The Murals of Winnipeg, Manitoba, Canada: Murals
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2579 Portage Avenue    Location Map
  

Winnipeg's oldest known Mural has been a city landmark for decades, with an origin that dates back to the 1920's. This photo is of the modern day, current incarnation of the Long Tramp.


Location: NW corner Portage & Aldine; East Face

Occupant: Mode Leather; Envirothermics

District: Assiniboia

Neighbourhood: Booth

Artist(s): Leslie Charles Smith (1950's incarnation by Jack Andrews; 1977 restoration by Harry Schimke; 1994 restoration by Alfred Widmer)

Year: 1936

 

On the Northwest corner of Portage and Aldine stands what is unquestionably Winnipeg's oldest existing Mural and, for decades, a Winnipeg Landmark as well. The Long Tramp Mural has been like a beacon to travellers heading west from Winnipeg, probably back as far as the mid 1930's, perhaps even earlier than that.

John Steel (St James BIZ): "Carman Ruttan's drugstore stood out like a big sore thumb because it was almost all by itself. It wasn't called a drugstore- it was called an apothecary. There was nothing for development out there; you'd have to take the streetcar. The windows were always covered- you could never see inside them. The blackened windows added to the mystique. Going in there was an experience and it was because he used to mix up potions and make up stuff for poison ivy or drugs. You had to go inside the building to see what was on the shelves and to meet this old character. People went to him, he did really well he was there for a long time- perhaps 30 or 40 years. He put that long tramp on the side of the building because the next drugstore was in Portage la Prairie. It was a long tramp and 54 miles to the next drugstore. The original tramp was quite impressive it was tall, two stories high and you could come around the corner and see this great big tramp there."

Carman Ruttan was himself an icon; a herbalist and was very well known, and he had some fabulous remedies. Dexter Boyd (Manitoba Pharmaceutical Association) recalls that the store was a very dark place and smelled of organic drugs and herbs. In a correspondence dated 1994 to the present-day owner of the building, Bernice Sisler wrote: "As a child, some 65 odd years ago I remember that tramp as a landmark on the long drive that we made regularly from the north end of East Kildonan to visit my grandparents in Sturgeon Creek. This was done in a somewhat uncomfortable Model A Ford, winter and summer. Carman Ruttan was well known to my family most particularly for his poison ivy pills. I, for one, had poison ivy every summer until Mr Ruttan's pills were marketed. I suspect they were a precursor to antihistamines."

The earliest photographic record that we know of for the Carman Ruttan Tramp can be seen in photo 2. This photo was printed on April 6, 1942; and given that there is normally still snow on the ground at that time of year and the quite dry conditions in the photo, we think it likely this picture was actually taken in the previous year. Environment Canada's records show an 8 cm dump of snow in Winnipeg on March 28th in 1942, with a further 2.5 cm of snow on April 7th. In 1941, this building was pretty much off by itself, at or outside the city limits. In terms of dating the origin of the Tramp, we do know that Ruttan graduated with Honours from the University of Manitoba School of Pharmacy in 1919. According to the old building plans the original building was constructed in 1923. The Bernice Sisler letter, if her recollections are accurate, would date the Tramp Mural at least as far back as 1929.

The Carman Ruttan Tramp must have been close to 15 feet tall. The bearded tramp has a large nose and is holding a lit cigar or stogie in his left hand with the smoke billowing out from it. A spotted handkerchief hangs out of his left coat pocket. The coat has broad lapels and his hat has a small feather or other adornment on it. Upon closer scrutiny and enlargement of the photo, one can discern that his left big toe portion of his sock is sticking out of his shoe; and that the vertical strip on the wall between the window and the Tramp is an advertisement for Ex-Lax!

In the 50s and 60s, the Ruttans, or at least Grandma and her son and daughter-in-law and their daughter lived on Kane Avenue in St. James. In the 50s, Ruttan leased the building out to Jack Andrews for the operation of his pharmacy. The Jack Andrews incarnation of the Tramp may be seen in Photo 3. The Jack Andrews Tramp was also bearded; the hat and boots are slightly different; and his hand is in his pocket so that the buttons on the coat are visible. The lettering of the word 'it's' is also different that in the Carman Ruttan Tramp, as is the shroud around his head.

The Jack Andrews pharmacy still operates today although not at this location; with shops in Assiniboia and Charleswood. Jeff Nowatski (a current owner of the pharmacy): "The '83' in the phone number (see Photo 3) was for Vernon (i.e. the letters VE), which was the phone exchange. Back then all the exchanges were names like Whitehall, Golden and Alpha. As the population grew our number became 832-3456 which is still our phone number today!"

