Saturday, May 16, 2009

Les Eddington: An Autobiography

William Henneberry (left) and Lester Eddington Here is a photo of William Henneberry (left) and Lester Eddington standing by Henneberry's bullet-riddled Paige after the encounter with the Winnipeg bank robbers (August, 1928) - Hey, Chicago wasn't the only place with some serious Action!

One thing leads to another...I'm getting contacted by more old-timer Customs Agents, and wow do they have stories to tell!
Customs Trivia: Did you know that for nearly 125 years, from the formation of our country - prior to personal income tax implementation - that Customs funded virtually the entire government, and paid for the nation's early growth and infrastructure?
Jim Benjaminson (see below) is trying to get permission from the family of one of those men, to allow us to share more of Les' story here. For now, below is what Jim can tell us, just to whet your appetite...
Lester Eddington had a welding shop in Neche and joined the Customs & Border Patrol in 1925, serving until 1956. There were several employment changes as various government agencies took control, so Les was in most of them. When he retired, one of his supervisors told him he should write a book about his adventures. Which he was never published and I have one of the few copies not in the hands of the family. The original text was 116 pages of typewritten, legal-size paper, single spaced!

When I was a kid growing up, he'd always tell stories and then relate that the story was in his book. He would then proceed to pull out the manuscript, find the page the story was on and that would be the only part of the book he would allow me to read. In later years, Garnett (Les' son) spirited the manuscript to me so I could read all of it.

About 20 years ago or so, I asked Lester to allow me to reprint one of his stories for the North Dakota Peace Officer magazine. I took the manuscript and transcribed it onto computer disc (a VERY early Mac system). I also did research about the story to provide a prologue and epilogue to the story. When he saw the story in print he asked me to put it all on computer disc.

As I stated, it has never been published. Its working title is My Experiences While In The Government Service. The only hand-written part of the book was the last page - in which Lester dedicated it to three people - Judson LaMoure (his boss), to Dave Elves (who he worked with at Sarles) and "...last but not least, the late Art Gould, Winnipeg, Manitoba, the greatest liquor runner that ever crossed the International Boundary in this District."

The story I wrote about (using Les' main text as the body) for North Dakota Peace Officer related the story of a robbery that took place in Winnipeg in August of 1928. A bank messenger was held up on the street near one of the banks--the bandits made their escape back towards the USA. They crossed the border in the Mowbray/Maida area with Les and William Henneberry in hot pursuit. Somewhere between Langdon and Lakota the bad guys made a stand and shot up the pursuing car (an unmarked vehicle). Lester was slug came through the windshield, hit the steering wheel and struck Les in the stomach. It wasn't a serious injury. The only thing that saved their lives that day was the bad guys saw the badge on Lester's belt - saw he was a federal officer and backed off. Long story short - the bad guys were never found. And Lester had the slug mounted as a watch fob!

Winnipeg 1928 - from have extra copies of the ND Peace Officer magazine with that story, if you'd like me to mail you a copy. I also have photos of the shot up car with Lester and Henneberry standing beside it.

As for the text of the book, I'll have to get permission from the family. Like I say, I think I have the only non-family member copy in existence. I can't release it without getting their o.k. The book also relates many adventures, many in the Sarles, Hannah, Maida, Mowbray1 area as that was Lester's first post. He spent the last years of his career at Pembina.

PS - I glanced at your blog. And I know Chuck Walker.

Back in 1976 I did research for a booklet for the Pembina County Sheriffs Office, documenting all of the county sheriffs from 1867 to the present (Glenn Wells was sheriff then - he was later my boss when I worked for Pembina County SO 1977-1979). I took it upon myself to try and find photos of all the sheriffs at which I was mostly successful....I think I missed 5, Charlie Brown being one of them. I also missed one sheriff for the list (William Truemner) that I discovered while doing other research many years later.

I do have a file called "Murder and Mayhem in Pembina County" and I probably have references to various incidents that occured in the early Pembina/St. Vincent days. I have details on the Pembina post office shooting (that was also in ND Peace Officer)......Charlie and I have discussed this at times in the past, regarding the outlaw that was killed...

Just glancing at the blog I'm wondering how much of the story/dialog Charlie made up regarding Charlie Brown???
Jim also wrote an article from which this is taken:
Police cars, like police work, have changed considerably over the years. Few of the early-day police cars were given insignias identifying their purpose. An early-day North Dakota federal officer, Lester Eddington, wrote in his autobiography, "...we did not wear uniforms, just carried Customs caps to use while stopping cars." Because of this, stopping cars was not easy; many times the officer would pull alongside the offending vehicle and display his badge to tell the driver to pull over. Even more dangerous was the practice of stepping out into the lane of traffic to hold one's hand in the air, ordering the offender to stop.
Clarence Bingham told me this about Les:
Yes, I knew and worked with Lester Eddington for a year or more during 1951 - 52. I did not know that Les wrote an autobiography, but it doesn't surprise me. His wife's name was Milicent. Their daughter (June) married Allen Henneman from Pembina.

