If you lived during the era when cigarette advertising was allowed in Canada, you’ve probably heard of the Marlboro Man. Who was the Marlboro Man? And why is that name so familiar to most people? Did they name a town after him, and if so, why? What does this have to do with western Canada? All this and more in today’s bog post.
The Marlboro Man advertising campaign for Marlboro cigarettes was one of the great advertising successes of all time. I read online that Marlboro, a filtered cigarette, was originally produced by Philip Morris & Co. as a woman’s brand of cigarettes. In the 1950s, as filters became more common, the company found that most men didn’t smoke Marlboro because it was considered unmanly to be smoking a woman’s cigarette. While other cigarette brands were advertising the health benefits of their particular filter, Philip Morris & Co. accepted the recommendations of their advertising agency and ignored advertising health benefits of filters (as compared to no filter). Instead they went to a masculine image of the New Marlboro cigarette. The company tried various masculine images such as sea captains, construction workers and weight lifters. In 1949 they discovered that a Texas cowboy image worked best. Within a year, Marlboro’s market share rose from less than one percent to the fourth best-selling brand. Eventually they discovered a genuine, larger than life, Wyoming cowboy by the name of Darrell Winfield, who was their Marlboro man for the next 20 years.
Most of the Marlboro men didn’t have long lives due to their smoking. Darrell Winfield died in 2015 but his advertising career ended in 1989 when the serious health effects of smoking became too well publicized to ignore. Winfield was the main Marlboro man for Philip Morris and Co. There are no more Marlboro men, at least not for Philip Morris & Co.
The Real Marlboro
Do you think that Darrell Winfield was the real Marlboro Man? I ask this of myself and my readers because there is a place, west of Edmonton, that is also called Marlboro, it’s even spelled the same way. Alberta’s Marlboro is also known for smoke; not the smoking man on the packages of cigarettes but a tall smokestack that had, years ago, billowed smoke that could be seen from great distances away. Two Marlboros, both known for their smoke, but do they both have a Marlboro Man? Maybe.
If you drive straight west of Edmonton on the Yellowhead Highway you may spot a curious thing. There’s a tall smokestack protruding 56 meters through the thick forest and muskeg. No smoke is rising from the tall structure but clearly it did at one time. Most people drive past it dozens of times, or more, with barely a thought before continuing on their journey to Jasper or beyond. But we won’t drive past it; we’ll slow down and pull into the tiny community of Marlboro to explore around that smokestack. There is some history here to be discovered so lets have a look around and see what is on the other end of that smokestack.
Marlboro was the location of the first cement plant in Alberta. It was built in 1913 by the Edmonton Portland Cement Co. The site seemed ideal because it was close to deposits of marl and the railway which would be necessary to haul the product to Edmonton. Many, or even most, of the early century buildings in Edmonton were built with cement from this plant. The marl of Marlboro could be used as a livestock feed supplement, as treatment for acidic soils, or in cement. Cement consists of calcium carbonate and silica. At high temperatures these two components fuse together to form solid blocks. The blocks are crushed into a fine powder that we call cement. This is mixed with water, sand and gravel to form concrete.
At the beginning of this century, Edmonton was going through a major development boom. Projects like the High Level Bridge and the Legislature Building required large amounts of cement, which had to be shipped in from Ontario at high cost. When marl was discovered by railway workers at the Marlboro site in 1910, the people of Edmonton thought they had found an inexpensive alternative to the Ontario cement. With a large deposit of marl and nearby silica and coal to heat the kilns, the plant was expected to be a great success. Well known and wealthy Edmonton businessmen, like George Bulyea and Henry Marshall Tory, invested a total of three quarters of a million dollars in the cement plant. Unfortunately, the plant never did as well as expected because the nearby silica was unsuitable and there was too much competition from other cement plants. The plant was closed in 1931 and all that remains are the towering smokestack and the foundation walls of the old buildings that are now being overgrown by trees. The marl, which gives the nearby town of Marlboro its name, still forms and can be seen clearly from the edge of the highway.Cementing our Knowledge of Geology: Edmonton to Cadomin. Page 93.
Note that a slightly different ending is stated at the University of Calgary’s digital archives as a description of a photograph of the plant, “The plant operated until 1931 when it was purchased by Canada Cement and subsequently shut down.”
The closure of the cement plant wasn’t the end of Marlboro’s industrial history. A lumber mill opened on the site of the old cement plant not long after the plant closed. I don’t have any details about the lumber mill but I’ve heard that the lumber mill was the source of the abandoned vehicles on the site.
Images by Glen Bowe
I think I can guess where the teenagers of Marlboro spent their free time. These locations for parties or just hanging out with friends may have been as unhealthy as smoking a Marlboro cigarette.
Even a massive smoke stack must have a lower door to clean out the built up ash from whatever was burning in there. I used a black and white image because this makes it easier to read the year and manufacture of the door. In colour it becomes more difficult to see the details, especially with all of the graffiti.
What About the Marlboro Man?
So now that we are approaching the end of this post, you may well be asking, “what’s the deal with the Marlboro Man?” There really was a Marlboro man but he was not an actor or just a pretty face for advertising, he was a real man who spent a lot of time at or near the real town of Marlboro.
I learned about this man from a book published in 1914. The forward to the book was written by The Right Honourable Earl Grey, Governor-General and Commander-In-Chief of Canada, 1904-1911. He explains that he was in Glasgow in January, 1913 when another guest at the house he was staying at was seen reading a letter from J.B. Bickersteth. Grey asked if he could also read the letter and found that Bickersteth was describing in detail his activities in the wild west. In this case the wild west meant the area west of Edmonton along the Grand Trunk Pacific Railway and especially at the construction camps for the cement plant at Marlboro. Here’s a quote from The Earl Grey:
I was so impressed and fascinated by the letter that I begged to be included in the list of those who might share the pleasure of reading future letters from the same pen. That privilege was granted to me and I can honestly say that few pleasures enjoyed during the year 1913 exceeded that of reading these letters as they arrived.Forward by Earl Grey, pages VII and VIII
Bickersteth’s letters make up the rest of the book. I thought it would be a stuffy old account that is as difficult to read as a Shakespearean sonnet. I couldn’t have been more wrong. First the book was thick but that’s largely because the paper for the pages is at least double the thickness of modern books so in reality, at 264 pages, it’s not that long. Also, Bickersteth is neither stuffy nor priggish, although he was an early century lay missionary for the Church of England. His main goal seemed to be to bring magazines and newspapers to the men staying in the railway construction camps including the construction camp at Marlboro. His purpose was to try and give the men something else to occupy their minds, when not working, besides gambling and drinking. Of course as a lay missionary he was called upon to do funerals and other such tasks but he was foremost a man to help other men be better examples of themselves. Bickersteth was quite disturbed when he saw how they lived in the camps but his presence certainly seemed to influence the men for the better. Here’s an example of what he encountered in the camps and note that he would often be assigned to the better bunkhouses because of the respect for his position and the positive influence he had on the men. In this quote Bickersteth describes his search for a bunk for a night or two. He just finished supper and is walking down by a row of barracks to find a place to sleep for the night.
“How’s chance for a bunk, boys?”
“Mighty poor, I guess we’re full up.”
I said nothing, but began distributing magazines and illustrated papers.
“Say, I guess I haven’t got the price for these papers,” said one; “how much?”
“Well, what do you know about that? Say, you’re not such a bad guy either.”
I told them what my work was.
“Now, why didn’t you say that before, Parson? Why, Sure there’s room. I guess you can double up with Harry. He looks after the lamps, and he’ll be in presently.”
I wish you could see those men. They came in covered with mud from head to foot, and proceeded to divest themselves of their wet boots and socks and overalls, which they hung up from every conceivable corner. Some put on dry socks, but most stayed with bare feet. The floor was soon as muddy as it was outside, with men coming in and out, and, of course, everyone spat where they wished. When you see the conditions under which these men live, you could hardly be surprised if the outlook which many of them have on life is little better than a beast’s. They work like horses, eat like pigs, and sleep like logs. Is it to be wondered at that after months of this they go wild when they reach the lights and glare of a city, and that the height of enjoyment is to be found in the whisky bottle?The Land of Open Doors, page 194
I could quote him describing the cook shack and eating habits of the workmen but you might lose your supper so I’ll leave that unsaid. However J. Burgon Bickersteth clearly has a sense of humour or the ability to find the humour in the situations that might make most men want to run home. In the next quote he describes a situation when another lay missionary was asked to do a funeral (or “take a funeral” as he writes it). He accompanies two brothers to what I believe was their trapping cabin far out in the mountains. What happens next is something that you must read in Bickersteth’s own words.
“Talking of curious sleeping accommodation, some months ago now, one of our men out West was suddenly asked to go and take a funeral far away in the mountains. Two men came for him with a wagon. It was their brother who had died. The missionary of course went with them, and they drove together all day through a wild country, seeing few signs of habitation. The weather was extremely severe, the thermometer standing at 35 degrees below zero.The Land of Open Doors, page 248 and 249
Long after dark they arrived at a diminutive log shack – the brothers’ home. One half of the floor space was taken up by a large bed, which appeared to be the only sleeping accommodation, and on it, against the wall, lay the corpse.
That night they lit two large fires over what was to be the grave, in order to thaw the ground out.
The men had apparently felt that decency forbade the moving of the dead body. But the intense cold made the bed and the one set of blankets the only safe resting-place for the living, so all had to get into the one bed for the night. As the missionary was the only one to say his prayers, he allowed the others to get into bed before him, and so avoided sleeping next to the corpse.
Map source: The Land of Open Doors, end of the book as a fold out. It shows Bickersteth’s territory, although he often travelled into BC to reach the end of the railway tracks. Click the map to enlarge it. Note that Marlboro is at the far left of the map area.
From this book, which by the way I highly recommend, I’ve concluded that the real Marlboro Man is none other than John Burgon Bickersteth himself. He put up with mud, cold and many other hardships and deprivations in a selfless effort to make the men at Marlboro and the nearby railway camps better people. He was not an actor or model for an advertising company, he was the real deal. It was John Burgon Bickersteth, and people like him such as the workman and all pioneers, that not only opened the Canadian West, but helped make the West great. They were all great men; and in my humble opinion, Bickersteth is the real Marlboro Man.
Photo credit: “J. Burgon Bickersteth, lay member of Alberta Anglican Missions.”, [ca. 1913], (CU184365) by Unknown. Courtesy of Libraries and Cultural Resources Digital Collections, University of Calgary.”
Bickerdike from Bickersteth
A town was named after Bickersteth in recognition of his work. Here is an excerpt from a local history book about the town of Hinton. I knew of the community of Bickerdike but until I spotted this comment I hadn’t made any link from Bickerdike to Bickersteth. I find it ironic that a community known for what Bickersteth was trying to eliminate (gambling and hard drinking) was named after Bickersteth. Perhaps those who named Bickerdike had a sense of humour? Bickerdike is 21 km by road to Marlboro.
By 1910, the Grand Trunk Pacific railway had reached Wolf Creek. Phelan and Shirley had contracted to build the new railway to Edson; Foley, Welsh and Stewart were contracted to complete the project west of Edson. At this time, Wolf Creek boasted a population in excess of two thousand persons. Reverand P. B. Bickersteth was one of the brave missionaries who attempted to control the excessive gambling and drinking. The hamlet of Bickerdike, west of Edson, now honors his memory. Bickerdike was first known as Mile 17 -because it was 17 miles west of Wolf Creek which was designated Mile 0. The log shacks plastered with clay were either businesses, gambling rooms, pool halls or brothels. Such was the short life of Bickerdike.History of Hinton: gateway to the Rockies, page 66
- Cementing our Knowledge of Geology: Edmonton to Cadomin. September 17 and 18, 2016, Edmonton Geological Society Fieldtrip.
- Libraries and Cultural Resources Digital Collections, University of Calgary. 1914 image of Edmonton Portland Cement plant, Marlboro, Alberta. Photographer unknown.
- Mennonites in Marlboro Country, Glen Kauffman, Mennonite Historical Society of Alberta, Newsletter October 2015. (used for reference to lumber mill)
- The Land of Open Doors, J. Burgon Bickersteth,1914, Wells Gardner, Darton & CO. LTD. London, England
- History of Hinton: gateway to the Rockies, Hinton, Alberta on the Yellowhead, Mrs. Hazel Hart 1980, Friesen Printers Edmonton.
- Find-A-Grave website: Link to website
If you visit the structures shown in this blog, or any other old potentially abandoned structure, please respect the landowners” rights and obtain their permission to access and photograph their structures. Always exercise caution when visiting abandoned buildings as there are potential dangers such as crumbling structures, deep wells hidden by grass, and even spores of mould in the air.