by Ron Roizen
The tall tale is a revered part of the American West’s cultural fabric. Wyoming’s notorious jackalope and the outlandish 19th-century prevarications of fellow journalists Mark Twain and Dan de Quille, at Virginia City, Nevada’s Territorial Enterprise newspaper, may serve as outstanding examples. The Coeur d’Alene Mining District had its share of yarn spinners, too. The best known among them was doubtless Jim Wardner, founder of two towns that still bear his name – one in Shoshone County and the other in British Columbia, about 25 miles southeast of Cranbrook and nestled alongside Canada’s Kootenay River. “Of course, as a promoter I am compelled to do a good deal of romancing [i.e., gentle lying],” Wardner reportedly once remarked, “but I tell the truth sometimes.”
His most memorable hoax involved cats and a tiny island in Puget Sound. In the early 1890s the always enterprising Mr. Wardner let it be known that he was launching a business called The Consolidated Black Cat Company, Limited on Eliza Island in Bellingham Bay. There, management would feed free-range black cats via seine fishing and the cats themselves, as was their habit, would freely multiply. Every month about 500 would be harvested for their skins, which would be sold and soon turned into parts of fashionable ladies’ garments and accessories. “Cats’ fur,” commented one contemporary observer, “makes up elegantly into muffs and capes, and I see they are beginning to be quite popular.” The enterprise’s island venue would eliminate the problem of interbreeding with non-black cats, thus maintaining consistent color. Wardner’s project was to be capitalized to the tune of $200,000 and shares were available to would-be investors. Newspapers across the country glommed onto the story like felines to catnip.
Wardner’s autobiography, published in 1900, celebrated the widespread newspaper coverage his cat company had garnered by reprinting selections from their reports in his book’s Chapter XX, titled “My Cat Ranch.” “During the day the cats will wander about the island,” reported the New York Tribune, “sun themselves on the rocks or lie in the shade of the trees, as the conditions may dictate.” Its report concluded favorably, “In some respects the time seems to be ripe for the Consolidated Black Cat Company, Limited.” Wardner’s chapter also quoted a passage from Col. W.J. Parkinson’s speech to the New York Fur Men’s Association. “Imagine these two thousand acres cut up into convenient divisions,” waxed Parkinson, “with drying sheds and barns, meat and slaughter houses, grass and sand lots, for these feline pets to whisk about in.” Wardner closed his chapter with an account of the sale of the cat ranch published in The Seattle Times. Using cat meat in feed soup for the island’s feline population, according to this report, had resulted in disastrous consequences. The practice, opined the Times’ report, was “avarice” and promoted “cannibalism.” How much or how little contemporary newspaper reports may have cottoned-on to Wardner’s spoof must be left to speculation. Wardner himself, no worse for wear, closed his chapter by simply noting that he’d moved on to a prospecting venture in the Cascades of Washington State.
Two bloggers have made interesting points regarding Wardner’s island cat ranch. Sarah Hartwell’s “Messybeast.com,” a cat-centered site, argues that Wardner’s cat ranching idea was not original with him and appeared in earlier reports stretching back to the early 1880s. Noel V. Bourasaw, editor of the “Skagitriverjournal.com,” suggests that Wardner’s cat ranch tale contained a tell. Bourasaw argues that “Sam Weller,” the “cat man” Wardner hired to manage his island company, was borrowed from a character by the same name in Charles Dickens’ The Pickwick Papers. The best hoaxes, of course, always included telling tells.
James F. Wardner died in 1905, at age 59, at El Paso, Texas. The Spokane Chronicle’s tribute, noting his peripatetic ways, mentioned his mining-related travels to Australia, Alaska, British Columbia, and Mexico. “Few other men were so closely identified with the growth and development of the Coeur d’Alene mining region,” noted the Chronicle, “and it was in part as a result of his efforts that the interest of eastern capital was drawn to that section.” The San Francisco Chronicle subtitled its report of his passing thus: “A Man of Gigantic Schemes, Who Made and Lost Fortunes in Mining Enterprises.” This report’s text closed by recalling a couple of his “notorious” ventures and the ingenuity they displayed, including his Consolidated Black Cat Company, Limited.