Kelly Chamandy- Canada’s Last Bear Oil Salesman
If you’re a fan of old Westerns, chances are that you’re familiar with the snake oil salesman- the slick confidence man who rides into town with a cart filled with worthless patent medicines, falsely accredits his potions with curative properties, sells his wares to a handful of gullible customers, and hits the trail before his deception can be found out. This character derives from actual 19th Century American quack doctors who passed bottles of mineral oil off as genuine snake oil- a traditional Chinese medicine.
A few weeks ago, my friend, Kevin Guhl, while working on a fascinating research project that will knock the socks off the Fortean community, came across the tale of Kelly Chamandy, Canada’s most famous bear oil salesman. Chamandy was a 20th Century woodsman from northern Ontario who garnered international renown for selling bottles of black bear grease to balding men and women, alleging that his ursine pomade helped to reverse hair loss. Quite unjustly, I was quick to categorize him as a sort of Canadian snake oil salesman- an unscrupulous businessman who preyed on people’s hopes and fears in the pursuit of profit. A closer look at this most colourful of characters, however, reveals another picture entirely.
Kelly Chamandy was born in 1902 in the city of North Bay, Ontario, on the northern shores of Lake Nipissing. His father, A.K. Chamandy, was a Syrian peddler who named his son after his friend and neighbour, an Irishman who had treated him and his wife kindly upon their immigration to Canada.
When he was still a young boy, Kelly’s family moved 370 kilometres north to the town of Cochrane, Ontario, where his father opened his first store. There, at the age of six, while riding in a packsack on the back of a Cree Indian, he saw his first black bear- an animal around which his life would come to revolve.
The Fur Trade
When he came of age, Kelly headed to the woods of Northern Ontario and became a fur trader. His subsequent adventures formed the basis of many a tale, both tall and true, to which he would often treat visitors to his store.
One of these stories involved an incident that took place during a bear hunt, which Kelly undertook with a fellow fur trader and several Inuit friends in James Bay (the southern appendage of Hudson Bay). This was no mere black bear hunt, Kelly was quick to assure his audience. “Hunting blacks is a pushover,” he would say. “It is the polars and grizzlies which are a man’s job.”
On this hunting trip, while boating along the coast of North Twin Island (a large isle in the middle of James Bay), Kelly and his companions saw a huge polar bear with her cub walking along the shore. Brandishing spears, the Inuit disembarked with three of their dogs and prepared to hunt the mother bear the traditional way.
“A polar bear always lunges to the left,” Kelly told Don Deleplante, a writer for Maclean’s magazine who interviewed him in the early 1950s. “The Eskimos timed their thrusts for this movement which they knew would occur… The bear seemed to be on one man, then another, but always the dogs leaped in in time. The courage of the little men before the white monster was fantastic.”
One of the hunters finally managed to kill the bear by planting the butt of his spear into the ground and swinging the business end towards the bear as it barreled towards him. “The bear impaled itself on a blade two and a half feet long and smashed the haft with the force of the charge. The sons ran after the cub and killed it. The three laughed like madmen.”
Another tale with which Kelly would often regale tourists was the story of a wrestling match that he claimed to have won against a bear during a springtime business trip to a Cree village. While attempting to cross a steam, he leapt from a high rock to a ledge on the bank. Upon landing, he found himself sharing the ledge with an enormous grizzly which had been looming over the water with its paw extended, attempting to catch fish. The ledge was too high to jump from, and the bear was blocking the only exit. When Kelly cautiously approached the animal, it lunged at him.
For about thirty seconds, Kelly Chamandy- a burly, bearlike man himself, with broad shoulders and thick, muscular arms- grappled with the monster. Finally, he pressed his back against the rock wall behind him and delivered a two-footed kick to the bear’s belly, sending the bruin behemoth crashing into the stream below.
“Say,” Chamandy would say at the end of his incredible tale, “don’t believe that story about the bear fishing by standing watch over a stream and knocking the fish from the water by a sweep of its paw. A bear dives right in to get fish.”
Kelly Chamandy eventually established an independent fur trading post in the town of Moosonee, about twelve miles up the Moose River from James Bay. There, in the late 1930s, he met a tall, grey-eyed woman named Frances Violet Pullen. Ten years his junior, Frances was the daughter of a local railway foreman. Kelly courted and married Frances, and a year later, the couple had their first child- a son named Monty.
Misfortune and Disaster
About a month after Monty’s birth, Kelly Chamandy reported on the dramatic rescue of a 15-man French-Canadian survey team, the members of which nearly starved to death in the frozen muskeg country of Northern Quebec, having failed to find the food cache that had been prepared for them on account of heavy snowfall. Chamandy interviewed 32-year-old Leo Bernier, the most emaciated of the crew, while he lay on a bed in a Moosonee inn. Bernier’s account, which Kelly translated from French to English, was published in the January 3, 1938 issue of the Ottawa Evening Citizen.
