Poetic mystery

Sometimes stories take you to interesting places reaching people you never anticipated and taking turns that are pleasantly unexpected. Such was the case with a story we published on Private Benjamin Bird a Haliburton man who moved out west in the early 1900s before enlisting to fight in the First World War.

Bird was honoured by the North Entrance Masonic Lodge this year in what’s called an “empty chair ceremony” a ritual adapted from the American Civil War that recognizes Masons who were killed in combat. Because he had been highlighted by the Masons we decided to look into his history for the Echo and consulted with local historian extraordinaire Adele Espina.

If you haven’t had the opportunity to witness Adele’s superb sleuthing skills you’re missing out. Her natural curiosity and incredible proficiency with archives has been hugely beneficial to the Haliburton Highlands over the years as she’s helped to document the history of inhabitants both for the museum and for the newspapers.

Adele unearthed several records on Benjamin Bird showing his movements across the country and his service to Canada and then she found one more: a newspaper clipping from the Calgary Herald in 1924 printing a poem written by Bird called Where the Great Peace River Flows. The Herald’s story was about how someone named W.B. Doncaster had passed off the poem as his own and the paper was setting the story straight that it was actually Bird who had written it.

Aside from being an interesting historical anecdote the poem itself was touching and included sentiments of a soldier overseas wishing to return to his fair Peace River. We printed the poem in full.

But that wasn’t the end of the story. From Alberta an email arrived to our office a couple of days later from another passionate history buff – Leslie Ayre-Jaschke – who wrote that in her town the common wisdom was that the poem was written by John Sweeney a settler who had lived in the Peace River area.

In fact it was printed in a collection of Sweeney’s poetry. Could it be that Benjamin Bird was actually not the author of the poem but was mistakenly credited? Perhaps the poem was written by Sweeney and tucked into Bird’s uniform as a reminder of home but wasn’t actually his work.

I forwarded the messages from Leslie onto Adele and waited to see what transpired.

More archive digging ensued and in the end although there is no definitive answer it seems likely that Benjamin Bird penned the poem. Incredibly – perhaps because the poem is so lovely – Where the Great Peace River Flows has been attributed to at least three authors over the years.

The process also uncovered even more information on Private Bird.

More than 100 years after his death Bird’s life continues to intrigue and inspire. With the power of the internet and two bright minds we now have a much better understanding of who he was and what the life of those who enlisted in the early 1900s would have been like.