Sunday 30 January 2022

You would enjoy this sport: The Snow Shoe Club of Guelph

A propos of the winter season, this postcard was sent by A.N.B. from Guelph to Kathleen Tate of Bedford, Pennsylvania, on 21 December 1911.
A.N.B. writes cheerfully, "You would enjoy this sport. Hope you have a very merry Xmas and a Happy New Year." As the caption notes, the sport depicted is snowshoeing.

The card was printed by the large British publisher Raphael Tuck and Sons beginning in 1908. It was not a Guelph scene. In fact, it was adapted from a photograph taken by noted Montreal photographers William Notman & Son (Courtesy of the McCord Museum of Montreal, VIEW-3613). It was made to resemble an oil painting; thus the descriptor "Oilette" in the bottom-right corner.

The photo's title is, "A snowshoe tramp on the river ice, Montreal, QC, 1903." No doubt, it depicts members of one of the many Montreal snowshoe clubs out for one of their regular outings.

Snowshoeing, of course, was nothing new in Canada. French soldiers, farmers, coureurs de bois and voyageurs all learned to use snowshoes from the Indigenous peoples they encountered. Members of the NorthWest Company learned it from them. In their day, using snowshoes was a necessity for getting around in wintertime.

("Indiens voyageant en raquettes avec un traƮneau," Cornelius Kreighoff, ca. 1856. Courtesy of Library and Archives Canada, C-013458.)

As the nineteenth century wore on, the need for snowshoes declined. Lower and Upper Canada were becoming increasingly settled so that road networks and sleighs, then railways, tended to sideline snowshoeing as a form of winter travel. So, it was in 1840 that the Montreal Snow Shoe Club (MSSC) was formed to promote snowshoing as a sport and leisure activity.

Enthusiasm for the sport increased and reached a peak in the 1880s, when there were about 25 clubs in Montreal alone and dozens more throughout the country. Guelphites fell into line and the Guelph Snow Shoe Club was formed in 1882.

The Club kept to a regular schedule. One night each week of winter, club members would convene at a conveient site, often the Wellington Hotel, and set out for a "tramp," often to the house of someone who had invited them for the purpose.

For example, the Mercury (6 January 1883) describes a first-season tramp in some detail. Club members mustered at the residence of J.D. Williamson, across London Road from what is now Exhibition Park. At about 8pm, they tramped about 2.5 miles due west then "circled" to the south and called at the residence of Mrs. Armstrong, who was "delighted at the visit" and well prepared:

She extended the club the most cordial hospitality, and correctly perceived the preference of her company in the way of refreshments, when she set before them such a quantity of milk as would have seemed enormous in the eyes of men with ordinary appetites, but which so quickly disappeared before the sharpened appetites of the snow shoeists that one of their number was led to remark, it must have reminded the lady of calves in the spring-time.
The men departed and returned to the city at about 11pm, having covered about 5 miles in all.

The trip relates many of the attractions of snowshoeing as it was then practiced. The physical activity was cold but invigorating, which increased the snoeshoeists' relish for their pit-stop refreshments all the more. Navigating in the dark had its pitfalls:

Rough fields, with a snow drift here and a bare spot there, a hill in one place and a hollow in another, are not the most easy places traversed in the darkness, even with a pair of snow shoes as a means of locomotion. This was verified by numerous falls, and one of the tourists was unfortunate enough to tumble into a gravel pit, half filled with soft snow, in which he was almost buried out of sight.
Enduring these little setbacks was all part of the fun.

Of course, snowshoeing provided some enjoyable social opportunities. Besides being entertained by hosts, club members often entertained each other with song and competition. Consider one evening spent at the popular camp site called The Rocks (now the quarry site on the Reformatory lands; Mercury 30 January 1885):

About twenty-five members of the Guelph Snow Shoe Club went for a tramp last night. The snow was in splendid condition and the boys enjoyed themselves immensely. Taking a cut across the fields they struck the river at the Water Works and followed it up to the Rocks. There they lit a fire, and after enjoying themselves smoking and listening to some excellent songs by the Captain and others, they marked off a hundred yard track and had some exciting and closely contested snow shoe races.
Although certainly boisterous, Club events could be quite civilized. For example, a social event was held at "Springfield" (the farm of James Anderson, to the southwest of town) to raise money for the purchase of an organ for St. Andrew's church. The chief feature of this soirée was a musical programme including instrumentalists, soloists, and an ensemble of the choir. Although late, due to have gotten lost, the Snow Shoe Club arrived to play its part (Mercury, 13 February 1885):
The Snow Shoe Club which tramped out during the evening added a very interesting part to the programme. They signalled their arrival by singing the well known glee “There is a letter in the candle.” Their singing was heartily enjoyed and they presented a very pretty appearance as they stood around together with their blanket coats and tuques.
"There is a letter in the candle" seems like a charming tune. I cannot locate a recording but there is sheet music if you'd care to try it out.

