Category Archives: Mariposa

What Happened to Josh Smith’s Hotel?

The next time I sat down with my host I asked him to continue the story of Smith’s Hotel. This is what he told me:

“When Josh died folks wondered what would happen to the hotel. They knew that Josh didn’t own the building, only the “inside” and the business. Nobody knew who did own the building; the tax rolls said it was a company, with the address of a law firm. While Josh was away Billy, the desk clerk, was running it, along with the local accountant, and they just kept on, waiting to see what would happen.

“Then one day an Indian showed up in town. He was a funny-looking young man, stocky, with a round face, and really thick glasses. He went to see Lawyer Macartney, and they went to see Judge Pepperleigh. Then they all talked to Billy and the accountant, and everything came out.

“Josh had had a wife, a native woman from Spanish, and they had a son, whose name was Hector, who may have been only half- but who looked whole-blood, and who was Mariposa’s newcomer. He now owned the “inside” of the hotel, and the business. And who do you think owned the outside? That was the real surprise. It had been Judge Pepperleigh, who took it before he became a judge in payment of a legal bill from the previous owner who went to jail anyway, and who gave it to Peter Pupkin and Zena as a wedding present. And Peter was in France and dead by this time, so Zena now owned it and, it turned out, a bunch of other real estate in town, because Pop Pupkin had been quietly investing on Peter and Zena’s behalf for several years.

“Now Judge Pepperleigh assumed that Zena, being a woman, would expect him to manage all this stuff, but she soon straightened him out, and Pop Pupkin backed her up, because he trusted her more than her old man, friends though they were. And these were, after all, her properties, all tidy and legal. She was a widow of substance, and she liked that idea. She also thought there was more money, and more interesting things to do, in the business than just in the building. So she sat down with Hector Smith, and they made a deal. They would put the building and the business together. He would run the bar, she would run the hotel and the restaurant, and they would split the profits. Billy stayed on, to teach them the ropes, and run the front desk. Eventually, after he married Sadie from the boarding house, they set up in a hotel of their own, but that’s another story.

“So there were Zena and Hector, in business together, and then after a while sleeping together, and then married with eventually a bunch of kids running around the hotel and helping out when they got old enough, along with Peter Junior, who was the “enchanted baby” you have read about, who didn’t stay enchanted forever but was a good kid and a fine man. He went to work for his grandfather, inherited the Pupkin empire, and did very well. He died just a little while back. Zena and Hector spruced up the hotel, brought back the café, toned up the restaurant, and turned the “Rats’ Cooler” into a games room. The tourists and the travelling people loved it.

“Josephine Smith, the mayor, who has it now, and runs it along with her daughter, is the daughter of Zena and Hector’s son, so she’s Josh’s great granddaughter, like I said, also Judge Pepperleigh’s. She’s a Smith by birth and by marriage, but her parents weren’t related. The hotel, as you know, is still called Smith’s Hotel. The name was good enough then, and it’s good enough now. It’s a fully modern place now, of course, but still has that old-fashioned feel to it. The rates are reasonable, and it’s always busy. Other hotels have come and gone and changed hands, but Smith’s Hotel carries on in the old way.”

“What about the other old Mariposans,” I asked, “the Drones, the Thorpes, the Bagshaws and the rest. Did they stay and thrive too?”

“Oh, some did, some didn’t. Like most places, the young ones move away, and new folks come in. It’s easy to say that the town has changed, but then, in a way, it hasn’t. The faces change, but the town changes the people behind them, and they all turn into Mariposans when they have been here a while. Everything on the surface has changed, but in behind, where Stephen Leacock never saw or couldn’t grasp, it’s just the same as it was in his day.”

When I heard this it didn’t take me long to decide that I would give Mariposa its due, in all its complexity, men and women too. I would tell its story the way it should have been told before. But I would do it for today’s Mariposa, and leave the old one alone. They were really the same, weren’t they? At least so I had been told, by someone who ought to know.

I would start by talking to a whole lot of people from every walk of life, and searching all the records I could find. I would build the story of Mariposa, and of Missinaba County, from the date of the 1911 election, when the old story ended. I have heard it said that that election was a changer. So it shall be for Mariposa, literarily speaking.