A year and a half later, Kelly Chamandy had his own brush with disaster. In early July, 1939, Kelly, his wife Frances, and their 17-month-old son Monty- along with four Cree employees named Tom Linklater, Willie Isserhoff, John Wesley, and Alec Simion- set out on a fur-buying trip. They piled into the Kittiwake, a 40-foot-long fishing boat which Kelly had purchased shortly after his wedding, and headed down the Moose River into James Bay, bound for the Cree village of Attawapiskat. While they were on the water, a ferocious gale blew in from the north and inflicted serious damage upon Chamandy’s vessel. The crew was forced to abandon the craft and row for shore in a canoe. Although the seven passengers safely made landfall at a place called Partridge Creek, the Kittiwake was wrecked beyond repair, bringing $35,000-worth of Kelly Chamandy’s trade goods with it to the bottom of James Bay.
Six months later, Chamandy was hit with another misfortune: his family’s cabin at Moosonee mysteriously burned to the ground. By that time, war had broken out in Europe, and in order to both support his family (which would soon gain another member, baby Ulna) and serve his country, Kelly Chamandy enlisted in the Royal Canadian Air Force.
When he finally came home for good at the end of the war, Kelly Chamandy was bald as an egg. Taking the advice of his Cree friends, he began massaging rendered bear fat into his scalp and, lo and behold, his hair began to grow back! The state of his pate, his Syrian peddler heritage, and his wilderness experience gave him a brilliant idea which led to his entrance into an ancient, unconventional, and all-but-forgotten industry: the bear grease market.
Kelly Chamandy’s Bear Grease
From the mid-1600s until the end of the 19th Century, many wealthy Europeans anointed their scalps and greased their whiskers with the rendered fat of Russian brown bears, hoping that the tallow contained the same mysterious property which gave bears their thick winter coats. Antiquated though it was, this practice was by no means obsolete by the time Kelly Chamandy decided to enter the market in the 1940s. He promptly opened a store in the hamlet of Ramore, Ontario, located about 200 miles south of Moosonee, and began to make his own bear grease, rendering the fat of black bears he killed in the late summer or early fall, right before hibernation, in a washtub over his cabin’s wood stove. No sooner had he set up shop than his bottles began to fly off the shelf. In no time, Kelly Chamandy was selling his exotic commodity to clients from all over North America, the going price being $1.50 for an eight-ounce jar.
“I don’t claim that bear grease grows hair, nor cures aches and pains,” Kelly Chamandy once said of his pungent product. “But my customers claim it does. Who am I to call them liars?”
One Manitoba newspaper quoted him as saying: “I got bald as a billiard ball myself in the air force during the war, when I could not get the grease. Now my own hair is starting to come back. Maybe it’s the change of diet, but then again, maybe it’s the bear grease.”
Although Kelly may not have outright ascribed his bear grease with follicle-friendly features, he was not beyond dropping some not-so-subtle hints to the same effect. “Have you ever seen a bald-headed Indian?” he would often ask tourists, before explaining that natives from the prairies to the Great Lakes would often work bear oil into their long hair to make it shine.
Baldness was not the only ailment for which Kelly Chamandy’s bear oil was used to affect a cure. Customers also used the grease to combat rheumatism, arthritis, and muscle aches, and applied it as a lubricant, waterproofing agent, and conditioner to everything from fishing lines to boot leather.
Kelly Chamandy soon expanded his product line, becoming Canada’s only licenced purveyor of bear, beaver, muskrat, and raccoon meat. He sold his bear and beaver meat at 35 cents a pound, and retailed his untanned pelts for up to $25. He also sold bear gallbladders and left forepaws to Chinese merchants, bear bile and bear paw soup being rare and expensive ingredients in traditional Chinese medicine, as well as live black bear cubs, whom gas station, restaurant, and hotel owners purchased in the hope of attracting patrons to their establishments. Soon, Kelly’s profits allowed him to open a gas station, a trading post, a general store, and a museum, his main articles for sale and display being Inuit soapstone and ivory carvings which he purchased from his old fur trade friends.
The Giant Owl
In the spring of 1951, Kelly Chamandy offered a $100 reward to anyone who could bring him the carcass of an enormous black bird that had been harassing Northern Ontario livestock; apparently, he thought that the monster would make a nice addition to his museum. Ted Lind and Howard McDonald were two farmers who claimed to have seen the bird about 50 miles east of Timmins, Ontario (i.e. in the vicinity of Ramore). They described the bird as having huge talons, a hooked beak, jet black feathers, and the likeness of an owl, and claimed that it was four feet tall with a 9-foot wingspan. Lind suspected that the avian colossus had snatched up fish and meat that he had strung up beyond the reach of wolves; all that survived of his catch were the tattered remains of the half-inch rope from which he had suspended it. Chamandy himself maintained that the bird had yellow eyes “the size of silver dollars”, and was “large enough to carry off a small cow”.
