The pig was so quick it was almost out before it got in but the story of the “Pig at The Boot” has become something of local legend.
It’s these stories, and the culture of small-town life as revealed around the local watering hole, that intrigued the creatives at the Blyth Festival Theatre.
Wing Night at the Boot is part of the Festival’s summer lineup in a play that both “celebrates and lampoons 141 years of the Blyth Inn”, affectionately known as The Rubber Boot.
“Oh, it was always a good spot,” recalls Joe Heffron with fondness. Now 72 and still a dining patron, Joe was a regular back in the day and was, 100 per cent, involved in the pig prank at said establishment.
“That pig didn’t stay in the hotel very long,” remembers Joe.
As the story goes, a young guy had mysteriously gotten hold of a pig and was hiding it in his dad’s garage. Joe got word of it and decided he would rescue the pig and bring it to The Boot. “We took it in through the front door and it went right out through the front door,” remembers Joe. “Lloyd (former bartender Lloyd Appleby), well he was quick and he grabbed it and put in the back of Dougie McDougall’s car.”
One can only imagine how thrilled Doug McDougall was.
Lillian Appleby, now 83, was Lloyd’s wife and she remembers those days with good humour. Her husband bartended at The Boot for almost 40 years, working three nights a week while he farmed on the 7th of Morris.
“Near the end he was down to Saturday night until his legs just couldn’t take it anymore,” remembers Lillian. Lloyd died in 2010. Lillian sold the farm and moved into an apartment in Blyth. She rarely goes to The Blyth Inn anymore. It’s just not the same.
Lillian likes to call the place The Inn but to her chagrin, everybody else called it The Boot. “The name always made me think of dirty barn boots”, she says. In her day, The Blyth Inn had multiple rooms.
“There was the room where you came in where the women and their escorts could sit. Sometimes a “stray” would come in from the east side where the men were supposed to sit but you could ask the waiter to get them to leave,” says Lillian.
Others would hang out in the pool room but Lillian never did. She preferred listening to the bands and watching the dancers.
“I remember telling Speed Johnson that they would play one song but the dancers would have five different steps,” says Lillian. “It was fun watching them.”
How about the days of brawls and bar fights?
“Oh, Lloyd used to get so disgusted about those stories. I would come home and share that I’d heard there was a pushing match at The Boot. He would tell me it was just an argument,” remembers Lillian. “When he saw someone get heated he would go have a chat with them and tell them to settle down or they would be out the door.”
She does recall when the Wingham boys would arrive, testy, and drink too much “juice.”
“A few of them would come sometimes. They seemed to have a chip on their shoulders and would try to aggravate people and get a fight going.”
Like Joe, Lillian’s memories are good ones of those years spent waiting for her husband to get off work. “It was my social time. I usually went with Lloyd’s sister.” She remembers the locals affectionately, recalling the nicknames of the local barflys. There was Ken “Speed” Johnson, Gordie “Old Dad” McDougall, Kenny “Yogie” Josling, Lloyd “Thunder” Josling, Don “Duckie” Glousher and Don “Barney” Stewart. Her own husband was always known as “Spud” or “Spuddie”.
It’s these names and stories that play director, Severn Thompson, is keen to hear as she and the play’s creative team research The Blyth Inn’s past.
At the time of this interview, Severn and actors Georgina Beaty and Tony Munch, were in the thick of research and writing and have discovered The Boot had over 30 owners in its time. Wing Night at the Boot is a collective creation, a sort of multiple narrative presentation; a “pastiche” or collage of stories. Collectives tend to have a “freshness and aliveness” compared to plays based on scripts, says Georgina. However, the creative process can lead anywhere or nowhere so there is stress.
“We’re living with the unknown,” said Severn, as she explained the non-linear development of a collective. “It’s not for the faint of heart.”
Georgina has found the process exciting and said through talking with locals, she quickly started to see the characters that would make up the play. Also, it was fascinating to see how The Boot functioned during its different iterations in time.
Georgina said over the years it has changed from a bar with a reputation for drinking and brawls to a dining establishment offering great food. What has stayed the same is its role as a community hub.
“It’s a meeting place where people can talk and let off steam,” she says.
Severn is learning that the people of Blyth see The Boot as their own. “No matter who owns it, the real owners are the locals.”