I’ll keep you informed as I go along.

Wish me luck!


Missinaba Conversation III: Stephen Leacock and Josh Smith

When I got back to my host’s place the next evening I found him in a towering rage.

“Why can’t people get things right?” he thundered, waving a book over his head. “I been reading this book, by Randall White, Ontario 1610-1985, A Political and Economic History, and mostly it’s pretty good, but then I come across this statement, on page 199: ‘In 1912 Stephen Leacock, by then a professor at McGill University in Montreal, published Sunshine Sketches of a Little Town — a gently critical portrait of small-town Ontario on the eve of the First World War’. Gently critical! How about ill-informed and savagely unkind! Imaginative, yes! Funny, yes! But gently critical? And then, on page 260, White calls Orillia ‘the original “little town” in Stephen Leacock’s Sunshine Sketches’. Nonsense!

“What did Stephen Leacock know about small towns? The only one he ever lived in was Uxbridge, for six months. He spent his holidays with his mother when she lived in Orillia for a while, before she moved to Sutton, and he bought a cottage there in 1908 or thereabouts. You don’t learn much about a place by having a cottage there, certainly not in three or four years. Certainly you don’t collect any right to be critical, even gently. He grew up in a village in England, for six years, and then on a farm in Georgina Township, for six years, and then he went to school in Toronto, at Upper Canada College of all places, and then university for a year, and then to Uxbridge, and then back to Toronto to teach at UCC, then to Chicago for more university, and then to Montreal, to McGill, for the rest of his life. He was a city boy, through and through, with just enough experience of the other places to cloud his awareness.

“But he knew what he was doing when he wrote that book. It’s about real people and a real place all right, despite what he said himself, but it’s not Orillia.  It’s Mariposa, right here, where we are now, and where my wife’s family and mine have lived for more than 150 years, right here on the edge of town. And the people he wrote about—Smith, Pepperleigh, Thorpe, Pupkin and the rest—they’re real people, but he didn’t know them, he’d just heard about them, and heard a little of their stories, so he took them, and added some more quirks and stories of other people he knew, or had heard of, and he made fun of them. They’re real people, all right, but the stories are mostly so made up that they’re hardly recognizable, except on the surface. It’s a funny book, and I enjoy reading it, but it’s not a nice book, and certainly not gentle.”

All this unfolded discursively over a whole long evening.“So tell me,” I asked, “what was Josh Smith really like? He was the big cheese in Leacock’s Mariposa; what was he in the real one, and what happened to him?”

“He was a medium cheese, one of many. He had one of the hotels, and he was in fact the fire chief. But he was pig-ignorant too, and a terrible braggart. Most of the stories the professor heard were made up by Smith himself, and he could tell them in a most entertaining way. Some people liked him, and he had a reputation for getting things done, but most of it wasn’t really deserved. Mostly when he got things done he had a lot of help. But the reputation and the issues in the 1911 election were enough to get him elected, and off he went to Ottawa, for all the good it did him.”

“Why, what happened?” “Well, because he couldn’t read or write he wasn’t cabinet material, in fact, they put him at the back of the back benches and forgot about him, so he spent his time testing the graft system and drinking, at about the same rate as always, but he wasn’t a young man by then. He put on about forty pounds, and when he came back from the first session he looked terrible. After a few sessions he came back in a box.”

“What happened to the hotel?” “Ah, that’s a long story, and a good one, but it’s late. Maybe next time.”

Missinaba County: Conversation II

When I got back to Mariposa after my holiday jaunt, I found my host as genial as ever, and quite pleased with himself.

“I been busy,” he said, after shaking me warmly by the hand and wishing me a happy new year, which I reciprocated with equal feeling. “When the snow started coming I fired up the old byte-box and tried to answer some of those questions you put to me when last we talked.

I was interested, and said so.

“It turns out that the population of Missinaba County is 88,500 people, and the area is 895,000 acres, or, as this fancy calculator my wife got me for Christmas assures me, 3,600 square kilometres, if anybody cares, which I doubt they do. People don’t farm in square kilometres, they farm in acres, and a few who like to sit on the cutting edge may do it in hectares. I suppose 3,600 square kilometres is some number of hectares, but I haven’t bothered to figure it out.”

