A journey to find out what happened to a hometown mascot led to a one-man musical sharing stories of the famed Porcupine Gold Rush.
Will Gillespie's Mine! True stories and legends of the Porcupine Gold Rush is on stage now. The one-hour show featuring 12 original songs is a trip back in time to explore the early stories of prospectors, pioneers, bootleggers, high-graders and dog-sledders.
Last summer Gillespie and his partner Susan Robinson drove up to Timmins.
While exploring what happened to Porcupine Pete — the beloved mascot who adorned a generation of collectibles and was the highlight of events in Porcupine and South Porcupine — the show started to take shape.
"I didn’t quite get to the bottom of that, but instead discovered all of these other separate interesting stories of real people who actually existed," he explained.
Using old Cobalt Nugget and Porcupine Advance newspapers, Macleans articles and picking the brain of the Karen Bachmann at the Timmins Museum: NEC, he decided to get back into folk music with a solo, storytelling show.
Gillespie is originally from South Porcupine.
He lived in Sudbury in his 20s, spent time in Toronto for a while and moved to Hamilton about eight years ago. He's been living as a touring folk musician and started the independent theatre company Chasing Shadows Productions with Robinson five years ago.
In 2020, they were booked to stage a musical with a bigger cast at the Fringe Festival in Hamilton and Guelph. Then the world locked down.
When the inspiration hit for Mine! they decided on a solo performance to be more adaptable.
"It was an artistic challenge I wanted to give myself to try to write story songs and songs about other people’s experiences rather than statement songs and things based on my own life more directly,” he said.
Mine! combines theatre, folk music, history and culture.
"It’s kind of paying homage to my paternal family, like my dad and his father — who I share a name with, William Gillespie — came from Scotland to work in the Hollinger and Dome mines for his career in the ‘40s, ‘50s, ‘60s and ‘70s,” he said.
There's no shortage of characters and harrowing tales related to the Porcupine Gold Rush that started in 1909. Prospectors flocked to the area looking to make their fortune. Some succeeded and others floundered.
Pouring through the old newspapers and history books, a name or turn of phrase would give Gillespie a chill and he'd have his hook for a song.
One instance of when inspiration struck is Maggie Buffalo Leclair or Princess Maggie, as she was commonly known.
"She’s a hunter and fur trapper and guide in Timmins. One of her famous lines that she literally said was ‘I’m going to die with my boots on’ when she was an 80-year-old woman wanting to escape the old folk’s home and go back to her hunting cabin in the woods at Kamiskotia. So I thought, ‘Wow, there’s a character and what a great quote from her,'” he explained.
Despite growing up in the Timmins, much of what Gillespie learned through his research was new to him.
From his parents' house, he could see Porcupine Lake and he's read the historic plaques about The Great Fire of 1911 that swept through the camp.
"Doing the research I found out there were a lot more details and adventurous stories. Harrowing tales of adventure and perseverance is one of the taglines of how we’re talking about this show," he shared.
"The song about The Great Fire and the people who survived by staying in Porcupine Lake, it’s called Hurricane of Fire ‘cause there was nine-foot waves, there was a baby born in the lake and bears and moose and horses in there along with all the people. Some people drowned trying to escape the fire. It’s a little bit more exciting. That’s what I’m trying to do with the play, is capture the emotions and the feeling of these historical events and moments."
The musical has been on stage at the Hamilton Fringe Festival since July 20 and has dates through until July 31.
After that, he'll be at the Guelph Fringe from Aug. 4-7 and the North Bay festival from Aug. 9-13. The final show is at the Timmins Museum: NEC on Aug. 17.
Almost every night after the performance, he's meeting people with from Timmins or with connections to it.
"A few nights ago there was a couple of young geologists and they work up in Kirkland Lake and Red Lake, so they know Timmins, they’ve been there. Just last night an older woman in her 70s came up to me and she said, ‘Are you related to Billy Gillespie?’ And I said, ‘Yes, that’s my uncle, I’m named after him,’” he laughed.
More information on the show and links to tickets are available at chasingshadowsproductions.com.