Growing up in Alberta, Georgina doesn’t have her own memories of The Boot but she is familiar with “gravel-run culture” and how the longevity of a place like The Boot immerses it in local folklore and culture.
“There’s a real investment in that place,” she says.
Tony, who also grew up in Alberta, now lives in Woodville and says its not dissimilar to Blyth, surrounded as both towns are by farmland. This is Tony’s sixth season at The Blyth Festival (remember him in Beyond the Farm Show, Rope’s End and Falling Awake) and he says he has felt more community in Blyth than in any other place.
“It’s partly the community of theatre but also of this town and the people I have gotten to know over time,” says Tony.
He think the play will trigger memories of everyone’s first time going to the local bar.
Severn agrees. “We’re trying to capture the mystique that has grown around The Boot ... to reveal what really goes on in there.”
To make the experience even more tangible and enjoyable, patrons of the play will be served alcohol during the presentation. “We want to recreate that celebratory feeling,” says Severn. Drinking during a play is a first for The Blyth Festival but considering The Boot’s historic nightlife scene, it’s a “good fit” she said.
Jason Rutledge is the chef and current owner of The Blyth Inn along with business partners Cheryl Lee (manager) and Sheila Thompson. They took over from Carol and Peter Irwin in 2003 who owned and managed The Boot for over two decades.
It’s a busy place and it’s hard to get Jason to sit down from his duties that used to be all-consuming. Family life has encouraged him to take one whole day off a week.
Jason grew up near Auburn, a mere 10 minutes from Blyth, but he never hung out at The Boot. However, when he was looking to either retire from cooking or own his own establishment, The Boot was for sale and he jumped in. He’s thrilled the Inn will be the focus of a Blyth Festival play.
“When I heard about it, I thought it was very cool and exciting,” says Jason. “They interviewed me last week and I told them that while the business partners wanted more of a nightlife, I wanted it to be more about food.”
The new owners tried to offer both but Jason says “we saw the old days coming back.”
When the owners were sued after a patron left the bar, fell off a car and sustained an injury, that was enough for Jason. “We used to stay open until 2 a.m. but now we close at 10 or 11 p.m. and have gotten the focus away from the bar.”
The name, though, is something he couldn’t change.
“When we bought it, I wanted to get rid of the name and the reputation that came with it,” says Jason. “However, I quickly realized we wouldn’t ever get rid of it. I was in Nashville once and ran into a couple from Dungannon. When I told them that I ran a restaurant in Blyth they were like ‘The Boot?’ I couldn’t believe it. So we embraced the name and continued.”
Indeed, a rubber boot is proudly displayed by the taps on the bar.
The focus of The Boot is more on the food now. The place is crazy busy on wing night and Jason says the waitstaff will serve up to 300 people between five and 11 p.m.. In wing numbers, that translates to 3,000 wings during the summer months or up to 5,000 wings a night during the winter months when the snowmobilers arrive.
“There’s just a constant trail of snowmobilers here during the winter,” says Jason.
While everyone seems to love The Boot’s chicken wings, Jason says he hasn’t eaten wings in five years. “When you cook that many you smell like a chicken wing.”
Wings, burgers and the chicken alfredo are three meals that have never gone off the menu in 15 years. While he does get bored making the same food, he enjoys his work.
The Boot was up for sale a few years ago. Jason says he and Cheryl both have young families so it was a kind of “if it sells, good. If not, also good.”
“We aren’t going to be super wealthy but we make a good living,” says Jason.
The owner’s next goal is to renovate the outside of the establishment. “We don’t want to change it but we want to clean it up,” says Jason. It’s an old building and parts of it are getting really old.
Jason has never actually made time to see a play at The Blyth Festival but says he will definitely go see this one. “I can’t wait to see it,” he says.
He’s also curious to see how the play will affect business, realizing that having supper at The Boot before the play is an obvious pairing.
“I haven’t seen an influx in business yet but I hear a lot of buzz. My parents are getting calls all the time and everyone is asking me about it,” he says.
Severn says one of the questions that will be answered in the play is why The Blyth Inn has always been known as The Boot, an answer even Lillian doesn’t know.
If attendees don’t go for the memories, or the bar fight scene, or the booze, they might go just to find out the answer to his age-old question. ◊
• Wing Night at The Boot at The Blyth Festival Theatre runs from August 8 to September 15.