“Is a frog game or fish? There is the rub.” A brief look at the history of ranaculture in Canada and Québec, Part 2

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Three of the innumerable American bullfrogs found on the frog farm of Harold Lee, Casitas Springs, California. Anon., “Nature – Frog Farm.” Pix, 6 January 1951, 30.

Hello again, my reading friend. Welcome.

You will of course remember that our subject this week is again ranaculture, in other words the breeding of frogs, on Canadian and Québec soil.

To answer your question, my reading friend, the source of the photograph of the charming anurans you just saw, in other words, Pix, was a somewhat irreverent / macho Australian illustrated weekly published between 1938 and 1972.

And yes, you are absolutely right. Casitas Springs was / is an unincorporated community located west of Los Angeles, California. Before I forget, did you know that the famous American country singer / songwriter John R. “Johnny” Cash lived in Casitas Springs with his family between 1961 and 1967? But back to our topic for this week.

Curiously, North American ranaculture, well, especially American ranaculture in fact, may, I repeat may, have been energised by the publication of a book, one of the very first western novels in fact, The Virginian: A Horseman of the Plains by American author and historian Owen Wister, in 1902. One of the chapters of that incredibly popular book was indeed devoted to the “Tulare frawg ranch,” a fictional frog farm located in… Tulare, California. Ours is a small world where words like country and western can be used in a text about ranaculture, is it not? (Hello, EP!)

I have never read that novel but have a vague memory of having seen a few episodes of the French language version of the American television series The Virginian. Entitled Le Virginien (Duh…), said version was broadcasted from September 1964 onward, pretty much 2 years to the day after the broadcast of the first episode of the original English language series, in September 1962. Le Virginien having been broadcasted in France only from January 1966 onward, yours truly wonders if the dubbing was done in Québec or in France. Anyway, let us move on and resume our overview of ranaculture on Canadian and Québec soil.

As the 20th century began, in 1901 of course, a frog farm located not far from Peterborough, Ontario, stood out among firms of that type in Canada. Around 1895-96 and again in 1901, it seemed, it produced about 2 275 kilogrammes (5 000 pounds) of frog legs, from at least 25 000 individuals, and about 7 000 live frogs for research and re-frogging of various bodies of water.

Around 1906, that frog farm was owned by a certain J.F. Sauvé.

The reputation of the establishment directed by Sauvé went well beyond the borders of Ontario. Would you believe that French and British magazines, Le Journal de la jeunesse and The Wide World Magazine, mentioned them both in texts published in 1906? At least one Québec daily published the text of the French magazine that year.

Indeed, that frog farm, which had apparently been in operation since the mid-1870s, was one of the few Canadian firms of its type mentioned in a very classic work, A Manual of Fish-Culture: Based on the Methods of the United States Commission of Fish and Fisheries, with Chapters on the Cultivation of Oysters and Frogs, published in 1897 by the United States Commission of Fish and Fisheries.

If several people approached the Department of Fish and Games of the Ontario government around 1901, in order to obtain permits for the exploitation of frog farms, the assistant commissioner responsible for fisheries, Samuel Torel Bastedo, I believe, was forced to indicate that the sites they were interested in were already exploited. This being said (typed?), journalists believed that many spaces not yet used would be used before long.

North American ranaculture indeed seemed to have a bright future. That breeding intended for the American market and, more and more, for the Canadian market seemed promised to such a bright future, the number of frog legs consumed on American soil being more than 10 times higher than the number of legs consumed in France, that some feared for the future of frogs living in the wild. Yes, yes, some believed that the open season which afflicted them on American soil could bring those small wild batrachians to the brink of extinction.

Such fears were also heard in Canada, in the Peterborough region, for example, and that no later than 1894. That depopulation obviously affected prices. In 1896, for example, in some places in Ontario, frog legs sold for $ 1.75 or so per kilogramme (80 ¢ per pound), or $ 53.40 or so per kilogramme ($ 24.20 or so per pound) in 2022 currency.

