Remembering the colourful character of Harry Goodall

Like many frontier communities, early Red Deer attracted quite a few colorful figures.

One of the most colorful of our pioneer residents was Harry Goodall. While he often made his living from digging water wells, he was nicknamed ‘Dirty Harry’ because of his personal appearance and hygiene.

Goodall was born in England in November 1878. He was always quite adventuresome. He joined the London Metropolitan Police. When that didn’t really suit him, he enlisted in the British Army and was sent to India.

After his discharge, he moved briefly to South Africa, then to Australia before finally deciding to move to Alberta in 1906. He had been married, but apparently his wife did not like the idea of living in Canada. It is unclear if she ever moved to Red Deer with her husband. Nevertheless, she was back living in England in 1906.

One of the first jobs Goodall was able to land was working as a labourer with the Town of Red Deer’s Public Works department, installing some of the first water and sewer lines. The project was late in getting started. Hence, winter set in not long after he began work.

Tragically, he badly froze his feet while working in one of the trenches. He made his way back to his little log shack by the river. He was forced to amputate his toes with a razor as they soon began to turn gangrenous.

After his feet healed, Goodall moved to a new shack in North Red Deer along what is now 60 St. just west of the cottage school. He got odd jobs working for the Village of North Red Deer, but usually he made his living digging water wells.

Unlike some well diggers, he often did not use a piece of willow or other such wood as a dowsing rod. