While the rest of Banff was
occupied this weekend with the nouveau celebs taking part in the Fairmont
Banff Springs Sports Invitational -- the likes of Alec Baldwin, Christie
Brinkley, Kelsey Grammer, Marcia Gay Harden and Virginia Madsen were on hand
for the fundraiser for Robert F. Kennedy Jr.'s Waterkeepers Alliance -- the
resort town's oldest star was doing what he always does. Sitting and
He's not as well known as the
other celebs this weekend. But if you ask around, locals all know who he is,
although they treat him like a kind of community secret.
He is the Merman, a petrified,
three-foot, half-man half-fish curio in a glass case in the back room of the
Indian Trading Post, an old cabin hawking authentic native artifacts and
tourist souvenirs on the south side of the Banff Avenue bridge.
The Merman is bizarre enough to
draw interest, looks realistic enough to maintain plausibility, and facts
about it are kept vague enough to keep skeptics at bay. On the Merman's
glass case is a weathered article from The Beaver magazine, dated September,
1942, with a handwritten note scribbled in the margins: "This is all we know
about the Merman."
The lady working at the Indian
Trading Post said she knew nothing more than what was written there, saying
the Merman's secrets died with the shop's proprietor, Norman Luxton, a
larger-than-life figure in the town's early development.
Her colleague said she often
sees customers on "Merman missions," who head straight to the back of the
store just to see him.
Rumours about the Merman's
genesis are all over the town. One woman said she heard he came from England
in the 1940s.
Another thought he was built as
a tourist attraction by fusing the petrified tail of a fish with the head
and torso of "some kind of monkey thing."
Only a few people know the
truth, and only one has the papers to prove it. Possibly. Even those papers
have become part of the story.
"It is a bit of a local legend,"
said a chuckling Ted Hart, executive director of the Whyte Museum of the
Canadian Rockies, the organization tasked with preserving many of the
artifacts of Luxton's life.
"But I've got the shipping bill.
me from Java. It says 'One
Luxton, known as "Mr. Banff,"
was a well-travelled man who ran the local newspaper, the Crag and Canyon,
for decades. He built the King Edward Hotel and the local theatre (still
called The Lux), and he owned several properties in town, including the
Trading Post and adjacent museum (today called the Buffalo Nations Museum).
He died in 1962.
Hart said Luxton bought the
Merman in 1915 and crafted a vague story about its origins to help promote
the Trading Post, which at that time sold beadwork and quilts made by
natives from the nearby Stoney Reserve.
End of story? Not quite.
Michelle Garbert, whose family now owns the Trading Post -- her father
Robert was a good friend of Luxton's -- laughs at the thought of a paper
record of the Merman.
"You have to understand Norman (Luxton),"
she says. "He was such a character, he may have went in the back room and
made up that shipping bill just to authenticate the story. If it says it
came from Indonesia, that sounds like something Norman would have made up
because it sounded good.
"We have no idea where the
Merman came from. . . . I think Norman would love the idea that that
shipping bill is now part of a museum. That's great. It's a hoax on a hoax.
That's very Norman."
Over the years, the Merman's
legend grew. Garbet says the Ripley's Believe it or Not Museum once offered
the family $300,000 for the Merman. "We told them to go away, then they went
out and made their own," Garbet says.
Banff's oldest celebrity has
even attracted its own celebrities: she says the likes of Neil Young,
William Shatner and Julia Roberts have been spotted in the store -- she even
remembers seeing Joe DiMaggio make an appearance.