Friday, February 27, 2015

Black History Month: A Fourth Look at Whiskey Advertising

February as Black History Month has, year by year, brought to the fore individuals, organizations, activities and events that have helped shape the Nation.  My feeble contribution has been to resurrect vintage whiskey advertising that depicted blacks and to provide some analysis of the illustrations and dialogue evident in those commercial appeals.  My first post on the subject, for anyone interested, was in January 2010.  The second in February 2011 focused on the depiction of African-American waiters.  The third post demonstrated that since the 1960s distillers and liquor dealers have taken different racial attitudes.
For a time those posts exhausted my supply of relevant images.  In the ensuing three years, however, I have been able to collect other examples.  For this post I have grouped them around three themes:  1) The use of what apparently was believed to be black language patterns, 2) the depiction of children, and  3) blacks shown at an occupation.  For last I have saved an illustration that, at least for me, was startling.
We recognize that generations of hardships imposed on the African-American community created distinctive language patterns. Slave owners often intentionally mixed people who spoke different African languages to discourage communication in any language other than English. This, combined with prohibitions against education, led to speech patterns that whiskey interests at the turn of the century apparently thought would have advertising value.
The first example here is from the Schuetz-Renziehausen wholesale liquor dealers of Pittsburgh, an outfit founded about 1880.  It was a highly successful enterprise, occupying an eight-story building on Liberty Street. Frederick C. Renziehausen also became a major distiller of Pennsylvania rye whiskey.  A trade card illustrates two well-dressed black youths who are riding in the back of a wagon driven by a similarly well-dressed adult and pulled by a mule.  The wagon carries a huge bottle of whiskey.  One of the boys is remarking to the driver:  “Golly Boss, der will be no Bellyache dis trip — its ’Diamond Monogram.’”
The second example has the center black figure similarly enthusiastic about the whiskey he is carrying, in this case “Star Whiskey.”  He is remarking “It ‘zactly suits dis chile.”   The ad identifies the spirits as a whiskey distilled and warranted pure by C. L. Dixon of Cynthiana, Kentucky and names a New York distributing agent named W.B. Crowell Jr.  Seen her in a multicolor chronograph, the same trade card was issued in black and white.
The next ad features “Old Harvest Corn whiskey.  The picture is of a black couple sitting in a cabin in front of the fire.  The woman has a small baby on her lap who reaches eagerly for a whiskey bottle.  She is saying “He’s gittin’ mo’ like his dad every day.”  But there is a second message in this scene as the sign, meant for saloons, indicates that Old Harvest Corn “was the cause of it all.”  Are we to assume that whiskey was involved in the conception of this child?
Unlike the three previous examples, all of which were issued prior to 1920 and National Prohibition, the final ad organized around a speech theme was issued after Repeal, probably in the late 1930s.  It has a waiter theme.  The faithful retainer here is offering “Dere sho’ am a run on dis Gibson celebrated rye whiskey.”  Note how the diction changes when the text gets to the product name. 
My second theme is the use of sub-adults in such ads.  We already have seen several youngsters.  Here are three more, led by a small black boy with an ax who is menacing a chicken.  It was issued by the National Distilling Company, an outfit that bought up distilleries and stocks of whiskey during Prohibition and by the mid-1930s was vigorously merchandising its products.  The message here is confusing, seeming to identify the boy with Carrie Nation, the axe-swinging anti-alcohol zealot who had been long in her grave.
Although many of the youngsters shown are smartly dressed, the kid shown above is the real dude.  He wears a straw hat, a checked coat, a cravat, a vest and striped pants.  This dandy is saying in small letters on the base:  “I take Old Continental Whisky!  What do you drink?”   Note that this young man is speaking “The King’s English.”  This trade card was issued by the Bernheim Brothers of Lexington, Kentucky, whose ads did not always treat blacks subjects with the same respect.
The final youth is carrying a signboard, both front and back, a job that was not uncommon in that day but less so today.  His sign advertises Kentucky whiskeys from a B. Kaufman and touts “Old Liquors for family use and medical purposes a specialty.”  Although no location is indicated on this trade card, my research indicates that Bernard Kaufman was a wholesale liquor dealer in business from 1880 to 1890 at two addresses on Washington Street in Indianapolis, Indiana.
Now we move to adult blacks seemingly engaged happily their respective occupations.  The first is the label of a post-Prohibition whiskey called “Cotton Picker Corn Whiskey.”  It depicts an elderly gentleman in the South standing amidst a field of fluffy cotton — definitely an idealized picture. The Old Quaker Company that issued it, however, existed north of the Mason-Dixon line in Lawrenceburg, Indiana.
Another whiskey that celebrated a happy black worker was “Singing Sam” brand of Kentucky corn whiskey.  The label illustration is a figure playing a banjo with notes streaming from his mouth while he leans against a pile of wood that he likely just chopped.  This post-Prohibition brand was issued by a Kentucky distiller named Artie Cummins.  He had purchased what was left of an abandoned distillery at a worker village called Athertonville, rebuilt the plant, and operated it until 1946. .
The final worker is also our only female, clearly looking very well after a squalling infant.  Among the messages on this trade card is that the liquor is:  “Emphatically…’The Whiskies of our Daddies.”  Maybe that is why the baby looks so distressed.  My considerable research about “Old Maryland Dutch Whiskey” has revealed nothing about its origin except a claim that it was distilled on the Eastern Shore of the state.
The saloon sign for Hapstone Rye that ends this post still has me scratching my head.  It appears to show a smartly dressed gentleman of color standing with a white woman with a low bodice who is eyeing him intently while in the midst of hiking her dress to fix a stocking. The sexual implications are evident. This was one of many pre-Prohibition brands from the Samuel Westheimer Co. of St. Joseph, Missouri. Given the anti-miscegenation laws in place in the South, one wonders what point Westheimer was trying to make with this image and how it was received. 
There they are: eleven whiskey advertisements, including trade cards, newspaper notices, bottle labels and saloon signs  — all depicting American blacks.  If issued today most would be readily identified as racist — or at least distasteful.  Distain, however, should not blind us to such images. They remind us of a past we should never, never forget.   

