Group photo, likely Young Rangers Band members. Seen here are John and Alice Keefe, Mr. and Mrs. Lord, Lydia Saunders,  Mike Tuohy, Mrs. Atkinson, Alice Olsen, Marjorie Loper, Albert Atkinson, Sophie Anderson, Mrs. Hougen, Andy Anderson)[~1940] family old black and white children kids. (Lakes District Museum Society photo/Lakes District News)

There’s a race of men that don’t fit in

When “the Bard of the Yukon” wrote these words in 1911, he could easily have been describing pioneer Mike Tuohy of Tatalrose

Mike Tuohy

There’s a race of men that don’t fit in,

A race that can’t sit still;

So they break the hearts of kith and kin,

And they roam the world at will.

They range the field and rove the flood,

And they climb the mountain’s crest;

Theirs is the curse of the gypsy blood,

And they don’t know how to rest.

— Robert W. Service, “The Men That Don’t Fit In”

When “the Bard of the Yukon” wrote these words in 1911, he could easily have been describing pioneer Mike Tuohy of Tatalrose. By all accounts, Tuohy was also a man apart.

Tuohy’s early life is a mystery. According to cemetery records, he was born Sept. 10, 1871, in Minnesota. Some locals who knew him say he was a well-educated man from a wealthy family; others claim he only had four days of schooling in his entire life, and his Irish-American parents were middle class at best.

Physical descriptions of the man also vary. Arthur Shelford of Ootsa Lake described Tuohy as a burly man, while another pioneer says he was six foot two inches (1.87 m) tall and weighed no more than 190 pounds (86 kg). The few surviving photographs of Tuohy, all taken late in his life, suggest that the latter is more accurate. All who knew him agree, however, that he had an unruly shock of grey-white hair that stood up from his head like a granite monument and was always full of hayseed.

“He’d probably get his hair cut about once every two years,” said William Bickle. “They [Indigenous people] used to call him ‘the Wild Man.’”

The man from Minnesota made his way to Hazelton in 1908 aboard the sternwheeler S.S. Port Simpson, and from there walked to the Lakes District. He homesteaded in Tatalrose not far from Bickle, where he raised barley and pigs.

In 1918, Tuohy brought the first threshing machine to the land between the lakes. Barney Mulvany, whose forebears also hailed from the Emerald Isle, claimed Tuohy drove the outfit from the American Midwest, threshing his way across the prairies over seven years. Historical records suggest Tuohy had already been a permanent resident of this area for a decade when he bought the machine in 1918, so the story could well have been another of Mulvany’s tall tales.

Tuohy likely enjoyed it, as he was fond of exaggerated yarns. Old-timers say he was the region’s tall tale champion until bested by a man named Joe Lougheed. “He stayed with me and lied far into the night,” Tuohy said of Lougheed’s performance. “In the morning, I primed him with a cup of coffee, and he lied until noon.”

For the better part of two decades, Tuohy and his threshing machine were a familiar sight throughout the Lakes District. During harvest time, he towed the machine from homestead to homestead, processing grain for a fee or share of the crop. He regularly traveled as far as the Shelford farms at Wistaria, and in 1927, hired Frank Gale to ferry his thresher across Francois Lake to the property of Charles Hunter.

Tuohy was a little rough around the edges and subscribed to some rather odd beliefs. He had a superstitious dread of poplar trees, believing that Christ had been crucified on a cross made of the wood, and he refused to enter any building that contained even a sliver of it. He had an Irishman’s robust dislike for the English too, but occasionally conceded that the Brits had some redeeming qualities.

After returning from a trip to the Mayo Clinic in 1926, Tuohy told Arthur Shelford that the English could be proud that the Mayo brothers came from England. The admission must have pained Tuohy greatly, because it was at least fourteen years before he made a similar pronouncement about British tenacity during the Second World War.

If there was one thing Tuohy disliked more than Englishmen, it was bathing. Soap and water were not his friends.

“He had a little log shack with a sod roof and dirt floor,” said Alma Bostrom Allen, whose family lived nearby. “There was a hinged opening on the door so the cats (he had a lot of them) and pigs could go in and out at will. Talk about dirt and smell … I think the only time he ever had a bath was when he went to the hospital and they force-bathed him, [and] the only time he washed his hands was when he worked at our place. Dad told him mother would not allow him at the table unless he washed.”

His housekeeping skills were on par with his hygiene.

