The Mountie, the malamute and the barren land baron

A couple weeks ago I was in the Dorsey Street Exchange schmoozing with the owner, Barb Curtis.

It was the first day of the DSE’s huge winter sale, but I wasn’t there to shop. Or more precisely, I wasn’t there with the express purpose of shopping – I was there to visit with Barb. But while we talked I was still giving the place the twice- and thrice-over. I mean, let’s get real: If I just happened to run across some treasure, I’d be a total fool to pass it up. And while the treasures may not abound, they are there – it just takes a keen eye and a lot of patience to find them.

So Barb and I are chatting away like magpies – “Yadda yadda yadda, blah blah blah” -? and I’m casing the joint like a second-story man when -bam – it hits me right between the running lights!

“Hey, right there,” I say, pointing in one of the cases. “Lemme see that, please.”

“See what?” says Barb.

“That little cup and saucer set.”

She takes them out and hands them to me.

They’re classic ’50s vintage, not worth much in terms of money, but for nostalgia, worth a fortune.

The same design is on both cup and saucer?- a Canadian Mountie on a horse, with the unnecessary label RCMP above the figure. I say “unnecessary” because any man my age not only knows he’s a Mountie but exactly which mountie he is. To my generation there’s only ever been one Mountie – Sgt. Preston of the Yukon.

The man and the dog

Sergeant Preston was the star of an eponymous radio show of the ’30s and ’40s. Of course I never heard it, but for two glorious seasons starting in 1955, he starred in a TV show. And that’s the man I remember so well.

Actually, Sgt. Preston was only one of the show’s two stars. The other, who shared equal billing and deserved it, was Yukon King, Sgt. Preston’s lead sled dog.

Yukon King was a beautiful Malamute who was far more than a sled dog; for all practical purposes he was Sergeant Preston’s partner. The two of them were a team, since Sgt. P. had no Mountie partners and Yukon King was a dog for all seasons: Not only did he keep the wild animals at bay, but he was a helluva judge of character, able to sniff out criminal behavior and intent, both literally and figuratively. His title of “Wonder Dog” was well earned.

This is not to say that Sgt. P. was a pantywaist. Uh-uh, the ole sarge triumphed over all the elements thrown at him – Arctic or criminal – without ever so much as getting a wrinkle on his tunic. He was the embodiment of dashing macho, in his dress uniform with jodhpurs, and the lot. He also had a classic mustache, that the more I think of it, the more I believe was the initial stimulus of my lifelong foray into the wonderful world of facial hair.

While I can’t remember any episode (or even one specific incident), there’s one thing about the show I’ll never forget The Big Inch.

Plots worth plotzing for

The Big Inch may have been the most ingenious marketing strategy in the history of advertising. It was the brainchild of Bruce Baker, a Chicago ad man who was handling the account of Quaker Oats, the sponsor of Sergeant Preston. Baker was looking for a breakthrough hustle and in a predawn epiphany he came up with it: Have Quaker oats sponsor a Yukon land giveaway.

It was an idea as brilliant as it was whacky and it succeeded beyond anyone’s wildest imaginings.

First, Quaker bought 19 acres of Yukon land for the lordly fee of $1,000. Then the land was divided into 21 million, one-square-inch parcels, and a deed was printed up for each. After that, a deed was put in each box of Quaker cereal. And after that, the crowd went wild.

And how could it not? I mean, can you imagine being a little kid and a fan of the world’s greatest Mountie, and owning your very own piece of a Klondike gold field? Who could resist it? The answer is of course, no one. The deeds – and boxes of Quaker Oats and rice – flew out of the stores as fast as they came in.

The deeds themselves were gorgeous – fancy-looking and fancy-sounding, and as official as it gets, with all sorts of “wherefores,” “therefores,” “whereupons” and “thereupons” and the rest. Maybe I’d never seen a land deed before in my eight years, but I sure knew the one from The Klondike Big Inch Land Company was the real deal. It occupied a place of honor on my shelf, and every time I looked at it (which was a lot), I saw myself wrapped in wool and furs, world’s smallest pickaxe in hand, hacking away on my property for -?in the words of Robert W. Service – “that muck called gold.”

Did I really believe my square inch contained gold or that I’d actually travel to the Yukon to search for it? Of course not. I was a little kid, and little kids only need imagination. Reality is reserved for adults and other depressing (and depressed) beings.

And ultimately it’s a good thing I neither sought nor knew the reality behind The Big Inch, because it was a scam. While Quaker had bought the land, they had not registered the deeds. So my square inch unclaimable.

And now a final irony. I checked EBay, and as you might expect, a bunch of Big Inch land deeds are for sale. The going rate for one in fine shape is around $20.

So while all those claims may be worthless, the deeds are now worth far more than the paper they’re printed on.