Getting a grip
Historian grapples with origins of wrestling in Manitoba
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Hey there, time traveller!
This article was published 14/05/2016 (2570 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.
My grandfather loved watching wrestling on television. I never asked him how he became such a fan. Now that I’ve read Lakehead University history professor C. Nathan Hatton’s book, I think I know.
Hatton describes the popularity of wrestling amongst the “floating population” of young single labourers who lived and worked in Manitoba in the 1880s and 1890s, and my grandfather was certainly one of those men.
Thrashing Seasons: Sporting Culture in Manitoba and the Genesis of Prairie Wrestling is a great book. Hatton presents the history of wrestling in Manitoba in a readable, accessible style, but with all the footnotes and references that make the book a solid academic history. He has published another book and a number of articles on the history of wrestling and sport in general. But he’s not just a cool, detached academic — he wrestles and lifts weights recreationally.
The book traces the history of the sport and how it changed as the city and province evolved through the years. Especially enjoyable is the way Hatton reveals wrestling as a truly universal sport. Starting with the wrestling culture of First Nations and Inuit peoples in the territory we now call Manitoba, he continues his narrative with the voyageurs and trip men of the fur trade era. He introduces us to the many Manitoban practitioners of the sport who came from different ethnic backgrounds, and shows how the wrestling mat was a place where the different groups met and interacted — perhaps, in some cases, for the first time.
Polish, Japanese, Danish, German and Icelandic and many others all brought their particular wrestling cultures to Manitoba. Icelandic Glima wrestling, in which the contestants grasp each other at the waist and try to throw their opponent, is one example.
Thrashing Seasons introduces a long line of Manitoba grapplers, as they’re called in the book. First came the wrestlers who originated in English Ontario. Two of the earliest were Ed and Jack McKeown, all-around athletes in the rough-and-tumble Winnipeg of the 1880s. Ed owned the Nickel Plate Hotel on Main Street, with its attached gym where he presented wrestling matches. The McKeown brothers were often in jail, convicted of assault and other crimes.
This sort of atmosphere was what many people didn’t like about professional wrestling. Set against it was the clean amateur version promoted by the YMCA, founded in Winnipeg by J.A.M. Aikins and R.D. Richardson in 1879. The Manitoba Amateur Athletic Union worked with the Y to promote amateurism, which tended to be the middle-class version of sport. Hatton shows how the two schools of sport clashed throughout the period of the book. He also shows how the barriers between the two worlds were not always hard and fast.
One of the most interesting chapters deals with wrestling in the Canadian Army during the First World War. Hatton has published on this topic before, and his work is a valuable contribution to our understanding of the role of sport in that terrible conflict.
In the 1920s we meet Jack Taylor, a heavyweight wrestler who achieved star status in Winnipeg and revived interest in the sport. Hatton also describes how the Winnipeg police and the One Big Union Athletic Association played major roles in promoting wrestling during the decade. He argues that interest in wrestling, along with most other live entertainment, declined as a result of the introduction of talking pictures late in the 1920s.
Thrashing Seasons is an important addition to the cultural history of Manitoba and Winnipeg. It’s also a tribute to a fascinating group of athletes who provided Manitobans with many, many hours of entertainment.
Jim Blanchard is a local historian.
C. Nathan Hatton launches Thrashing Seasons tonight at 7 p.m. at McNally Robinson Booksellers.
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