The Fab Fort: Borderland

By Gord Mackintosh
Special to the Times

For years, the proud Fort Frances motto was “Borderland.”

The Fort hugs Minnesota for easy access to favourite resort patios, shops, the Border Bar. We’re enticed by words like “at par,” “a 48,” “Menards.”

Locals “go across” or “over the line.” And we insist it’s not a solid line.

Here’s a local joke: Roy retired from Canada Customs. At his Farewell, Merv appeared. Roy pleaded, “Merv, all those years you crossed pushing that wheelbarrow full of dirt. I sifted through every time but never found a thing. Tell me, what were you smuggling?”

Merv mumbled, “Wheelbarrows.”

Grandma was wholly honest – but to avoid Customs duty, she stuffed JCPenny bags under the car seat, Piggly Wiggly ice cream under her dress, and sat on cantaloupe and bananas. Cousins sat on a blanket covering the undocumented dog – an oversized Boxer that answered officer questions with “Woof.” A fun-loving uncle, planning to escort pals to The Spot, got asked by US Customs, “What’s your name?” He announced, “Ivan Cutcha-schnauze-off.”

In 1966, two pranksters climbed the old Fort Frances water-tower to paint a maple leaf flag. Distracted by an encounter with birds and balancing on a railing, back on the ground they discovered their leaf was a dead-ringer for a Christmas tree.

With artistic growth, next summer they drove through US Customs at night with fresh paint, used brushes, and silly grins – a triumph itself. The patriots overcame barbed wire and a 20-foot cedar pole to re-direct the American mill’s water-tower spotlight. That water-tower soon donned a big Canadian maple leaf flag. It prevailed over five years – a rare, giddy win for Canada on the world stage.

A pal and I walked to US Customs and submitted the required parental consent notes – same pen, same handwriting, both on paper saying “Mando.” We were seven.

Ok, we were seventeen.

Escorted to an office, above us in a picture-frame, President Nixon scorned us. Even Nixon.

We got sent to Folsom Prison. Ok, sent home.

I never messed with Customs again, except for that July Forth with my runners packed with firecrackers – but puddles soaked them so they didn’t go off anyway. And for crossings by boat and, maybe, lift bridge.

Rainy Lake’s US Border Patrol asked for our landing permit – and boat light. My pal rummaged around under his bow and seats. At last he grasped a chrome lamp-pole. Its twisted, multi-coloured wires bounced in the sunset.

The officer barked, “Put it on. Now!”

My pal rummaged further and then asked him, “Got a screwdriver?”

We discovered officers are the ones who ask questions. Complying with the direction of his shaking index finger, we loudly revved northward – once we unstuck from neutral.

I’d never do this and most seriously warn against it, but foolish juveniles might run the Ranier railroad lift bridge to the US, but we were only gone maybe half an hour. It’s better to connect with this part of America the way in-laws met with Ranier family during Covid-19. Teetering on each shore, they jounced wildly, vigorously waving arms, yelling excitedly. Like when they’re in the same room.

And of course, the Fort is Canada’s town that welcomes Midwestern Americans.

On summer weekends, weary vacationers with fishing tackle on their hats idle among wood chips, ominous structures, and crisscrossing tracks to clear Canada Customs. They have words for our “Welcome” signs, but soon discover waiting is worthwhile. They rejuvenate in our glorious land and leave such frustrations behind forever.

Homeward, they return to the same fate at American Customs.

No government solves this CO2 hotspot, this live bait and marriage killer. Relief remains elusive, like eliminating poverty, war, the tollbooth. Covid-19 aside.

Tourists shouldn’t take directions to the Fort’s Beer Store from little kids who say, “It’s two miles beyond the Causeway” – and I’d never get caught saying that – when it’s blocks away.

Merchants once enticed Americans with signs announcing “Woolens.” Sam in his Irish Linen Store, on hearing an American drawl, sprung from the back with a surprising thick Irish brogue.

Stores stocked cans of long-gone Malkin’s jam, moccasins from Minneapolis, local souvenirs from China, china from England. Teacups rattled on shelves all along Scott Street – at Brennan’s, Brockie’s, Garton’s, Murray’s, Wilkin’s, and the mysteriously-named “The Rijnol.”

Although lacking biscuits and gravy, or Dots, the area now offers the best walleye and wild rice, Coffee Crisp, and Cuban cigars – bought by Trumpites, quietly. And there’s yummy Emo-based Canada’s Jam, curiously resembling Malkin’s.

The Fort’s merchants dodged the bullet of a mall. Then Walmart built a store the size of the Fort’s charming downtown.

Scott Street merchants valiantly survive. Warm shopkeepers keep patrons well-served. They offer items like t-shirts from Betty’s that say – as if bears graduate – “Bears Pass.”

They promote a sidewalk sale. Not all merchants embrace the effort though; I saw a sign, “Sidewalk Sale Inside.” And the wonderful new Rainy Lake Square features great live music, and a Farmers’ Market.

This spirit is reflected in the town’s lovely new motto: “Boundless” – and it is, right up to the boundary – albeit porous.

Next: Get to the Point