Saturday, February 14, 2015

Watch Famous People Open Bottles with Their Teeth

                                                                                                                                Well, not exactly.  Most of the faces shown here at one time really DID snatch the caps of beer, wine and soda bottles.  That is what they were designed to do.   They are in the tradition of the varieties of cast iron openers that I featured as “vernacular art” in a post in June 2011.  That article has had the most “hits” of any on this blog (2,440 as of this date). One difference is that the openers shown below all sport the faces of famous people, including national leaders, politicians, artists and one rock star.  Moreover, these openers are available for purchase from their creator.

His name is Stephen Maxon and he maintains a website called “Max-Cast Sculpture and Foundry Services.”   Shown here, Maxon provides a whimsical story about himself along with a few salient facts.  He has a master’s in fine arts (MFA) from the University of Iowa, he belongs to the American Craft Council, and his work has been shown in galleries scattered from New York to California.  Of himself he concludes:  “After years of study and toil, Maxon renounced his MFA to become an outsider artist.  Finding casting much less difficult than bending steel bars with his teeth, he developed new ways of melting medal via thought control…After making and losing several fortunes, he currently lives in a trailer in rural Iowa receiving messages from outer space in his dental filings.”
As noted in my 2011 post, figural bottle openers are a post-Prohibition phenomenon, meant to be attached with screws through holes in the ears to a vertical wooden surface. A bottle of beer or soft drink can be inserted into the mouth cavity, pulled down and the cap removed.  In dealing with the famous subjects of Maxon’s vernacular art, I have decided that, rather than dwelling on their careers, to examine their beverages of choice and when possible provide their recipes (in bold).  The first personage shown here is Joseph Stalin (1878-1953), the brutal dictator of the Soviet Union from the mid-1820s until his death.  As might be expected, Stalin’s drink of choice was vodka.  Legend has it that his father used to give the baby Joseph a cloth soaked in vodka rather than a pacifier.  As adult Stalin is said to have imbibed vodka daily.
The next face is that of Mohandas Karamachand Gandhi (1869- 1948), the preeminent leader of the Indian independence movement in British-ruled India.  A strict vegetarian, Gandhi is said to have favored “nourishing and non-violent drinks like juices and squashes.”  He found intoxicating drinks abhorrent and a social malice because he believed they acted as deterrents to humankind’s inter purification and spiritual evaluation.  On the other hand, there is some evidence that like other Hindus he may from time to time imbibed his own urine. 
The man with glasses sporting a hat with crossed sabers is “Rough Rider” Theodore Roosevelt (1858-1919), the 26th President of the United States.  Teddy liked mint juleps, using fresh mint from the White House garden.  He reputedly used the promise of that drink to entice Cabinet members to play tennis with him.  Roosevelt’s recipe: 10 to 12 fresh mint leaves crushed in sugar water,  2 or 3 ounces of rye whiskey, 1/4 ounce of brandy, stirred and garnished with fresh mint sprigs.  

Maxon also has featured painters of note.  Shown here are two faces of Pablo Picasso (1881-1973) one painted and one left plain.  As for the famous artist’s drinking habits, I will quote something Wiki Answers gave to the question ‘Was Picasso retarded?’. The reply: “Picasso was not retarded. Picasso was drunk and high on absinthe, which gave him great inspiration for his work. Though, his absinthe addiction also drove him to insanity.” Picasso’s reputed last words were: “Drink to me, drink to my health. You know I can’t drink anymore.”

Although Picasso probably would not have enjoyed having his mouth used to decapitate bottles, his colleague,  Salvador Dali (1904-1989), below, would do almost anything to get his face and figure before the public,  apparently believing that any kind of publicity was good.  He invented a drink he called the “Casanova Cocktail.”  The recipe: One tablespoon of Campari bitters, one teaspoon of powered ginger, six tablespoons of brandy, and a pinch of Cayenne pepper. Combine the ingredients and put in the freezer.  After 30 minutes remove the contents and add the juice of one orange.  Stir and drink.  
Of this concoction, Dali claimed: “This is quite appropriate when circumstances such as exhaustion, overwork or simply excess of sobriety are calling for a pick-me-up. Here is a well-tested recipe to fit the bill. Let us stress another advantage of this particular pep-up concoction is that one doesn’t have to make the sour face that usually accompanies the absorption of a remedy.” 
Elvis Presley (1935-1977), although presumably the victim of a drug overdose, has the reputation of not being a regular drinker of alcohol.  His favorite beverages are said to have been Pepsi Cola and Mountain Valley Water.  The facts not withstanding, several alcoholic libations have been invented in the memory of the King of Rock and Roll.   One Elvis Presley Cocktail was unveiled recently on the 80th anniversary of his birth.  The recipe:  One ounce of vodka, 3/4 ounces of hazelnut liqueur, 3/4 ounce of Bailey’s Irish Cream, and 3/4 ounce of creme de banana.   Pour the ingredients into a shaker tin with ice.  Shake well and strain into an old fashion glass with ice.  The assumption is that this drink will taste just like a peanut butter and banana sandwich.  That was Elvis’ favorite.  
Other Maxon creations can be discerned from the final illustration showing a range of personalities in painted cast iron.  Among them I recognize Ronald Reagan, George Bush,  John Kennedy, Richard Nixon, and maybe George Romney.   The artist sells these bronze polychrome bottle openers for $83.00 each.  With a door knocker tongue inserted they are $94.00.  He also features other sculptures in cast iron and bronze, the bottle openers being among the least expensive.  One creation called “Bonsai Bass” fetches $4,500.  You can buy a Maxon opener and a whole lot of beer for that outlay of cash.

Friday, January 30, 2015

Charles Darwin and “The Monkey’s Uncle”

My father was a confirmed believer in evolution, often referring to “our ancestors the fish.” .  By contrast my father-in-law found the idea of a primate ancestor thoroughly disgusting and rejected it, unwilling to believe he descended from “a monkey’s uncle.”  We have a son who is an evolutionary biologist.  Because evolution is a frequent topic of conversation in our household, it seems appropriate to devote a post to Charles Darwin, shown above, whose 206th birthday the world celebrates on February 12.

Although Darwin was a thoughtful, serious scientist who made a monumental breakthrough in human thinking,  his revolutionary ideas were often ridiculed by skeptics and, at the time, made the subject of satirical cartoons and other illustrations.  In many cases, the monkey was at the center of such lampoons.  Darwin himself frequently was depicted as a monkey by cartoonists and illustrators.  

Because, through horrific circumstances, a French satirical magazine has been much in the news of late, I thought it appropriate to begin with a picture of Darwin as a monkey that appeared in 19th Century French publication “La Petite Lune” (The Little Moon).  It shows the scientist as a monkey wearing shorts, a tail over one hairy arm, hanging from a tree labeled “Tree of Science.”  It is believed that this image by artist Andre’ Gill was published about 1871, not long after Darwin had published a major work, “The Descent of Man.”

In that book, Darwin had argued that humans and monkeys share a common ancestors, a conclusion that many found hard to swallow.  The cartoon left portrays Darwin as a money, again with his human head.  He is shown holding up a mirror to a monkey sitting next to him and apparently showing the animal how much they look alike.  Appearing in Figaro’s London Sketch Book of Celebrities in 1874, the caricature was accompanied by two quotations from Shakespeare:  “This is the ape of form,” from Love’s Labor Lost and “Some four or five descents since…” from All’s Well That Ends Well.  Some have seen this as particularly demeaning to Darwin on the grounds that the monkey should be showing the mirror to the scientist, not the other way around.

The next cartoon at left is in the same vein,  Darwin’s head on a monkey body, apparently researching the large and protruding bustle on a tall woman whom he seems to be addressing.  While the message conveyed there is somewhat cloudy, the intent once again is ridicule the British biologist and his theories of human evolution.  Although the cartoons shown above have shown him with more or less human hands and feet, the image right has endowed him with chimpanzee-like digits.  Note that he appears to be grasping in one paw, a scroll.  This is apparently a reference to his writings on the “descent of man.”
Earlier, after the publication of “Origin of Species” by Darwin in 1859 and more particularly an article entitled, “Vegetable Mould through the Action of Worms, with Observation of their Habits,”  Punch, the satirical London magazine, in 1882 published on its cover a cartoon that depicts the scientist as ancient sage watching as worms evolved into lizards, lizards into monkeys,  monkeys into sprites and cavemen, culminating in the figure of a British dandy.  Even though the figure of Darwin himself is human and not monkey, the purpose of Linley Tambourine’s cartoon clearly is to ridicule his theory of evolution.
A satire on Darwin could be made into a cartoon puzzle.  Shown here is a picture that contains no fewer than 13 animals in a illustration that accompanied an advertisement for British manufacturer of  boots and shoes. Call the “Monkey’s Tea Party,” the viewer is challenged to find a portrait of Darwin amidst the tumult.  It is not hard.  He can be found upside down on the right center of the picture.  

Spoofing Darwin could be put to mercantile purposes beyond the boot trade in England.  Merchant’s Gargling Oil, sold as fit for man and beast, found a natural foil in Darwin and his theories.   Its Victorian trade card shows a gorilla-like beast pouring the gargling oil on his leg while intoning a quatrain:   “If I am Darwin’s grandpa, It follows, don’t you see, That what is going for man and beast, Is doubly good for me.”  I say old chap, devilishly clever, don’t you think?”
The final cartoon here is a satire on the satires.  It was penned by Chris Madden, a cartoonist whose work is frequently found in the pages of Philosophy Now magazine.  He has copied almost exactly the image of Darwin shown above, put him into tree and added a second figure behind asking “What about me?”  The other man-monkey would appear to be Alfred Russel Wallace, the British scientist who jointly deserves credit with Darwin for conceiving the theory of evolution through natural selection.  Wallace did not face the same level of ridicule as the elder scientist.

We cannot be sure what Darwin’s responses were to these images in his lifetime, but from the perspective of our times we know that the last laugh truly is from the scientist, not his detractors.  Although some elements of his theories of the origins of humankind have been challenged, shown to be flawed, or corrected,  Charles Darwin (with Wallace) were on the right track and he deserves to be ranked among the great thinkers of historical time.

Saturday, January 17, 2015

Beer Inside a Glass -- But No Drinking Please

Certain industries and trades seem to have had a predilection for issuing glass paperweights to advertise their wares.  In the past this blog has featured weights from  ambulance services, steamships, cigar makers, the liquor trade and soft drinks.  Now comes beer.  In reality breweries usually chose other forms of advertising than glass weights, but a few pre-Prohibition beer manufacturers did issue them.  Over the years I have been able to assemble a number of examples to post;  some are from well-known breweries, others from more obscure enterprises. 

The first set are grouped around paperweights that illustrated the breweries themselves.  The first shows the extensive plant of the Philip Best Brewing Company in Milwaukee, a complex  only a few blocks from where once I lived.  By that time, however, it had become the Pabst Brewing Co. The immigrant Best family, led by Jacob Best Sr., founded a brewery on the site shown above. When Jacob retired about 1853, he sold the business to his son, Philip, thus the name on the weight.  A lake boat captain named Capt. Frederick Pabst married Philip’s daughter and in 1866, with Philip’s retirement, took over management of the brewery, eventually changing its name to his own.
The next weight, identified as the yard of the Empire Brewery, shows the fire company, the cooper’s shop and the pitch department. It may also been issued by the Best/Pabst brewing dynasty. The company’s downtown Milwaukee facility was at one time known as the Empire Brewery.   The illustration, however, looks nothing like that facility.  Moreover, there were Empire Breweries not just in Wisconsin, but also in New York and Pennsylvania.  Like the preceding item, this weight can be dated back to the mid- to later 1800s.  Note that all the wagons are horse-drawn.
The third depiction of a brewery is a domed glass weight from another famous beer-maker,  Schlitz.  Joseph Schlitz began his brewing career a a bookkeeper in a tavern brewery owned by August Krug.  After Krug died, Schlitz married his widow and changed the name of the brewery to the Jos. Schlitz Brewing Company.   By 1902 he and his successors had built it into the largest producer of beer in the the United States  When Schlitz died in a ship disaster in 1875, Krug’s nephews took control but kept the name.  The Schlitz complex shown on the weight was located on Milwaukee’s East Side, near the Milwaukee River.
The second set of weights notes a prevalence of horses.  The James Hanley Brewing Co. of Providence, Rhode Island, memorialized Prince Alert, a horse that had set a harness racing record for a mile run.   Hanley had begun his life in commerce as a liquor dealer but about 1877 with a partner he took over an existing Providence brewery.  When the partner died two years later, Hanley carried on.  Circa 1886, he changed the name to the one on the weight.  After time out for Prohibition the company was still in business as late as 1957.
George W. Wiedenmayer featured a horse and rider on a weight, this to advertise his Chevalier Beer.  Wiedenmayer founded his brewery in Newark, New Jersey, in 1878 and it operated for eighteen years, closing in 1896.  That makes it possible to date the item with some precision.  Unlike most of the other glass weights shown here, this one can be identified by maker.  It was the product of the Abrams Paper Weight Co. of Pittsburgh.  That firm had developed a process of two-color printing on glass that made their ads more resistant to the effects of time than those printed on paper.
The Metz Brothers were among the first brewers in the state of Nebraska, having been established in Omaha in 1861, subsequently moving to another, larger site. Their brewery became one of the biggest in town and claimed to have “no equal in the country.”  The Metz brothers also ran a beer hall in Omaha to which the suds were hauled fresh from the brewery by horse cart.  Just why the Metz Bros. chose to show a woman being bucked off a mule for their paperweight is not clear, unless it was to show just those little bits of thigh and bosom.
A third paperweight theme was birds.  The Geo. Walter Brewing Co. of Appleton Wisconsin, featured a duck, a variety that may only have been an artist’s fancy.  Like the family that was responsible for Best/Pabst, the four Walters brothers emigrated from Germany but rejected Milwaukee for upstate Wisconsin which, it is said, reminded them of their home in the Black Forest.  Each of the Walters brothers became involved making beer.  George Walter purchased two adjacent breweries in Appleton and combined them to create his own brewing complex.  The business appears to have ceased with Walter’s death in 1899.
In 1859 the Eagle Brewery was established by John Ebner on Indianapolis Avenue in Vincennes, Illinois.   It operated under his management until 1875 when it was sold to Eugene Hack and Anton Simon.  They kept the name and added an eagle logo identifying their flagship brand.   Hack and Simon successfully operated the brewery for decades.  They were producing 18,000 barrels of beer a year and maintained five wagons and twelve head of horses for their local trade.  In time they established five refrigerated beer depots in towns in Indiana and Illinois.  The brewery was shut down by Indiana prohibitionary laws in 1918 and apparently not reopened in 1934 after Repeal.
The next weight displays wing creatures that are not really birds but mythical beasts called griffins.  They are displayed rampant on a backdrop of barley stalks and hops to advertise the F. Bartels Brewing Co. of Cincinnati, Ohio.  This item can easily be dated since F. Bartels opened in 1898 and closed only two years later.  The suspected cause of this early demise may have been bad beer or just plain bad luck.   Bartels had the misfortune of being one of 84 breweries in the city so that competition was ruthless.  Many of the city’s saloons were tied to one of its breweries and outside brews were not allowed inside those swinging doors.  
John A. McAvoy began his entrepreneurial career running a tannery in South Haven, Michigan.  Having tired of processing hides about 1864, he sold out, moved to Chicago,  and looked for a place to put his cash.  There he met H.V. Bemis who talked him into partnering in a brewery he was establishing at 24th Street and the Lakefront.  They called their enterprise McAvoy & Bemis Brewing. Their flagship beer was McAvoy’s Malt Marrow. I find this beer weight particularly interesting because despite its age, it has retained its bright multi-colors.  Note too the boy with a dog holding a bottle:  In those days kids sold beer. 
The final object in this showcase is a solid blown glass weight from the C. L. Centlivre Brewing Co. of Fort Wayne, Indiana.  An enterprising Frenchman from Alsace, Centlivre built his brewery on the banks of the St. Joseph River. a mile north of the city.  Improving and enlarging those works from year to year by 1880 he was employing twenty workers and could turn out 15,000 barrels a year.  An 1889 fire destroyed his bottling plant and adjacent boat house but Centlivre quickly rebuilt “on a magnificent scale,” according to a contemporary account.  His facility was known to residents of Fort Wayne as “the French brewery.”

There they are, eleven paperweights in a wide variety of motifs.  Some remind us of those pre-Prohibition days when even small cities and towns, like Appleton, Fort Wayne, and Vincennes  could boast a local brewery, turning out fresh lagers and ales for the locals.  And sometimes rewarding customers with beer under a glass — not in it.


Thursday, January 1, 2015

Remembering Robert Service on His 104th Birthday

Who is this man, Robert W. Service, that his portrait and name should be emblazoned on the label of a Canadian beer bottle and repeated on a bar coaster?   Why would an English-born bank clerk, wannabe cowboy, and cat house gofer be so honored?  The answer to this rhetorical question:  Because he wrote two of the best loved poems in the English language.   

Robert William Service, whose 140th birthday we celebrate on January 16 of this year, began life in Preston, Lancashire, moving to Scotland as a child where eventually he was employed in a Scottish bank.  Struck with wanderlust, when he was 21 he traveled to British Columbia, Canada, reputedly owning a Buffalo Bill outfit and dreams of becoming a cowboy.  Shown here in maturity, Service drifted around North America, living in Mexico, California (site of the bordello) and returned to Canada where he found work as a teller in a Vancouver bank.
All the time Service was writing verses.  It was only when his bank sent him to the Whitehorse branch in the Yukon, however, that he found his true calling.  Whitehorse was a frontier town, less than 10 years old.  Located on the Yukon River, the settlement had begun as a camp for the prospectors on their way to join the great Klondike Gold Rush of the late 1890s.  Service’s housing became rustic cabins in the forest.   Although the mining fever had subsided and mired in the stolid world of banking, the poet listened avidly to stories of that wild and rowdy time and dreamed of having participated.
Returning from a walk one night, Service heard the sounds of revelry from a saloon, and the phrase, "A bunch of the boys were whooping it up" popped into his head. Inspired, he ran back to the bank to write it down (reputedly almost being shot for a burglar).  By the next morning "The Shooting of Dan McGrew” was complete:
A bunch of the boys were whooping it up in the Malamute saloon;
The kid that handles the music-box was hitting a jag-time tune;
Back of the bar, in a solo game, sat Dangerous Dan McGrew,
And watching his luck was his light-o'-love, the lady that's known as Lou.