The passage also mentions part of the snowshoeist's uniform: Blanket coats and tuques. In full, the dress consisted of a white blanket coat tied with a sash, tuque, leggings and moccasins.

("Snowshoer running, Montreal, QC, about 1875." Photograph by William Notman. Courtesy of McCord Museum VIEW-1018.1)

Different clubs often distinguished their uniforms with particular colours of hats, sashes and leggings, as well as special epaulettes and badges. Happily, David Allan jr., who was a member of the Club, later drew a picture of a member of the Guelph club (1936/2012, p. 97):

The figure wears a dark blue tuque, sash, and leggings, along with red epaulettes and trim on his coat, suggesting that these were perhaps the Club markings.

Besides uniforms, showshoe clubs adopted other aspects of military organization. In addition to presidents and board members, clubs had Captains, Lieutenants, and Whippers-in, whose job it was to direct the other members during tramps. The Whipper-in job was take up the rear of the column and ensure that no one got lost or left behind.

Also, snowshoe clubs were predominantly male. Board members and officers of the Guelph Club were all men, which seems to be typical. There is no mention of women joining the tramps, although women certainly did go snowshoeing. In some clubs, women would go for shorter excursions or join the men for part of theirs.

("Snowshoe group, Mount Royal, Montreal, QC, about 1901." N.M. Hinshelwood. Courtesty of McCord Museum, MP-1985.31.182.)

Also like military units, the Club also held occasional marches. Perhaps the biggest one occurred in February 1886, when the Club marched around the downtown core and then led the way to the great toboggan hill on Evan Macdonald's farm (now the Cutten Club) (Mercury, 5 February 1886):

Last evening the members of the Guelph Snow Shoe and Toboggan Club assembled on the Market Square in front of the office of Mr. John Davidson, President, and formed a torch light procession. There were close on fifty members bearing torches, and about a score more without. The President took the lead, having his toboggan attractively decorated with Chinese lanterns. The route taken was along Macdonell to Norfolk Street to the junction with Woolwich, thence along that street to Wyndham. On coming along this street in single file, serpentine fashion, and occasionally shooting off rockets as they proceeded, the effect was very good and the appearance attractive. On reaching St. George’s Square the procession filed around the fountain and discharged a number of rockets, after which they proceeded down Wyndham and Macdonell streets turning at Bell’s factory, and proceeding along Market Square and the Dundas Road to the slide on Macdonald’s hill, where they enjoyed themselves until ten o’clock.
In the days before winter street plowing, a pair of snowshoes may have made parading down the city streets quite a bit easier.

Besides recreation, snowshoeing was also done competitively. As noted above, casual events occurred during club outings. However, national competitions were held at the annual Winter Carnival in Montreal. Members of the Guelph Club did not compete at this level, although one entrant with Guelph connections did well: G.M. "Dooty" Watt, who won the 200-yard race (Mercury, 26 January 1883), was a former student at the Ontario Agricultural College.

("Hurdle race on snowshoes, Montreal, QC, 1892," William Notman & Son. Courtesy of McCord Museum, VIEW-3147.0.)

Given the popularity of the sport, it wasn't long before photographers began to offer snowshoe-related backdrops in their photography studios. In winter of 1885, Guelph photographer William Marshall advertised that he had a "snow shoe scene" available, which must have appealed to club members and their hangers-on. Unfortunately, no photographs of the Guelph Club have yet come to light, although we can get a sense of what was on offer from portraits of showshoeists from other Clubs.

("Miss R. Hamilton and snowshoe, Montreal, QC, 1886." William Notman & Son, II-80085.1.)

The Mercury (12 April 1883) also mentions "a very fine" sketch of the members of the Club, excuted by Mr. Hetherington. Twenty-seven men were depicted and the work was "the best of the kind that has yet been produced in Guelph" and many photographs of it were taken. This work seems not to have survived but many Clubs of the era had similar portraits done.

("Toronto Snowshoe Club, in front of fountain, Queen's Park, at head of University Avenue," ca. 1884. Courtesy of Toronto Public Library, PICTURES-R-5289.)

Mentions of the Club seem to end after the 1887–1888 season. It's not clear why. Poulter (2003) argues that the sport enjoyed a vogue, in part, because its associations with Indigenous and French Canadian culture distinguished it from British sports like curling and American sports like baseball (much like lacrosse). Perhaps the continuing rise of ice hockey took some of the wind from snowshoeing's sails in this connection.

In any event, Guelphites and other Canadians continued to enjoy snowshoeing, as our postcard suggests. Of course, it continues to be a popular winter activity to this day. If you are a snowshoer, then please enjoy your next tramp! If not, then consider trying it out.

Works consulted include: