Monday, 02 July 2018 03:52

New video tells Swift Current inventor's story

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The story of a life-size mechanical horse that was created by a Swift Current inventor is the focus of the 11th video in the Swift Current Museum's video series “Stories from Saskatchewan's Great Southwest.”


The new documentary “The history of Blowtorch, the mechanical horse” was launched during an event at the museum, May 30.
Swift Current Museum Director and Curator Lloyd Begley feels it is important to tell the story of this unique invention by a Swift Current resident and of the people who were part of this project.
“People who participated in its construction and people who participated in riding it still exist and they’re part of the video,” he said. “It’s our task to gather these stories and interview those people who down the road we’re going to lose. So it’s a story that unless we tell it now, is it going to be told the next 25 years? So it’s an important story to tell and it’s a unique story and it’s a great folktale of Swift Current.”
Businessman and inventor W.J. McIntyre owned and operated a foundry and machine shop in Swift Current. He created the original Blowtorch in 1947. It was constructed from sheet metal and powered by a nine horsepower engine. It moved on wheels and reached a speed of up to six miles per hour. The rider controlled the horse through a pulley system.
McIntyre made various changes to Blowtorch over the years and he often rode his mechanical horse in local parades in and around Swift Current. The video might bring back some of those memories for elderly residents of the area who have seen Blowtorch at a parade.
“I think that people remember seeing Blowtorch in the 40s, 50s and 60s and now they’re in their golden years,” Begley said. “They’ve passed on those stories to their grandchildren and talked about the mechanical horse. So perhaps this is something that will stir people’s memory and continue telling those stories.”
Medicine Hat resident Allan Jacobs still has many stories to tell about Blowtorch. He was the guest speaker at the video launch and he is also featured as a narrator in the documentary.
W.J. McIntyre died in 1965 and his son Jim continued to operate the business. Jacobs started to work as a welder at the machine shop in 1967. Blowtorch was stored between two buildings, where it was exposed to the elements and slowly rusting away.
Jim McIntyre decide to revive Blowtorch for an appearance in the 1968 Frontier Days parade in Swift Current. He asked Jacobs if he wanted to take part in the project to restore the horse.
“For a young guy like me at that time, I was about 19, that was exciting,” he recalled.
Jacobs and a few other employees worked on repairing the mechanical horse, but they did not have a lot of time to fix it. They made some changes to the original operating system, but kept the same engine.
“There were quite a few bearings and stuff that we got to cut out of there, because they were seized,” he said. “They wouldn't work at all. We didn't have much time. That was our problem. When he decided that he was going to put it in the parade, it was in the back corner a long time.”
Jacobs ended up riding Blowtorch in the 1968 Frontier Days parade, but they were not certain if the mechanical horse was going to make it all the way.
“Our concern was do not hit any holes in the road, do not run over the manholes,” he said. “So you better pick the high and the flat. That's basically where we stayed. We looked well ahead where we were going so that we didn't get into that rocking motion, because if you ever got into it, you couldn't stop it. But the galloping motion of it made it very steady. I didn't have any trouble riding it at all, even over the overpass or going down the other side. I just stayed on the flat and rolled down the other side.”
Despite his best efforts to keep the horse going, he ran into trouble on the overpass. The rear wheels got stuck on an expansion joint, which brought Blowtorch to a jolting halt and its head fell off.
Jacobs was able to get the head back on and to continue down the other side of the overpass, but his ride on Blowtorch ended shortly afterwards. The mechanical horse snapped a leg bolt and collapsed when they turned a corner.
“We beat it up so bad on the overpass from making it buck to get over those expansion joints, that when it went down the other side and turned the corner, it probably broke that bolt and finally fell out as it started going towards the east,” he said.
Jacobs, who was dressed as a cowboy, then took his toy gun and shot the horse in dramatic fashion to the delight of spectators. Although he did not complete the entire parade route, Jim McIntyre still gave him some money for his efforts.
“He said he was going to give me 50 bucks if I made it to the fairground, but I didn't make it, so I got 20,” Jacobs noted.
He worked for only five years at the McIntyre machine shop, but the skills he learned there lasted for a lifetime and also were of great benefit when he started his own welding business in Medicine Hat.
“Every day was something new,” he said. “So it was definitely a great learning experience.”
The McIntyre family donated Blowtorch to the Western Development Museum in Moose Jaw in the late 1970s, where it still remains. The horse made a brief return to Swift Current in 2014 as part of a display at the Swift Current Museum during the city's centennial celebrations.
Blowtorch has received worldwide attention during its lifetime through various media stories and exhibits. It was on display at Madison Square Gardens in New York, it appeared in a Grey Cup parade in Toronto, and in 1986 it was on display at Expo 86 in Vancouver as part of the Saskatchewan pavilion.
According to Kim Houghtaling, the director and curator of the Art Gallery of Swift Current, it has become more than just a mechanical horse and Blowtorch is now an important piece of Saskatchewan folk art.
“The folks who designed him and made him weren’t intending him to be an artwork, because they weren’t making art for art’s sake,” he explained. “They were making a cultural expression for the purpose of entertainment; making people think about the history of the horse, making people amazed at the magic of this mechanized animal that looked quite natural in so many ways, but at the same time comical. They incorporated it into a parade, which is a form of pageantry that celebrates heritage and culture and community spirit.”
Blowtorch is a symbol of the history of the area, which was settled and farmed with the help of horses. These animals were later replaced by machinery and W.J. McIntyre created a link between the past and the new mechanical age when he built Blowtorch.
“For McIntyre to make this connection between the history of the horse and the new age of mechanized farming and to bring that transition together in the symbol of the mechanical horse makes it really an excellent piece of folk art that’s very much part of our own heritage here,” Houghtaling said.
This documentary series by the Swift Current Museum has focused an various aspects of the region's past, including the story of the Swift Current airfield during the Second World War, the history of the fire department, the history of hockey in the city, as well as the history of the Métis and the Cypress Hills. The first six documentaries are available as a double DVD set.
“We’ll probably do one more and then that can become part of a second set,” Begley said. “They are for sale at the museum. They make a great keepsake. They’ve been shipped all over the world, but they’re also on YouTube and they are on our Vintage Swift Current Facebook page and the City of Swift Current’s Museum website. You can go in there and watch them, or you can purchase it and have it in your home.”

Read 226 times Last modified on Monday, 02 July 2018 06:24
Matthew Liebenberg

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