“He was a young man of 19 years. He had long hair down to his shoulders and looked like a big fat kid. He weighed 320 pounds.” The fat kid was Louis Cyr , who was to become Quebec’s most celebrated strong man, a bona fide star whose feats astonished all those around him.
Already as a young teen, he was practicing holding on to a rope tied to a horse attempting full gallop in the opposite direction (the tour du cheval later became Cyr’s signature test of strength). And he just kept getting stronger.
Paul Ohl presents this extraordinary man’s biography, 10 years in the making, in Louis Cyr: Une Epopee Legendaire (2004), a meticulously researched and chatty portrait of the times, as well as portrait of the Canayen strongman.
Born in Acadie in the mid-1800s (he was three years old when the Dominion of Canada was founded), Cyr was one of 10 children who survived infancy.
His parents were determined to send him to school (an oddity, as not all parents believed in formal education), though Cyr ended up being more intrigued by wrestling than reading. (He later said that, despising his own ignorance, he focussed on learning his A-B-Cs as an adult.) But Cyr was pulled out of school anyway, when the family, suffering from the collapse of fecund agricultural land around them, moved to Massachusetts, to the textile capital of the United States.
Business owners had first lured farmers’ daughters to the workhouses, who unionized and managed to reduce the workweek to a mere 60-odd hours. Annoyed, the bosses started hiring the Irish, who began to get uppity themselves. And so the French-Canadians, arriving with no skills, no money, no English, and no union rep, got hired by the hundreds. The Irish called them scabs; the French-Canadians were desperate and living on garbage.
Author Ohl is interested in rehabilitating the reputation of the strongman, who eventually settled in Quebec. The very smart and entrepreneurial Louis Cyr was a proud ambassador for the francophones of his time, despite the discrimination (he was disliked by many North Americans for his Frenchie name), whose hard work and perseverance trained him for ever more amazing shows of strength, the sort of single-mindedness and passion that marks an Olympic-level athlete.
At one point, he was eating 12 pounds of meat a day, or about 7,000 calories.
The book goes beyond Cyr’s life and death, to his legacy, and follows the lives of those he left behind – lives often miserably sad. After the death of Cyr’s wife, a daughter inherited his vast wealth. She suffered years of violence inflicted by her husband and later, Ohl believes, was cheated out of her father’s money and property.
Louis Cyr died in November of 1912, 99 years ago. The Lennoxville Library is itself marking 99 years of service this year. Help us celebrate our 100th with your volunteer time, memories and ideas for a year-long birthday celebration. Pop by the library with ideas, photographs or drawings or written memories.
– Eleanor Brown, Nov. 4, 2011