Tuohy was fond of muffins, which he made from scratch using bran pulled straight from a sack stored in one corner of his cabin. One year, he had butchered a pig in his home. He’d had the foresight to remove the hide, head, and entrails, but could not be bothered to clean up the animal’s hair. The rodents that shared his accommodations made a nest in the sack of bran and lined it with pig hair.

Not long after, Tuohy invited some of his neighbours over for a work bee. In honour of the occasion, he baked a batch of muffins.

“These aren’t bad, Mike,” said one man, reaching for a second helping of home baking. “What’s in them?”

“Bran,” Tuohy replied nonchalantly, “salt, baking powder, pig hair, and mouse shit.”

It was also rumoured that he strained cow’s milk through his dirty socks.

Although he regularly consumed things that would have incapacitated a lesser man, Tuohy’s preferred fare was meat and potatoes. Shelford said that Tuohy once contracted an ailment that necessitated a visit to a medical specialist. During a subsequent examination, the doctor enquired about Tuohy’s diet.

The Irishman responded by saying that he ate a pound (450 g) of steak and some spuds three times a day.

The physician initially did not believe him, but Tuohy was adamant that his diet consisted of steak and spuds. At length, the good doctor accepted the statement, then made a point of introducing his colleagues to the man who ate “three pounds of meat a day.”

Tuohy’s appetite never failed to impress. One old-timer stated that in the early years, bachelors in the area around Grassy Plains would travel to Hazelton in a group for supplies. Upon reaching this destination, Tuohy would invariably go to the Hudson’s Bay Company store and purchase a bottle of rum. After emptying about half the fiery liquid, he would ask for a half cup of melted bacon grease, which he then consumed to “cut” the rum. Fortified in this manner, the eccentric settler would proceed to the nearest restaurant and order three T-bone steaks and a half-dozen boiled eggs.

Given the stories about him, it would be easy to write Tuohy off as ignorant and opinionated. While he could be both, he was also well-read, articulate, kind, and generous to a fault. As the muffin story attests, he could be sociable when the occasion called for it, yet was introspective by nature and comfortable in his dirty skin.

He also had a special gift that allowed people to forgive his many shortcomings and eccentricities.

The pig farmer was a poet.

Tuohy wrote long ballads comparable in style and quality to those of Service. Most were about people and places he knew, though occasionally—as evidenced by a piece entitled “The Glass of Water and the Glass of Wine”—they were more philosophical in nature.

Tuohy could recite his compositions from memory and regularly did. This made him immensely popular in a country short on entertainment.

“There was nothing Mike liked better than to recite at a party or a dance,” said one pioneer. “When Mike got ready to recite one of his poems, if a pin would drop—and Mike had ears like a black bear—he’d stop right there and call for quiet. Everything had to be absolutely quiet so Mike could put all his expression, everything, into what he was saying.”

Yet even people starved for culture could take only so much of Tuohy’s ballads, some of which had more than two hundred verses. His most famous poem, The Hazelton Trail, made mention of almost every settler in the region, and was a staple at community events. But it was long—so long that the master of ceremonies at an old-timers’ banquet in 1944 limited Tuohy’s recitation of it to 150 verses. The author, according to those in attendance, was not impressed.

Few of Tuohy’s original compositions survive, but those that do are testament to his intelligence and literary skills. He had fans across the North. The Observer and the Smithers Interior News regularly reported on his “engagements,” referring to him as “the Walt Whitman of the Lakes District” and “the Poet of the Trails.”

“The 480 acres owned by Mike Tuohy shows that although Mike is the poet of the district, his rhyme-making has never interfered with the improvement of the land,” wrote the Interior News in March 1921. “However, he is anxious to spend a summer in the big hills, where he can consult the Muses, annoyed by no one, and with a boon companion who will have sense enough to smoke and keep quiet; where, as Mike puts it, ‘the silence can be distilled.’”

Ill health forced Tuohy to sell his ranch in Tatalrose and relocate to a small cabin in Burns Lake, where he continued to write poetry and remained a familiar figure in the community. Members of the local Elks Lodge held him in such high regard that they smuggled him out of Burns Lake Hospital in August 1948 so he could watch a baseball game.

The “Poet of the Trails” died in the Allco Infirmary at Haney, BC, on Sunday, April 3, 1949. His mortal remains lie in the Maple Ridge Cemetery, but his soul lives on in his poetry. Somewhere, he and Service are still holding audiences spellbound.