Foot in Mouth: Remembering Bishop Stringer

If a close ancestor was famous for eating their boots, chances are you’d be interested to know the circumstances. Was he force-fed? Was it a lost bet? Is the compulsion to feast on footwear genetic?

Australian musician Todd Mayhew, of the folk duo The April Maze, is not only curious about the life and times of his great-grandfather Bishop Isaac Stringer, but has written a song about him. Its title is the name by which history remembers the man: “The Bishop Who Ate His Boots.”

Growing up in Australia, Mayhew first heard about Isaac Stringer from his Canadian grandmother who, while visiting her Queensland relatives, would say things like, “Excuse me, Todd, manners. You know your great-grandfather ate with the queen and you may do so yourself.”

Mayhew’s great-grandfather Isaac Stringer was born in Ontario, but spent much of his working life within the Yukon – the territory in which the notorious boot-eating episode took place.

It was only recently that Mayhew discovered his grandmother’s stories about the Bishop – including the one about him eating his boots – weren’t fabricated to make him eat his vegetables.

“I’ve now read his biography thoroughly and that’s just one of the many tales,” Mayhew says. “You could write a whole album on him.”

One of the first things Mayhew did when he sat down with Stringer’s biography was to look for the details on the boot-eating situation.

“I skipped through to find the story about him eating his boots, and there it was: a whole chapter on his massive journey.”

In September 1909 Bishop Stringer was returning from the Mackenzie River Diocese to Dawson City with a small party. What should have been a manageable, five-day trip became a seven-week, near-death ordeal. To ward off starvation, Bishop Stringer eventually started to boil and then roast his sealskin boots, knowing that untanned animal hide can sustain life. After 51 days the emaciated men stumbled upon a camp and were rescued.

Mayhew and his brother, Steve, worked together to write the story into a song, and The April Maze are now keeping the legend alive, performing it for a new generation.

“We both always talked about writing a song about our great-grandfather,” Mayhew says. “But there was that pressure, in that you know it’s a good story and you don’t want to just make a silly song.”

The April Maze is a family affair. Todd Mayhew and his wife Sivan Agam formed the musical partnership and the band has released three EPs and two albums: Recycled Soul and Two.

In 2012 the band’s hard work began to pay off when Two featured in the top 100 most popular new releases on Spotify, an international music streaming service. They have since secured international management, but these grounded musicians are determined to remain in control of their label.

Travelling to the Yukon to perform “The Bishop Who Ate His Boots” hadn’t been part of their plans – until the Yukon came to them.

Amateur musicians and Whitehorse locals, Scott and Roslyn Wilson, regularly visit Australia. They first noticed The April Maze at a Tasmanian folk festival and felt compelled to complement them on their set, but they didn’t discover at that point that there was a Yukon connection. Four years later, at this year’s National Folk Festival in Canberra, the Wilsons and The April Maze crossed paths again.

“Someone’s singing about where you’re from,” the Wilson’s campground neighbours at the Nationals told them.

By the end of The April Maze’s next performance Scott Wilson was at the backstage door asking to speak to the descendent of Bishop Stringer. Mayhew was out in a flash and plans quickly began to take shape.

The April Maze were already booked for the Home Routes tour in Southern British Columbia, but hadn’t signed up for the Yukon leg because, as Mayhew says, they were “not used to driving in snow.” His great-grandfather’s perils had probably discouraged him.

However, Mayhew is now putting his fears of ice and snow aside to bring “The Bishop Who Ate His Boots” to the place his great-grandfather lived, worked, and damn near met his maker.

The April Maze will perform a house concert in Dawson City at the Anglican Rectory (Stringer House) on Tuesday, Oct. 8, and in Whitehorse at the Old Log Church Museum on Thursday, Oct. 10. For more information contact Scott Wilson by email at [email protected]t.

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