Edmonton was already in its teen years before author Tony Cashman was even born, but that didn’t deter him from dredging up some folkloric gems like the Indiana Jones of local history.
Having already published more than a dozen books on local history (Gateway to the North, Vice Regal Cowboy and The LSD Story), Cashman must constantly have his nose out for new vignettes and snippets of our province’s rich biography.
He might be in his 80s now but he still writes with force and verve in this new collection. When Edmonton Was Young sounds like it sticks to the Capital city’s toddlerhood but in the later chapters the book actually dips its toes into the later waters of the 1970s and 1980s. Semantic points aside, this would still make a good coffee table anthology with some decent photographs, fresh from the provincial archives. I’m not a huge fan of the colourized view of the Legislature building (as seen from the High Level Bridge around 1913), that graces the cover though. Everything else is black and white thankfully.
Part of what entranced me about the writing is that Cashman often ends his stories what seems like miles away from where they began, even though it’s just a matter of a few pages. For instance, “The Brewer’s Tale” actually begins with a tidbit about Capt. Joseph Crownover, the American pilot who gained his renown after the bombing of Japan in the Second World War. Apparently he was famous but not around these parts, until word got around about who he was and that he had to make a stop at the City Centre Airport. The fact that he was on a mission to transport a secret cargo helped to bring a measure of public attention his way.
It turns out the secret cargo was a lot of beer. From here the author explains with succinct perfection why, as he writes, “Beer is the only Edmonton tradition to be upheld by the Supreme Court of Canada.” It’s true and he explains why by using the example of Bohemian Maid, the city’s first brewery. Because of this, the book is chock full of trivia and little facts all fleshed out into proper reading material.
Of course, Edmonton doesn’t sit alone on the Prairie: it has neighbours. Cashman references St. Albert, Morinville and Legal on occasion to give a broader perspective on regionalism. He relates one story about Lucien Boudreau, nicknamed “the little Napoleon of St. Albert” probably both for his height as well as his feistiness. Boudreau once finished a political debate and then engaged in a fistfight with a heckler afterward. He was also apparently the only person to vote against suffrage for women when it came through the legislature in 1916.
The only thing that I didn’t like about Cashman’s prose was that he occasionally included individuals by their last name only on the person’s first appearance in different stories, as if he had already provided their full names. It’s a small point that stopped my reading dead in its tracks while I tried to figure out whom he was talking about. This minor impediment to readability aside, the book was pretty satisfying, educational and fun.
When Edmonton Was Young
by Tony Cashman
University of Alberta Press