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The Legend of the Banff Mermaid

Banff's Oldest Celebrity Resident


In the back room of Banff's oddest and most authentic tourist shop, past the six-foot stuffed grizzly and a Noah's ark of dead alpine creatures, the town's forgotten celebrity sits and waits.


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 waiting.


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. It ca

me from Java. It says 'One fish-man.' "


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.


The Calgary Herald April 24, 2008


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