This poem has inspired many illustrations, re-printings and even a play or two since it was penned since it was written well more than a century below.  My Father, for whom it was a favorite piece of verse, could recite it from memory, often with dramatic embellishments to an audience of youngsters.  In a low growl he would intone the final words of the menacing stranger who had entered the saloon:  But I want to state, and my words are straight, and I'll bet my poke they're true,That one of you is a hound of hell . . . and that one is Dan McGrew.”  No matter how many times I heard him recite that line, it never failed to give me goosebumps.

It was only about a month later that Service wrote the second poem that would make him world famous.  He heard a Gold Rush story from a Dawson miner about a man who cremated his companion in the Yukon cold.  The yarn fevered the young bank clerk’s imagination and he spent the the night walking and composing the verses in his head.  The next morning he wrote it down from memory and called it the “Cremation of Sam McGee”:

There are strange things done in the midnight sun
By the men who moil for gold;
The Arctic trails have their secret tales
 That would make your blood run cold;
The Northern Lights have seen queer sights,
 But the queerest they ever did see
Was that night on the marge of Lake Lebarge
 I cremated Sam McGee.

My Father also could make this poem come alive in his rendition.  He made you feel the misery of the Southerner, Sam, in the cold Arctic air “moiling for gold.”  Before he dies Sam makes his mining pal promise to cremate him.   To keep the promise that miner finds a suitable place in a derelict ship rotting on the shores of the icy Lake Lebarge.  He stokes the boiler and stuffs in Sam’s body:
Then I made a hike, for I didn't like to hear him sizzle so;
And the heavens scowled, and the huskies howled, and the wind began to blow.
It was icy cold, but the hot sweat rolled down my cheeks, and I don't know why;
And the greasy smoke in an inky cloak went streaking down the sky.

Father’s recitation from memory made these lines particularly dramatic, drawing out the zzz’s in “sizzle” to elicit shudders as did his dwelling on the phrase, “greasy smoke in an inky cloak.”  It was almost like being there.  Despite the lugubriousness of the earlier lines, Service’s poem ends on a humorous note, as the narrator looks into the flames to see what has happened:

And there sat Sam, looking cool and calm, in the heart of the furnace roar;
And he wore a smile you could see a mile, and he said: "Please close that door.
It's fine in here, but I greatly fear you'll let in the cold and storm—
Since I left Plumtree, down in Tennessee, it's the first time I've been warm.”

My Father always addressed those lines with a smile and pronounced “calm” as “ca’m” such as a Yukon miner might.  Many more famous people, like Johnny Cash, have been recorded reciting “The Cremation of Sam McGee,”  but I will always remember my Dad’s stirring rendition. 

It was Service’s own father who was responsible for his poetic fame.   When Robert had collected enough poems he sent them to his senior, who was then living in Toronto.  He wanted a few booklets published for friends.  The elder Service gave them to a local publisher who immediately saw their commercial value and printed them as “Songs of a Sourdough.”

Service’s book was an instant hit with the public, meriting multiple printings in Canada, the United States and England.  The London publisher went through 23 printings by 1910 and 13 more by 1917.  The poet eventually earned in excess of $100,000 (equivalent to $2.5 million today) from just this one book, published in the U.S. under the title, “The Spell of the Yukon and Other Verses.” Service’s poetic works never achieved literary approval and were often disdained by the critics.  He himself called them simply “verse.”

Robert Service pursued a variety of interesting activities during his 84 years, including publishing novels, articles and many more poems, but it was the burst of creativity that he achieved in a two month period in Whitehorse that have caused him to be quoted and remembered year after year.  It is amazing how quickly he composed the two poems.  He himself said about “Dan McGrew”: "For it came so easy to me in my excited state that I was amazed at my facility. It was as if someone was whispering in my ear.” Remember too this was just after someone had tried to shoot him.  Service continued: "As I wrote stanza after stanza, the story seemed to evolve itself. It was a marvelous experience. Before I crawled into my bed at five in the morning, my ballad was in the bag.”
Devoted fans who want to visit the home place of Robert Service in Scotland can see a memorial, shown here, one that the poet  himself erected to his family in Kilwinning, Scotland, where he was born.  Service, however, lies buried elsewhere.  In his latter years he and his wife lived in France where he died in September 1858.  Shown here is Service’s gravestone in the village cemetery of Lancieux in Brittany.  Unlike his creation, Sam McGee, he was not cremated.