“That would be 360,000,” I suggested.

“How about that! Anyway, I broke these figures down for our newly amalgamated townships, so we can see how it all fits together. Here in Mariposa, with the town and township put together, we got 17,200 people in 77,500 acres, or 142 people per square mile. Ain’t that something!”

I agreed that it was.

“Now Waterways, the big new township east of us, has 18,350 people in 103,800 acres, or 113 people per square mile, unless you lump Mariposa town in with it, as some damn fools insist on doing, and then you get 26,800 people and 63.2 per square mile, reducing Mariposa Township to 8,700 people, or 72 per square mile, making it more like South Missinaba and Simcoe Shores, if you follow me. Kirkfield and North Missinaba, the other two, now, they’re a different matter: 4,000 people for Kirkfield and a density of 23, and only 1,600 for North Missinaba, or 5 per square mile.”

My head was spinning. “So what happened to all those eighteen townships, Eldon, Fenelon, Ops and the rest?” I asked him.

“Oh, they vanished into a cloud of amalgamations, bureaucracy gone mad. Mind you, it could have been worse. The City of Missinaba, I ask you! That was a cunning piece of work done by our mayor, Jo Smith, to keep that from happening. She talked ‘em out of it, or bullied ‘em, or bribed ‘em, or blackmailed ‘em, I don’t know how it was done. All of the above, maybe. She’s a terror when roused, and she sure was roused about that. There was no way she was going to let that happen without a fight. She didn’t get all she wanted, but she did pretty well. And she kept the Mariposa name from disappearing. That’s what folks around here particularly appreciate. She’s got a lot of support.”

“She any relation to old Josh Smith, who had the hotel away back when, and was MP for Missinaba for a while?”

“Sure. She’s his great-granddaughter. Poor old Josh. He was a small-town giant, but the city was too much for him. All that booze and high life in Ottawa. It torpedoed his liver before he’d done his first term. Sad. He was a wily old bugger, and a bit disreputable, but not bad, really.”

“And all those other folks, Pupkin, Pepperleigh, Thorpe, Drone, the rest, are their stories known?”

“Sure. Stick around, and I’ll tell them to you, but not tonight. It’s late.”

Re-Casting Stephen Leacock: Why Bother?

Why all the fuss? It’s not simply because Stephen Leacock appropriated the name of Mariposa, which happens to be a real place not at all like the one he lampooned.

Some time ago I began to be deeply troubled by Sunshine Sketches of a Little Town. I hasten to say that my affection for Stephen Leacock survived this challenge unscathed, and kept me performing those of his pieces that I like best for that purpose. In 2014, indeed, we (that is, Leslie and I; see built an entire concert around him, as we have done before and will do again. The best of his pieces perform very well indeed, and our audiences enjoy them. We particularly favour some pieces from Nonsense Novels and Literary Lapses, both early Leacock collections. We do not perform anything from Sunshine Sketches, although Leslie has done so in the past, before we formed our partnership.

I became troubled because at first I accepted that the work was what so many people, even competent critics, believe it to be: a satire, or perhaps a caricature, of small-town Ontario life, even perhaps of a specific small town, Orillia. I thought that Leacock was behaving outrageously by savaging the people of the place, or the kind of place, where he enjoyed his summer cottage. No wonder the people of Orillia were angry. Anger would be the correct emotion against a city professor who used the superficial acquaintance formed by a few years of seasonal visiting and summer cottaging to ridicule the locals.

That was not my principal difficulty, however. Unlike Stephen Leacock, who was a farm boy from south of Lake Simcoe, I grew up in a small town: Huntsville, some 90 kms north of Orillia and just as typical. You might think I would therefore share his point of view. Yet in Leacock’s townspeople I found no one I could recognize. Leacock’s Mariposans are fundamentally stupid, or at least simple-minded, manipulative or manipulable, and instinctively corrupt. The people I grew up with, performing the same roles as Leacock’s people, had their peculiarities sometimes, even amusing ones. Some were more likeable than others, some cleverer or not so clever, but they were not stupid. A great many were admirable in diverse ways. In the light of my experience, what Leacock wrote was a protracted, tasteless “Little Moron” joke, and by making it possible for a well-intentioned reader to believe that he might have been writing about real people he knew or even were his friends, he turned a light-hearted literary romp into a nasty, mean-spirited, patronizing little book. How could he possibly claim that he viewed these people with affection when he had treated them so badly? How could he be surprised at their anger?

