Bob Edwards was Calgary’s first media celebrity, a genuine pre-television superstar who put the frontier town on the North American map long before cowboy showman Guy Weadick launched the Calgary Stampede or Mayor Don Mackay presented the first white cowboy hat to a visiting dignitary.
The Eye Opener was Edwards’s “newspaper,” a satirical publication that broke all the accepted rules of journalism by running gossip and satirical commentary instead of news. Yet, it enjoyed the largest circulation (thirty-five thousand) of any newspaper published west of Winnipeg.
Edwards started the paper in 1902, eight years after arriving in Canada. Born in Edinburgh, he was educated at a private school and Glasgow University and continued his studies in Berlin, Paris and Rome. By the time he was thirty, he had seen most of Europe and edited a gossipy newspaper, the Traveller, for the entertainment of wealthy tourists to the Riviera. His experiences there eventually showed him the shallowness of high society. “Gorgeous hats on empty heads made him realize that much of society is founded on false values and humbug,” wrote his biographer, Grant MacEwan.
“The management has decided on the name ‘eye opener’ because few people will resist taking it. it will be run on a strictly moral basis of the one dollar a year. if an immoral paper is the local preference, we can supply that too but it will cost $1.50.”
– Bob edwards
In 1892 Edwards immigrated to the United States “to ranch and be away from relations.” He worked on a farm in Iowa, then headed north to Canada, hoping to become a homesteader. His total possessions at the time consisted of his clothing, thirty-five dollars in cash, and a book of Robert Burns’s poems.
Edwards never became a homesteader. Instead, he went to Wetaskiwin, took a room at the Walker House Hotel, and, with financial help from the hotel owner, started a weekly newspaper.
Edwards came from a respectable Scottish publishing family, so he did have ink in his veins. The paper didn’t do well. Wetaskiwin, with its population of “287 souls plus three total abstainers,” simply couldn’t support it. After a brief stint with a second paper, Edwards moved to High River in 1902 to launch his famous Eye Opener.
The itinerant Eye Opener lasted two years in High River before moving to Calgary, where Edwards finally found a congenial setting for his alcohol-fuelled satire. Calgary, he noted approvingly, was “picturesquely situated so as to be within easy reach of the brewery, with streets revolving in eccentric orbits around a couple of dozen large bars.”
Humour and satire were Edwards’s trademarks. The Eye Opener never pretended to cover legitimate news. It was a journal of social observation that increasingly became a platform for social commentary. It could, and did, make or break politicians.
“Most people who are old enough to know better often wish they were young enough not to.”
– Bob edwards
“As one journeys through life and the shadows begin to fall eastward, one reaches the solemn conclusion that too much of the world’s wisdom is uttered and too little lived.”
– Bob edwards
At age fifty-eight, Edwards married Kate Penman, a twenty-four-year-old Glasgow-born clerk. Marriage was a struggle for the eccentric editor. But gradually he accepted his wedded status and liked it. “When a man is in love for the first time, he thinks he invented it,” he said.
In 1921 Edwards set aside his traditional disdain for politicians to run as an independent in the provincial elections. He won a seat, but by the time he arrived in Edmonton, he was a sick man. He sat for only one session of the legislature and made only one speech. He died in November 1922 at age sixty-three and The Eye Opener died with him. He would have appreciated the irony of his dying only one year after becoming a politician. “Now I know what a statesman is,” he had written. “He is a dead politician, and what this country needs is more of them.”
Brian Brennan is a Calgary author and the Calgary Public Library’s 2012 Writer in Residence. Excerpted from Brennan, B. (2000). Building a Province – 60 Alberta Lives. (pp. 17-20). Fifth House Ltd.