That North American depopulation could explain the arrival of two Americans in the Ottawa, Ontario, region in April 1899. A certain Higgins, the nephew of a millionaire from Cleveland, Ohio, began an intense frog hunt with the help of a Franco-American by the name of Constant and a Franco-Ontarian / Quebecer recruited on the spot, a certain Lanthier. Between April and September, or even later, they shipped thousands of live frogs to at least one Cleveland frog farm.

And no, the Lanthier in question was probably not related to Florida Lanthier, the female fairground aeronaut and parachutist at the heart of a November 2021 issue of our blog / bulletin / thingee. Good thought though.

Aware of the potential financial contribution of hunting / fishing for frogs, a certain Henri-Gaston Testard de Montigny included a few lines on that subject in Le Livre du Colon – Recueil de renseignements utiles, published in 1902 by the Ministère de la Colonisation of Québec and distributed free of charge by the government of that province and colonisation societies to those who requested it.

In the words, translated words of course, of that talented Québec grammarian / reviewer / translator / writer but unlucky settler fascinated by agriculture and soldiering, “Bullfrog (wawaron in the original French text) legs sell for (about 44 ¢ a kilogram) about 20 ¢ per pound and it takes (about 11 bullfrogs for a kilogramme of thighs) about 5 bullfrogs for a pound of legs.”

Incidentally, yours truly took the liberty of translating French language quotes into English. You are most welcome.

Testard de Montigny claimed to know “young people who have made $ 200.00 in two months just by selling frog legs” to fishmongers or high-level restaurateurs in cities such as Montréal, Québec, and Québec, Québec, and Ottawa. The children of any settler could do the same, he stated.

By the way, that $ 200 corresponded to $ 5 900 or so in 2022 currency. The 20 ¢, on the other hand, corresponded to $ 5.90 or so in 2022 currency.

Before I forget it, Testard de Montigny had a brother, Carolus Glatigny Louvigny Testard de Montigny. That Montréal writer / poet / journalist / critic was the administrator, editor and founder of the Montréal weekly Les Débats, mentioned in the first part of this article. Ours is a small world, is it not?

As you may imagine, frog meat was sold at the Bonsecours Market, a large public market in Montréal, no later than around the beginning of 1900. A price list might prove interesting, I believe:

Frog (legs)

about 55 ¢ per kilogramme (25 ¢ per pound)

about $ 16.55 per kilogramme (about $ 7.50 per pound) in 2022 currency

Turkey

about 20 to 26 ¢ per kilogramme (10 to 12 ¢ per pound)

about $ 6.60 to $ 7.95 per kilogramme (about $ 3.00 to $ 3.60 per pound) in 2022 currency

Duck (domestic)

about 20 to 26 ¢ per kilogramme (10 to 12 ¢ per pound)

about $ 6.60 to $ 7.95 per kilogramme (about $ 3.00 to $ 3.60 in 2022 currency

Chicken

about 20 to 24 ¢ per kilogramme (9 to 11 ¢ per pound)

about $ 5.95 to $ 7.30 per kilogramme (about $ 2.70 to $ 3.30 per pound) in 2022 currency

Cod (fresh)

about 15 to 18 ¢ per kilogramme (7 to 8 ¢ per pound)

about $ 4.65 to $ 5.30 per kilogramme (about $ 2.10 to $ 2.40 per pound) in 2022 currency

By comparison, boneless chicken breast seemingly sold for just under $ 20 per kilogramme (just over $ 9 per pound) in Ottawa, in 2022.

By the way, several Montréal traders used the term poulet d’eau (water chicken) to describe the frogs whose legs they sold.

According to the words of Canadian Grocer, a weekly from Toronto, Ontario, dedicated to the trade of food products, fruits, preserves, etc., “It is a moderate estimate to say that the industry is worth $ 100,000 a season to Quebec province alone.” That sum, mentioned in 1910, corresponded to approximately $ 2 900 000 in 2022 currency. Canadian Grocer was not mistaken. Montréal public market sales of frog legs amounted to around $ 200 000 in 1909, or around $ 5 775 000 in 2022 currency.

In 1901, a Montréal fish wholesaler shipped to the United States over 18 000 kilogrammes (about 40 000 pounds) of frogs – or frog legs. A lot of that meat ended up in New York City, New York.