I am sure, however, that he did not mean to write that kind of book. I think that he simply meant to be funny, and that the caricatures came entirely from his prolific imagination. Unfortunately, he borrowed some names and a location for them, which was a mistake and bad authorship. It’s one thing to decide that some real people are funny, and to make public fun of them. To do that can nasty, especially when those people have done you no harm. It is quite another to invent some funny people and invite readers to enjoy their antics. Sunshine Sketches is a comic book, a cartoon, like the Astérix books, with no greater grounding in real people. Taken that way the reader can quite legitimately enjoy the humour for what it is, and even savour the occasional flashes of satire for what they are: comments on the foibles of us all and not only people in small towns.

If you want positive assurance that Stephen Leacock was not a nasty, mean-spirited little man and an often careless and erratic humorist, then read some of his other works, when he was not trying to be funny. Read The Unsolved Riddle of Social Justice, for example, or his essay “To Every Child”, or his economic works, savour some of what he says there, and note its relevance to today. He was a lot better political economist, a lot better social philosopher, and a lot worse humorist, than his common reputation would tempt you to believe.

I’ll back up this assertion in a subsequent article.

And you thought it all ended in 1911

A great deal happened between 1911, when Josh Smith of Mariposa won Missinaba County for the Conservatives, and 2011 when Jo Smith won it back for them. In fact, if you returned, or paid a first visit, whether for nostalgia, curiosity, or any other reason, you would hardly recognize the place.

But the sun still shines there, and the people are a little unusual, although not perhaps in the same way as all those generations ago. People change, local cultures change, children turn into parents who turn into grandparents and then along comes another lot, but when an author decides to write them up they get frozen in time, and in truth they are not. I’m here to set the record straight.

As a quick illustration, let me tell you about Josephine Smith, known as Jo. You might assume she was descended from Josh, and you would be right. You might assume that the politics of the family were unbrokenly Conservative from him to her, and you would be wrong.

When I tell you that Billy the desk clerk turned out to be Josh’s son by a woman from up north who died, and that Billy married Zena Pupkin (née Pepperleigh) after Peter was killed at the Somme and adopted their son Lancelot (who started out as the “enchanted baby” but didn’t stay that way), and that Lance who took the name Smith went through all the Pupkin money trying to keep the sawmill afloat during the Depression and after going broke signed up in time to lead his company up to the Leopold Canal but never got to lead what was left of it away from there, having beforehand married Elizabeth the daughter of Edward Drone who held Mariposa for the Liberals all during the Mackenzie King years and who along the way had married Miss Lawson the school teacher, so that John Henry Smith the son of Lance and Eliza could get himself radicalized at university during the 1960’s and join the Waffle and in collaboration with Rosemary Bagshaw without benefit of matrimony sire Josephine who moved out West where she fell under the political spell of Preston Manning and ended up back in Mariposa running for Stephen Harper in 2011 and winning, you will see right away that the political genealogy of Mariposa makes a lively story indeed and that a lot happened after the events recorded somewhat approximately by Stephen Leacock all those years ago.

Of course a whole lot of other things happened in Mariposa during the ensuing years right down to the present and still is happening, and in fact about the only part of Missinaba County that has remained constant over the years is the boundary.

If you read this blog regularly you’ll get the full story both as it was and as it unfolds, but in order to catch the unfolding you’ll have to start at the bottom and read up according to the natural way of blogs. I’ll do my best to make the act of starting at the top and reading down, according to the natural way of reading, an intelligible experience too.

I’ll make it all hang together somehow, in the true Mariposa spirit, according to the precedent set by the pioneer Smith speaking to the pioneer Bagshaw, or perhaps vice-versa, after the Rebellion of 1837, that if they didn’t all hang together they’d hang separately. Which they did not, although things were lively for a time. But that’s another story.