Archive for May, 2020

The Characters of Nelson

Sunday, May 24th, 2020


The Characters of Nelson


It seems like the City of Nelson has always had a unique collection of colorful individuals. In the early days there were people Like Colonel Lowery with his poison pen and newspapers. Then came folks like Wo Lee who fascinated the kids of Fairview and was wonderfully described by John Norris. Taffy Jack and Coal Oil Johnny were other characters of earlier times. Coal Oil Johnny was a neighbor to the Burns family. He lived up the mountain above the house and sometimes visited. That was before my time however. I guess my time to write about the Nelson oddballs was the 1950’s and there was no shortage then. Indeed.

Somewhere up by Mountain Station was Radio Bill. Every so often he would march downtown. He wore a kind of piece – meal military uniform with boots and ribbons and carried two staffs. He always walked straight upright in the military style. We often saw him on Josephine Street going past St. Josephs. I did not know him and never heard him speak but the kids of my age wove fantastic stories about his background.

In my Kootenay Street neighborhood, we had Paul and Mike Tickleball; two elderly Russians who we guessed were gay. They could sometimes be found sprawled out on the west sidewalk of Stanley Street between Latimer and Mill. They sang and laughed and propositioned little boys. We thought they lived out Cottonwood Creek by the location of the old city power plant. There were a few old bachelors out there enjoying their elderberry and dandelion wine.

Cheapie was a little Chinese man who wore a pith helmet and pulled a small wagon. He also carried around a Chicago Bankroll that was pretty fat but had to be mostly show. You could never get him to shed a dime and he was said to become irate if you pressed him. He was often seen downtown and on Vernon near the Liberty Market.

Merv Crosby roamed the downtown alleys looking for boxes he could peddle to stores or people. He often had a huge armload and had developed very creative ways of carrying them.

Cowboy Bill was missing his legs below his knees. It was said he lost them in a rodeo accident. He scuttled around on a mechanics cart and was quite mobile on paved and level ground. He lived in the riparian jungle on the CPR Flats near the mouth of Cottonwood then later moved to Shirley Beach. He fed himself from what he could glean from the dump which was right at hand. We fishermen often saw his track leading to the garbage of the day. Quite few hobos lived in the brush and big cottonwoods there. There was a family we called the Boyce Boys who it was said had a small farm or ranch near the little wetland and pond near where the Two Mile Pond sewage treatment plant  by Grohman Park. We couldn’t tell if the Boyce Boys were boys or girls because they all wore the same clothes and had short hair. Hank Coleman solved part of the mystery. He was landing his plane at the dump-cum- airstrip one day when he spotted one of the Boyce clan and Cowboy vigorously making love among the junk. I think the Boyce gang moved up Wildhorse Creek near Ymir where they shot a bobcat and had to appear in court in Creston. They walked all the way over only to be told their case had been postponed.

Then there was George. A fine gentleman who was often seen at Baker and Stanley by the Hudson’s Bay Store. He helped people cross the street and would often have a small conversation with you. He was around for years.

The best known character was my old pal Bruno Bourgeois. Bruno was very friendly and outgoing and loved by all. He could usually be found around Central School. Once I tried to talk him into breaking a window there. He threw a rock but the window failed to break. We tried at other times but he would give you a sly look and decline. He had a sister who was very close to him and she must have warned him about the bad boys of the neighborhood. He used to frequent Nelson Maple Leaf games and one night he got his call:  the public address announcer called for a doctor whose name sounded very close to Bruno’s. He was over the boards in a hot second and raced over to the players’ bench. He stayed there for about the rest of the period so the team likely realized what happened and were happy to go along.

Bruno was part of the fabric and charm of Nelson but eventually he got too old and was shuffled off to the Endicott home in Creston where he died a few years ago.

Spider Hansen was another one of a kind character. He showed up about 1955 and lived in a small house in the alley off the end of Mill Street. This alley runs from Carbonate to Latimer. He was a friendly fellow but had a rather short fuse at times. I remember one time Fred Goldsbury was teasing Spider after hockey. Spider started to fume and spit then threw a skate like a spear. It stuck into the dressing room wall just inches from Fred’s head. Skate guards were yet to be invented.

Spider loved to fish and would spend hours around the City Wharf and boathouses dangling some dough on a small hook to catch shiners or small chub. Once an eighteen inch rainbow raced into the school of shiners and grabbed Spider’s hook by mistake. Spider was in his glory. He put the trout on his bike handlebars and rode around town glorifying in his great catch.

Spider hung around the truck terminus to bum rides to fishing spots across Canada and one day failed to return to his pick up spot somewhere on the prairies.

The last time I saw him was perhaps 1968. I was hitch hiking to Nelson from Creston when I gave up and walked back to town. I hadn’t seen Spider for many years when suddenly he turns up. “Hey Teddy, let’s go for a beer”. That was one of his most endearing qualities: no matter how long it had been since you last saw him, he greeted you like it had only been a few days. We went in to the Creston Hotel and had a few before we took the bus back to Nelson sharing a six pack as snow caked the landscape out the window.

Goodbye old pal. I hope you found a spot where the rainbows are big and feisty.