Lester and his partner were in a chase and shoot out with a car load of bank robbers out in the Maida - Hannah area of the border during the early 1930s. Les had a bullet on his watch chain that he claimed came through the front of their patrol car and lodged between his long underwear and his stomach. He thought for sure he had been shot, because the slug was burning him...He lived and farmed near [Cavalier] after retiring from Customs.
1 - I Remember When...the Birth and Death of a Prairie Town, By John J. Elias

There are several factors that caused towns to spring up, grow and thrive for a number of years, only to fall into decay and finally disappear completely. At times some group of interested people took the pains to erect some memorial to remind the passerby that a town once existed there. Why it came into existence in the first place depended on physical features but most prairie towns were planted because the railways deliberately placed them there by building a station on the location. The railways spaced them about eight miles apart since that was roughly the distance a settler would travel from home to town and back in a day with a load of grain or just to go shopping.

Nelsonville was the big town before the coming of the railway, situated about ten miles northwest of Morden. It had the land titles office, a NWMP detachment, gristmill, stores, church and community hall. It was certain the CPR would pass through it.

Mountain City, south of Morden, also was a thriving village. It too had high hopes that it would be selected by the railway. Nevertheless, the railway always kept secret where it would go and located towns where it suited and benefited the railway most. The track was laid between the two towns and Morden received a station. In two years, both Nelsonville and Mountain City disappeared. Only a stone now reminds us of the existence of a previous thriving community.

The histories of many prairie towns are very similar; only the names are different. For this reason I’ll take the town of Mowbray as an example since I became acquainted with it when it still was a healthy hamlet. Provincial Road 201 passes through it. Since it is the only east-west road between the Pembina River and the Canadian-U.S. border we traveled through there many times since 1941, the year I started farming together with my wife, Esther.

Since we became acquainted with Archie and Lily Scott, we learned much about the early history of the area and the town. They presented us with a small booklet that gives a short history of the first settlers. There is no point in giving a lot of names since they are all unknown to anyone but those who have long passed away. It is enough to record that the first settlers arrived in 1880.

The Andrew Johnstones settled where the Scotts now lived. A crude log cabin not far from the Scotts was their first home. Archie took us to the building one day. The west end of the house was the first post office and served as such for over 20 years. When Andrew died, Mrs. Johnstone continued the service till Mowbray was formed.

As more and more families settled in the district, the time came when a school was needed. The school was northeast of the present Scott home. This was the school that Archie and Lily attended. Most teachers taught for only one year. By the end of the year some promising young bachelor had won the heart of the young lady teacher and soon they added to the school population.

As the district filled up, the CPR extended the railway from Snowflake to Windygates. In 1904 they erected a station and Mowbray came into being. Elevators, a store, lumber yard, blacksmith shop and hotel soon followed. The two-story school was built, but only the first floor was used for classes. The upper story was used as a community hall and for church services. Some homes were built.

Just across the boundary the town of Mowbray, North Dakota sprang up and flourished. The two towns in actuality functioned as one town. The Americans sent their children to school in Canada. The biggest customers of the Canadian hotel bar were Americans. The Canadians shopped freely in both Mowbray, Manitoba and Mowbray, North Dakota. The Americans also made good use of the railway.

Some time in the late 1950s the town was almost gone; only the station was left. One day a car parked in front of the station. To satisfy our curiosity we stopped and visited the couple that was sitting outside on the platform. Some children were amusing themselves in the back. The couple was very hospitable and readily acquainted us with the history of the station.

The gentleman, Percy Williams, was the present owner of the station. His parents had arrived in Mowbray in 1927. His father passed away when Percy was a young lad and his mother carried on as the agent as long as the train service continued. In the beginning Mowbray had three passenger trains a day and this was cut down to one train a week. Service ended in 1954 and the mother and Percy left the district. Percy was able to buy the station from the CPR for a nominal price and he kept it in repair. He had already planted trees and shrubs around the property and the family spent the summer weekends there. They claimed they enjoyed driving to Maida for supper and visiting the farmers that were left.

The time came when we no longer found them there. Last summer (2008) a friend and I passed by and noticed a car parked in front of the station. I visited with the couple sitting outside and was told that Percy had died and had sold the station eight years ago. The trees and shrubs were now full grown and the lawns were freshly cut, but I noticed that half the platform had collapsed and the building too showed signs of considerable weathering. Still, it was good to see that the old station was still serving a purpose and had not been abandoned to slow decay.

What then was the main reason for the disappearance of so many prairie towns? The reason may be summed up in one word – transportation. It was the railway that built the towns. When there were no roads or few at best, the passenger trains with the mail car, flourished. When the automobile came along, roads were required. The first road to Winkler had no ditches and the roadbed was lower than the sides. As roads and cars improved, more and more people used the car to go to town, and the passenger trains were empty. Buses replaced the passenger trains and without passenger trains, the railroads were losing money. As a result they discontinued passenger service. In Mowbray the station was closed in 1954. The rails were salvaged and soon Mowbray disappeared.

As roads were improved and main highways paved, cars and trucks took over transportation. More and more branch lines were abandoned and now there is no elevator anymore between Winkler and Killarney. A large stretch has already been dismantled. The track serving Miami has been taken up. As time goes on more and more towns will disappear completely.
-FROM Winkler Times article
I Remember When...The Birth and Death of a Prairie Town