Would you believe that a posh Montréal restaurant single-handedly paid the measly sum of $ 10 000, or roughly $ 300 000 in 2022 currency, to area farmers / growers in the year 1899?

A resident of Longueuil, Québec, may have been one of the suppliers of said restaurant. That gentleman indeed visited the metropolis 3 times a week for a certain period of 1899. After each visit, he returned home with an extra $ 20 in his pocket, which corresponded to $ 600 or so in 2022 currency, which was not bad at all.

And yes, these considerable sums implied an intense hunt. “Instead of becoming the friend, the protector of the amphibians of our waters, affirmed Joseph-Arthur Paulhus, the accountant of the Montréal fish wholesaler D. Hatton Company, in 1900, [Home sapiens] has become its tyrant, its most cruel enemy and the one most relentless for its doom.”

The vast populations of frogs in the Chateauguay River, a waterway which flowed into Lake Saint-Louis, in Québec, upstream from Montréal, were only a shadow of what they used to be, for example. Indeed, the same was true for all swamps, rivers, ponds, marshes, lakes, etc. of the greater Montréal area.

Would you believe that, around 1900, some American fishermen / hunters covered the 125 kilometres (over 75 miles) of the Richelieu River, from Lake Champlain, in the United States, to Lake Saint-Pierre, in Québec, aboard a large bark which contained in its hull a vast reservoir where the batrachians captured along the way were placed?

If we were to believe a small weekly, La Gazette de Berthier of… Berthier, Québec, the depopulation of Québec waterways, and even, perhaps, of Ontario waterways, led certain / many politicians to wonder, in translation, no later than August 1902

if there is not a way to divert the devastating scourge or at least lessen its ravages among us.

A prohibitive law is suggested as a remedy, but will that law be the responsibility of the central government or the local authorities? In other words, is a frog game or fish? There is the rub.

The Department of Marine and Fisheries in Ottawa was thus faced with a serious problem, even an “Unexpected constitutional question,” to quote the translated title of an article published in the Montréal daily La Presse. I kid you not.

If a frog was a fish in the eyes of the law, it fell under federal jurisdiction. If those same eyes concluded that it was game, that frog fell under provincial jurisdiction. The question would then be whether it was a furry or feathered game, and… There will be no shits and giggles, my reading friend. Constitutional questions were / are serious questions, even when it came to frogs.

If the legal experts from the provincial and federal governments could not agree, it would probably be necessary to set up a committee of experts. If such a committee came to the conclusion that frogs were no more fish than game, protective legislation might not have been possible until an amendment was inserted in a British North America Act. An amendment which would have required a request from the federal government to its British counterpart. I kid you not.

In the end, the matter seemed to have been settled internally, on Canadian soil. Yours truly must admit that I have not found any additional information on that subject.

This being said (typed?), I very much doubt that The Honorable the Commons of the United Kingdom of Great Britain in Parliament assembled and The Right Honorable the Lords Spiritual and Temporal of the United Kingdom of Great Britain in Parliament assembled voted for any amendment to a British North America Act respecting the farming of frogs in Canada.

I wonder how the British political class and press would have reacted if such a request had reached London, England. There would have been shits and giggles, you say, my witty reading friend? You are funny – and probably right. Anyway, let us move on.

Weeks, months and years passed. Canadian frogs continued to be sold in the United States. Wealthy New York Stock Exchange brokers discovered a passion for their meat in the fall of 1912, for example. American frogs often tasted muddy, they claimed.

Would another price list, this time from 1914, be of interest to you, my reading friend? And yes, that was a rhetorical question. Here is the list:

Frog (legs)

about $ 1.65 to $ 1.76 per kilogramme (75 to 80 ¢ per pound) – 3 times the 1900 price!

about $ 43.45 to $ 46.35 per kilogramme (about $ 19.70 to $ 21.00 per pound) in 2022 currency

Turkey

about 55 to 62 ¢ per kilogramme (25 to 28 ¢ per pound)

about $ 14.50 to $ 16.20 per kilogramme (about $ 5.65 to $ 6.35 per pound) in 2022 currency

Regular broiler chicken

about 44 to 49 ¢ per kilogramme (20 to 22 ¢ per pound)

about $ 11.60 to $ 12.75 per kilogramme (about $ 5.25 to $ 5.80 per pound) in 2022 currency

Duck

about 44 to 49 ¢ per kilogramme (20 to 22 ¢ per pound)

about $ 11.60 to $ 12.75 per kilogramme (about $ 5.25 to $ 5.80 per pound) in 2022 currency

I remind you that boneless chicken breast seemingly sold for just under $ 20 per kilogramme (just over $ 9 per pound) in Ottawa, in 2022.

