while being taunted by patrons of a Dawson City bar, but dashes hastily from the barroom after consuming the beverage, much to the laughter, and delight of the crowd.
Service had an ear for a good story. He once crashed a party in Whitehorse and was told a story by a visiting mining man from Dawson, who ignored the unassuming bank clerk, until he related the story of cremating a man who had frozen to death — with a comedic twist at the end of the yarn.
“The fat man who ignored me went his way to bankruptcy, but he had pointed me the road to fortune,” stated Service in his autobiography. The story became “The Cremation of Sam McGee,” and upon it and some of his other poems was built the foundation of his fame and fortune.
So it is not surprising that I should come across this account in the Dawson Daily News, April 27 1906, that suggests the origin of the famed Service ice worm poem came from a real-life event:
“Ah, bah Jove, old fellow, I say, bloomin’ fine thing that ice worm cocktail — fit for a king. Give me another.”
This is the way a young English cheechaco connected with one of Dawson’s financial institutions took his first ice worm cocktail yesterday at the M&N, the downtown hydraulic headquarters. The resort was full of sourdoughs, and they were greatly amused watching the young chap from the old isle beyond the seas tackle his first draught of northern brew.
“I say, boys, ale is good enough at home. Why, old fellows, I used to take me bawth in English ale but this bloody bloomin’ drink of which you wayward lads speak seems to me to have a most suggestive name, ice worm? That sounds snaky. I think I would rather have some rattlesnake on toast.”
The other lads escorted the cheechaco into the resort, and slapping him on the back, told him to brace up and go through with the experience. Rather than display a white feather before the crowd, the English lad went to the game without the bat of an eye.
“Ice worm cocktails for three,” shouted the sourdough financier who counts out cash for a living.
The bartender smiled knowingly, and lifted the lid from an elegant cut glass dish, and lo, there were the ice worms, long, fat, thick and luscious, running through a great cake of ice.
The Englishman’s eyes popped. It was the real thing. The matter was becoming interesting. The bartender lost no time. He had a little hatchet, and pinching off a corner of the ice, he exposed the ends of some of the long white ice worms.
“I like to prepare this drink better than any other,” said he, smiling.
“Bah Jove; do tell,” ejaculated the interested young Briton abroad.
“Well it’s just this way,” observed the man in the apron. “It’s simply because it’s the Yukon beverage, and when cheechacos take it, it means prosperity to the rainmaker.”
“Very true,” echoed the bankers.
The barkeeper produced a little pair of tongs and carefully nipped an ice worm by the head. Then he pulled, and out came the long fellow, plump, succulent and tempting to the sourdoughs. As he dangled there, the English boy looked horrified for a second. A look from his companions made him more placid, and out came more worms, and into the three glasses they were dropped.
The man behind the bar poured on the liquor. The worms seemed to start at the shock. They wriggled, squirmed and manifested great agitation.
“Bah Jove, but they’re alive,” said the Englishman.
“Alive! Great Scott, I should say!” said the bartender. “Think we would serve dead goods?”
“What! Drink that wriggling tape line?” said Johnny Bull.
“Drink that! Why that’s where you get your money’s worth. That’s where you get the real elixir that makes hair sprout on every bald head in Klondike and puts the glow of youth on every cheek.” Thus spoke the two companions, and as they spoke, lifted the glass, with “Here’s to you, John Bull.”
The young Englishman seized his glass with grim determination, and hoisting it aloft followed the others and gulped down the contents, worms, liquor and all.
Waiting a moment for an ill effect, the Englishman felt none. The others were smacking their lips, and the cheechaco dared to do the same. Then he ordered another for all around, and another, and the ice worms became popular.
Then all adjourned to the street. The Englishman went to hunt up Percy, his new friend, and tell him of the sourdough drink. As the trio disappeared a small boy ran after the cheechaco and said:
“Mister that’s no ice worm in ice; that’s only spaghetti put into a gimlet hole in the ice, and allowed to swell. Ha, Ha.”
“Blasted rude boys, these,” ruminated the cheechaco, and going round the corner, lost his nerve, and dodged into a drugstore for a stomach pacifier.
Nevertheless, the Englishman knows and swears that the ice worm is the real live thing, but that the small boy in the Yukon too rudely suggests a cruel joke in matters that are serious and only pertain to gentlemen.
For my money, I would bet that this account was told by the clerks at the Canadian Bank of Commerce to Robert Service, when he arrived in Dawson for an 18-month tour of duty in 1908.
Which goes to show you that the truth can be more inspirational, and interesting, than fiction.
Michael Gates is a Yukon historian and sometimes adventurer based in Whitehorse. His new book, From the Klondike to Berlin, is now available in stores everywhere.