Banner depicts history of York boats
A local artist and historian have teamed up to create a new banner to coincide with the Métis exhibit currently on display at the Fort Frances Museum.
Over the past few months, Wayne Barron and Merv Ahrens have worked together on the project, which depicts York boats—once used by the Hudson’s Bay Company to carry furs and trade goods along inland waterways between Fort Frances and York Factory.
Ahrens said the idea for the piece came up earlier this year at a planning meeting for the exhibit, “Our Local Métis Story,” which will be at the museum until late June.
“Later, in talking with Wayne, I said, ‘Here’s an idea. Are you interested?’ And he said, ‘Yeah!’
“So with his talents in painting, he took the idea, and I did a little research, and he did a super job,” added Ahrens.
The poster was painted on a vinyl canvas bought from The UPS Store, and the colours really stand out on the non-absorbent canvas, he noted.
“It’s larger than anything I’ve worked on before,” said Barron. “[And] it involved a bit of research.
“I went [to] Merv, consulted with him, got some archive photographs from the Hudson Bay Company, which I based those sepia pictures on,” he explained, pointing to two images on the poster which look like old photographs.
“We talked quite a bit about the layout of it,” Barron added. “We wanted it to flow through and not to be static.
“Once we had the layout established, it was a matter of doing it and deciding the text.
“I completed it just last week,” he said. “So it was many hours, but it involved a multitude of steps.
“I would do something, put it away for a while, and then come back.
“It’s not as if I did it all in a couple of days,” Barron stressed.
The poster depicts York boats, as well as a map and text describing some key points. Barron said he tried to convey the feeling of the era, such as having the map look like it was made of parchment.
“We wanted to make it simple,” he remarked. “To make it visually state what it’s talking about even before you read it.
“It’s about guys making an exciting trip in a big boat that is propelled in various ways.”
For about 40 years, from the 1820s to the 1860s, the York Boat was used to make annual round-trips between Fort Frances and York Factory on Hudson Bay, explained Ahrens.
These would be gruelling treks lasting 70-85 days and covering 3,600 km, he added, noting “that’s rather a spectacular distance.”
York boats carried furs to York Factory and trade goods to Fort Frances, hauling up to two tonnes in each boat.
A crew of six-eight boatsmen propelled the 12-metre long York Boat both by oars and canvas sail.
The poster notes that “the York Boat was superior to the canoe as a cargo carrier because of its larger size, greater capacity, and increased stability in rough water.”
“Portaging, however, was a difficult task. Far too heavy to carry, the York Boat was dragged on log rollers over rocks, through swamps, and up inclines of 350 metres,” it also says.
Ahrens pointed out that rather than “paddlers” which would propel birch bark canoe, York boats had a crew of “pullers”—called so as they pulled on the oars, as well as pulled the boats over rocks and other terrain.
Ahrens said Hudson Bay Company records include the names of steersmen, pullers, and bowsmen who made the trek to Hudson Bay.
Some of the last names include Augee (1825), Jordain (1830), Guimon (1832), Mainville (1834), Langlois (1835), Boyer (1836), and Sayer (1837)—names still familiar around these parts.
The piece is a banner that pulls up from an aluminum base. It can be easily moved and safely stored away if need be.
“This is a very fine piece that will be displayed in our permanent gallery upstairs once we take down the Métis exhibit,” noted museum curator Sherry George.
“We’re very grateful to both gentlemen for this collaboration,” she added.
Ahrens noted that after a while, it’s possible Voyageurs National Park across the river might have an interest in it as the York Boat story also is relevant on the Minnesota side.