Herbalist’s mural is a city landmark

From our April 2012 issue

By Lorraine Arnott – Winnipeg, Man.

On the corner of Portage and Aldine in Winnipeg, there’s a mural of a tramp on the side of a building that motorists see on their way west out of the city.

Carmen Ruttan, a herbalist, had the tramp painted on his building years ago when we still called the area Sturgeon Creek.

It now states “54 miles to Portage la Prairie” but originally it stated “54 miles to the next drug store.”

When I was young there was nothing beside that building except long grass and a burned-out old building. On the next corner was the plot where my grandparents had their Victory garden.

There’s a leather shop now where Carmen Ruttan’s store used to be. The mural is of a guy with an old hat and tattered clothes, with his things tied up in a bag on a pole, carried across his shoulder.

The one that’s on there now isn’t the same as the first one I saw. Every five or 10 years Carmen had it repainted. The new owners have done the same ever since.

I once saw a large picture showing all the different tramps that had been there – three or four rows of them – maybe eight pictures in each row. I was surprised at how many there were.

Before socialized medicine

As far as I can remember, Carmen Ruttan was in the building all the time I was growing up. I can’t remember when he left – after I was married in the 1950s, maybe.

In those days, Canada had no socialized medicine. You had to pay the doctor if you had a medical problem. Sometimes people would trade vegetables to see one.

Carmen Ruttan was a cheaper alternative. Mom would send us down with a note if she needed anything, and he’d mix it up while we waited. I’d walk through the doors and be absolutely fascinated.

It was dark in there because it was all dark wood. There were shelves all around the room, and it always smelled good. Carmen wore a white coat, like a doctor. Every time we walked in the door he’d say, “Well, I declare!”

Mom used to get a vitamin mixture from him – “beef, iron, and wine”. It looked like blood and it was awful stuff.

One time mom bought a ‘BB Bat’, a long thin sucker on a stick, and broke it in three for me, my sister, and my brother. It cost 2¢.

Every year Jerry would get a rash in the summer and we’d go to Mr. Ruttan. He had blisters on his hands, feet, and body. They called it poison ivy.

He wore dad’s army shorts because they were so big, trying to keep the cloth away from his body.

Mr. Ruttan made up some calamine lotion and little rolled-up red pills, and Jerry would walk around carefully. He was so uncomfortable.

Our dog, Rex, would lick the ointment off his toes, and lick the blisters until they broke. In this way Rex helped him the most, because at least then he could keep walking around.

The “Long Tramp” mural at 2579 Portage Ave. has been a local landmark since the 1920s. – Photo by John Kendle
The earliest known photographic reference of the original Carman Ruttan Tramp, circa 1941. Photo courtesy of St. James-Assiniboia Historical Museum.