Dexter Boyd (Manitoba Pharmaceutical Association): "Jack Andrews became a tenant in the building and he liked the long tramp sign, which had become faded by this time. Mr. Andrews was a sign painter by trade also, so he repainted it! Pharmacists in those days would do their own signs, and Jack was quite talented at it. Eventually Andrews got into a dispute with Carman Ruttan about the tramp, because Ruttan wanted to be paid a royalty on the use of the Tramp; he saw that the Tramp was 'working' for Andrews. Andrews, on the other hand, had the feeling that he had brought the Tramp back to life and was already paying rent to Ruttan- he wasn't about to pay any more. That is certainly part of the reason that Jack Andrews moved out at the beginning of October of 1957."

In the late summer of 1957, Jack Andrews sent out a postcard picture of the Tramp to his customers. On the reverse side was the notation "The Tramp is Taking a Short Trip", meaning that the pharmacy itself (but not the Tramp) was relocating on September 30th to a new modern store at 2029 Portage, next to the St. James Dental Centre.

During this time, Carman Ruttan had relocated to a 2 storey glass and brick building at where the Kenaston Portage overpass now stands. When this building was expropriated for the overpass, Ruttan moved back to Aldine. Mr. Ruttan himself did not retire right up to the time of his death in December of 1973. Ten years previous, Ruttan had the end of the building expanded northward along Aldine. There was also an apartment set up on the second floor.

Al Jacks (Xuberance Financial Group): "My father, Donald Jacks, bought this property from the estate of Carman Ruttan. That location became our national headquarters for our chain of tax preparation offices (U & R Taxes). We thought it was a great location for the office; but there was also the sentimental value it held for my Father and the childhood memories of passing this building. My dad used to live in Brandon as a kid and he used to come in for Dentist appointments and he can remember that building standing on its own- it was the last landmark as you left the city. When we first bought the building we were approached by the media and asked if we were going to paint over it. No way! It's a historic landmark!"

"I was given the task of cleaning out the building. I found all kinds of old recipes, and racks and racks of bottles with stuff in them that didn't have names on them, only numbers- he must have used some kind of code system to keep his works a secret."

"The Manitoba Museum of Man and Nature came to the building and retrieved what was of historical interest to them, and then the bulk of his estate was donated to the Republic of China. Being a herbalist, there was much interest from that country as to his practice and they were very encouraging and were appreciative of his efforts and methods. I've been told that he used to make trips over there."

"We had Harry Schimke, my wife Evelyn's father, repaint the Tramp. (Ed note- Harry Schimke passed away Oct.3, 1998) He was a masonry serviceman that did bricklaying, but was also an artist and was willing to try his hand at repainting the tramp. We repainted it right away very soon after taking possession of the building in about 1977."

Donald Jacks: "I just loved the tramp. As a kid, I used to come into Winnipeg to see Manley Bowles whose specialty was in straightening teeth. Whenever I got a ride into Winnipeg in the 30's, I always watched for the Tramp; it was part of the whole attraction of coming to Winnipeg for me. Chapman & Chapman handled Ruttan's estate. I was so anxious to get ownership of that building for its historic and sentimental value to me. When we took over, the inside wasn't modern looking at all- it was still very quaint and it still had the old cage he sold from. We did put a new tramp up there but we didn't want to deviate significantly from the earlier one. It was fading and I wanted to restore it. Harry was a talented painter; maybe not so much for caricatures but more for farm and nature scenes." (Ed. Note- Donald Jacks passed away Friday Feb 12, 2010 at age 85)

The U & R Taxes version of the Tramp is essentially the current version. Schimke painted a lankier tramp that extends higher on the Wall than previous incarnations. Even the hat is a bit taller than those before. Both are visually consistent with the notion of the 'long tramp'. The stogie, missing from the Jack Andrews era Tramp, is back. The patches on the pants are new for the tramp, and a nice touch, we think. This new Tramp is clean-shaven, unlike the previous versions; and the type of footwear is more ambiguous. This hobo is walking in a patch of grass (there is no relief in either of the earlier versions). Like the Ruttan Tramp, the front buttons aren't visible due to his posture. Now that the building was no longer a drug store the reference to the drug store was switched to a reference to Portage itself. Portage was still 54 miles away, and it was still a long tramp (similar to those "last gas for x miles" signs) to get there; as well as acting as a highly visible BEACON for the store. The beacon became a landmark, and in 1994 the Long Tramp became a trademark. Brian Webb, who owns a refrigeration company called Envirothermics, is the present day owner of the building.

Brian Webb: "My wife and I bought the building in 1992. It was previously owned by the man that owned U & R Taxes. My wife wanted something along Portage Avenue, and we both really liked this one when we saw it. It had great potential for us and had great accessibility between all areas of the building. We put a substantial amount of money into getting it all fixed up on the inside that first year. The second year we started on the outside. We had plasterers and stucco people and contractors coming and looking at it. You wouldn't believe the number of people who stopped either in their cars or on foot and asked 'you're not going to remove that Mural are you'! I think we would've been tarred and feathered if we had! We didn't have any reason to remove it anyway, so I realized I wanted to have it restored professionally. So I got in touch with the city about this Mural that obviously had great historical value to the people or else we wouldn't have gotten so many requests about it. I wasn't able to get any funding from them but they did help me get publicity. We were also able to get in and secure the 'Long Tramp' trademark. My wife's real estate company is known as Long Tramp Holdings. My stepson Clint designed our logo and did the artwork for it, utilizing the Long Tramp image. The city also had the restoration notice plaque made for the wall that is there now."