Within a few days, Kelly Chamandy upped the bounty to $150 on the condition that the bird be captured alive. According to an article in the Pittsburgh Press, the entrepreneur feared that his initial offer would prompt locals to “commit wholesale slaughter of birds, shooting first and examining them afterwards”. To the best of this author’s knowledge, the fate of the monstrous bird remains a mystery.
The international attention garnered by his big bird bounty may have been the inspiration for a series of ingenious marketing ploys that Kelly Chamandy conducted in the 1950s, in which he sent bottles of his bear oil to famous public figures. In around 1951, for example, he sent a large bottle of bear grease to U.S. President Harry S. Truman, whose receding hairline had attracted his attention. “I got no answer from the President,” Chamandy once said of the scheme, “but the grease wasn’t returned.”
Later on, in 1952, Kelly sent a jar to U.S. Army General Dwight D. Eisenhower as an inauguration present (Eisenhower was elected U.S. President in the fall of 1952). He never received a reply.
Two years later, in the summer of 1954, Kelly sent a bottle of bear grease to Prince Philip, Duke of Edinburgh, whose hair appeared to be thinning. This time, he promptly received a Royal letter from the Honourable Michael Parker, the Duke’s Private Secretary, thanking him for his concern and assuring him that “there is no cause for worry”.
In the 1960s, the middle-aged entrepreneur relocated with his wife to the city of Kitchener, Ontario, in order to be closer to his two children, both of whom had moved there. There, he began selling some of his old Inuit art to high-end gift shops. “The prices I can get for this stuff today…” he remarked to a journalist, shaking his head in amazement. “I remember when my store was half full of it and I couldn’t give it away.”
On February 24, 1966, after successfully bidding for a truckload of abandoned bicycles at a police auction, 64-year-old Kelly Chamandy suddenly died of a heart attack, leaving behind his wife, Frances; his children, Monty and Ulna; and a legacy of happy customers with heads full of hair and hearts full of gratitude for the services rendered by Canada’s last bear oil salesman.
- “Reward Offered for Huge Bird of Prey”, in the April 17, 1951 issue of the Boston Daily Globe; courtesy of Kevin Guhl
- “Famed Ontario Trader Kelly Chamandy Dead”, in the March 3, 1966 issue of The Brandon Sun; courtesy of Kevin Guhl
- “Kelly Chamandy”, in the February 24, 1966 issue of The Gazette (Montreal); courtesy of Kevin Guhl
- “Come-back Seen for Bear Grease”, in the July 18, 1951 issue of The Gazette (Montreal); courtesy of Kevin Guhl
- “Lost Surveyors Rescued from Peril in North: Weak and Foodless Quebec Crew Cries With Joy When Flier Finds Them in Frozen Muskeg Country. Fifteen Men Lived 39 Days on Flesh of 14 Rabbits. Prayed for Help Since Food Ran Out”, in the January 3, 1938 issue of The Ottawa Evening Citizen; courtesy of Kevin Guhl
- “Make Escape as Storm Wrecks Boats”, in the July 11, 1939 issue of The Ottawa Evening Citizen; courtesy of Kevin Guhl
- “Mysterious Bird Four Feet High in Timmins Area”, in the April 15, 1961 issue of The Journal (Ottawa); courtesy of Kevin Guhl
- “Trader Dead”, in the February 28, 1966 issue of the Ottawa Journal; courtesy of Kevin Guhl
- “Sends Bear Grease to Philip as Hair Restorer”, in the March 28, 1955 issue of the Ottawa Journal; courtesy of Kevin Guhl
- “Bear Business Bad”, in the June 24, 1954 issue of The Ottawa Journal; courtesy of Kevin Guhl
- “$100 Reward Offered for Giant Bird of Prey” in the April 17, 1951 issue of The Pittsburgh Press; courtesy of Kevin Guhl
- “Worth $150 Mystery Bird Said Buzzard”, in the April 19, 1951 issue of The Windsor Star; courtesy of Kevin Guhl
- “Mystery Bird Four Feet Tall, Like Huge Owl”, in the April 17, 1951 issue of the Windsor Daily Star; courtesy of Kevin Guhl
- “You Can’t Beat Kelly’s Bear Grease”, by Don Delaplante in the April 1, 1953 issue of Maclean’s magazine
- “Kelly Chamandy: Bald Northerner Trader Sold Bear Grease Hair Restorer”, by Don Delaplante
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