And if you think frog meat was overpriced, allow me to mention that, around 1914, in one of the casinos in the principality of Monaco frequented by members of the Western elite, a pâté of frog legs with truffles and all the trimmings cost, it was said, the modest sum of 600 francs, or about $ 3 150 in 2022 currency, other courses and beverages not included of course.

For your information, a typical (Parisian?) worker earned 1 500 to 3 000 francs per year at that time, or between $ 7 900 and $ 15 800 in 2022 currency.

And the western elite wondered why socialism was so popular among the poor…

Curiously, and very unfortunately, yours truly has very little information on the owners of Canadian frog farms and practically nothing on Québec owners.

Apart from the resident of Longueuil mentioned above, I can only make use of an article by the agricultural columnist of the daily La Presse. Albert-Louis Gareau, or Agricola, reported in 1926 that “a few years ago we have known an old Frenchman who made his fortune with marshes located near Saint-Jérôme, in which he raised frogs that he sold to the big hotels in Montréal.” In August 1935, a Montréal weekly magazine, Le Bulletin des agriculteurs, mentioned in passing a resident of Windsor, Québec, known as the Roi des grenouilles (king of the frogs). In May 1938, the Montréal daily La Patrie also published a very interesting article on the frog farm created in the Laurentides region by a veteran of the First World War, Georges O. Trudel.

I know, I know. Saint-Jérôme is in the Laurentides region. This being said (typed?), I doubt very much that Trudel and the old Frenchman were one and the same.

In May 1953, La Patrie also published an article on Alexandre Meunier from Boucherville, Québec. That outstanding hunter, fisherman and trapper had been hunting frogs since the early 1930s.

The first (and last?) Canadian book on ranaculture, Scientific Method of Bullfrog Culture in Connection with Muskrat Farming, came off the press around 1928. Its author, a certain Martin Henry Fenton of Pickerel Landing, Ontario, southeast of Sudbury, raised muskrats and was thinking of diversifying his activities, towards frog raising.

This being said (typed?), it was a safe bet that American or French books were available if one knew where to look.

Fenton was not the only person to be interested in frogs. Nay. Would you believe that famous American-Canadian author / lecturer / naturalist John Thomas “Jack / Wild Goose Jack” Miner bought thousands of tadpoles in Kansas in 1930 to test if Ontario’s ponds and lakes could harbour frog farms? He kept these little beasts in ponds at his bird sanctuary near Kingsville, Ontario. History did not say, however, if that project led to anything concrete.

A brief digression if I may. Miner was a creationist who believe that birds had been created to that humans could use them, good birds that is. Predatory birds like eagles and hawks, as well as raven and crows, were bad birds. Mind you, non monogamous birds were also bad birds. All bad birds should be exterminated, thought Miner. At the risk of sounding irreverent, if that was the case, yours truly wonders why bad birds had been put on this Earth on the fifth day of creation.

At the risk of putting aside a very useful proposition, that is, when you hit bottom, stop digging, I must say I rather like ravens and crows, as well as eagles and hawks. Yours truly may not be a bird but I am a mammal, just like you, my reading friend, and like the platypus, Parma wallaby and New Caledonian flying fox. Long live Charles Robert Darwin – and Alfred Russel Wallace! Evolution is a fact.

It is with sadness that I must inform you that you will have to wait until next week to read the conclusion of this peroration on ranaculture. You did not think I could expand that topic into a 3-part article, did you? Be honest.

The title of this article suggested it would be a quick look, you say? Your naivety is touching, my reading friend, but never underestimate the prodigious verbosity of yours truly. That and the huge amounts of information available on the Web.

See you later.

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Rénald Fortier