"In 1994, the tramp had been vandalized a bit but it wasn't in bad shape. The project Chief was Alfred Widmer; the city recommended him to me. He had done the inside Mural of the old Bank of Montral building downtown. His two assisting artists were Mike LaBelle and Stef Johnson, who I remember was German. The wall was taped so there would be no damage to the Tramp while the stuccoing was done; and then the artists came in and did the restoration work (Photo 4) on the tramp which actually took only a day. The final result is that the Tramp and supporting lettering is an impression or indent in the stuccoed wall. It was revitalized; nothing was changed from when I 'inherited' it."

The Winnipeg Free Press sent Manfred Jager to do a piece on the Long Tramp. Immediately after the article appeared in print (October 5, 1994), Webb began to receive congratulatory correspondence from several sources. Bernie Wolfe, in a congratulatory letter from Heritage Winnipeg wrote: "I can remember seeing the Tramp on my way out of Winnipeg. At that time, it signalled the edge of the city. Our organization advocates the preservation and restoration of heritage buildings and sites, and over time the tramp has become a part of the city's heritage and we appreciate the work you have done to preserve this landmark." Webb also received a mysterious unsigned postcard from New York City with a picture of the statue of Prometheus at the Rockefeller Centre: "Thank you Mr. Webb for keeping the tramp in shape. He is always vivid in my mind when I think of Winnipeg. May he become as rich as the Rockefellers who keep this guy Prometheus rolling in gold."

2008 Update: In 2008, the identity of original rendering artist of the original incarnation of the Long Tramp has been positively made known to us as Leslie Charles Smith (Photo 6). Leslie painted the Tramp when he was approximately 21 years of age. Smith knew Carman Ruttan because his parents, Charles Smith and Annie Frances Smith, were customers of the store. Mr. Ruttan asked Leslie to paint the Mural, but it is unknown whether or not he received any form of compensation for doing it.

Leslie Charles Smith died March 19, 1983, but is survived by a daughter, Helen (Smith) Kamakani in California who has been helpful in providing us with a few more details about his life. Helen states that herself and all those in her extended family "have known of The Tramp my entire life, and I recall conversations from time-to-time about Dad painting it."

Helen Kamakani: "Dad was born October 23, 1914. He was born and raised in Winnipeg. My mother, Lillian (nee: Lloyd) Smith died in March of 2008 at the age of 92. At 92 she could still recall Carman Ruttan by name, though her vision was failing (so she was unable to see clearly a photo of the Long Tramp). She also recalled that her best friend received a cure from poison ivy from Mr Ruttan. The friend's name was Irene (Hazel) Watson, who resided in Winnipeg until her death in about 1999. Right up to her death, my Mother was extremely pleased and excited to know that Winnipeg places such significance on Dad's Tramp."

"My Dad was in the RCAF; he also worked for MacDonald Aircraft and Winnipeg Paint & Glass. My Mother was a nurse at MacDonald Aircraft and that is how they met. She did not know him at the time of the mural painting. My parents met in July, 1941; they became engaged in December, 1941; and they were married on May 1, 1942, in St. Giles Church. They first resided with my Grandfather (Harold Lloyd) on Boyd Avenue. I have a scrapbook that shows a picture of my Dad in uniform showing he was in the Air Force from 1942 - 1945."

"I was born in Winnipeg General Hospital on 5/16/47. In May of 1950 (when I was 3 years old) we were living on Rosewarn Avenue, and we were in a flood when the banks of the Red River overflowed. We had to leave our home for about 6 weeks and stay with friends. Even though I was only 3 at the time, I somewhat remember this happening. In December of 1950 we moved to California. My Father's father (Charles Victor Smith) worked as an electrician for the Police Department."

"In California my Dad operated his own business (Smith's Fuller Paint Center) in San Bernardino until his retirement. I know he was an excellent sign painter and artist. Unfortunately, my parents lost their home in a fire in 1980 (San Bernardino, CA), and so much (memorabilia) was lost."

For us, it's good to have the mystery solved of who the original artist of the Carman Ruttan Tramp was. For a time we had considered the possibility that the artist had been Ruttan himself, since a lot of the early druggists were also sign painters. This new information has carefully been considered and accepted by us. This new information has necessitated revising our way of thinking as to when the original Tramp was painted- several years later than we had originally thought; but our revised year of 1936 actually fits better with other known information. In the 1941 photo (Photo 2) the Mural seems too pristine if the painting had dated all the way back to 1929- if it was done in 1936 it would still be in good shape, as is the case.