Join the Nutty Club
By Barbara Romanik
I ain’t afraid of no ghosts — Winnipeg ghosts, that is. Buildings have ghosts, become ghosts. You pass them every day and they become invisible.
I was photographing the Scott-Bathgate building at 149 Pioneer, the first warehouse of the Nutty Club Company, built in 1905. And the only thing that minded me was a squirrel with refuse in its mouth, which I swear contained a cigarette butt. But then an older man came up to me. He pointed to my camera and said, “You know this is a part of Winnipeg’s history. This building and the company are over 110 years old. And Nutty Club is still in business. I work for them; I’m a sales manager.” I nodded because I knew some of this already. But this man in his late fifties, with slightly crooked teeth I probably falsely attributed to prolonged sampling of Nutty Club products, was a friend. He was a witness, a lover of city ghosts, buildings, and sugary products. “Thank you, take care,” I called out to him as he walked away into the parking lot.
I felt elated after encountering a sympathetic ear and I beamed with wonder at CAN-D-MAN, the company mascot, in his striped outfit and a red top hat. He is still displayed on all the buildings. The red, white, and blue colour scheme played at the fringes of my memory. I was beginning to feel some trepidation. Would my Candy Club friend approve of what I would write about those buildings? After all, my love for them is perverted, foreign, and of a non-logical sort.
The first Candy Club building I came across was at 80 Lombard, near Water Street. Built in 1896 and extended in 1907, it was originally the Union Shoe and Leather Company, and then it became the Thomas Black building. The Scott-Bathgate Candy Club Company did not buy it until the mid-1940s. When I saw the building for the first time, it was from the back, while I was walking near the Red River. The white-washed brick accentuated the building’s black fire-escapes. It reminded me of a hospital or an asylum: a place where people might wonder the halls, in assortment of paranoia, psychosis, and hysteria. I came to revisit this spot by the river often. It was the combination of being near the water and the elevated tracks. Trains routinely crossed the bridge overhead. The mechanical noise obliterated every human sound; it was soul-crushing and completely freeing, if one gave oneself to it. It was only later that I saw the “Nutty Club” and “Famous for Quality” signs that altered my vision, albeit only slightly. Now I imagined Mr. CAN-D-MAN presiding over a factory in which Winnipeggers came out, straight-jacketed, on a conveyer belt, in all their nutty variety. It was a cherished prairie secret: they were made that way, which was not necessarily a bad thing. But that’s my own story.
According to a 2007 Free Press article, the buildings on Pioneer and Lombard were in danger of being abandoned and demolished. They no longer fulfilled their production and distributing functions; they were simply not equipped to process large orders and lost the company money. In 2015, the presence of my friend, the Nutty Club sales manager, testifies that these buildings are still performing some function, but for how long? It would be a shame if they were to physically disappear and escape from the consciousness of Winnipeggers. The problem of their ghost-like, there and not-there, presence may be one that seems to plague many western Canadian places, especially urban ones. It is our failure to utilize our history—our physical environment, our streets and buildings—to understand and tell stories about who we are. With a few exceptions, even for prairie writers, the type of history that is worthy of imagination, dedication, and obsession occurs somewhere else. But as my friend in the parking lot reminded me, we are the ones that keep our local history and our buildings alive.
Being a writer, it would be easy to begin a story with the company’s originators A.E. Scott and James Bathgate. Bathgate married, lived, and then died in Winnipeg, in 1934. He had a son and a daughter and probably a couple of skeletons kicking around in his closet. But historical fiction doesn’t have to be biographical. Many written and other kind of stories can utilize the company’s buildings. For example, imagine the Nutty Club president’s daughter falling into horrible grief over a sweetheart’s death, in World War I. She gets into the factory one night and is found on the cement floor among boxes and boxes of pink popcorn. The salmon-coloured saliva runs down her chin as she weeps. And if you’re not from the absurd school of Lars von Trier, David Lynch, or Guy Maddin, how about a murder mystery? A body is found in a vat of peanuts. An eye appears to wink eerily at a young employee, her first day on the job. The weary Anglo-Canadian detective shakes his head, “those damned Polacks with their fiery temper and barbaric ways!” The killer and the victim turn out to be two eastern Europeans. Or maybe the Lombard Nutty Club building could be a place for a love story. After they climb the black-steel fire escape ladder, two Aboriginal teenage girls write their names, defacing the white wall. Then they steal their first kisses and caresses as they face the river.
With some imagination, these buildings can stay a part of our awareness. The stories we tell can be our own. If you want talk about the night CAN-D-MAN came off the building, chewed off his barbershop-coloured arm to use a club, and went after the Stay Puft Marshmallow Man, that’s your business, I won’t judge. Just don’t let the Nutty Club buildings become invisible and disappear.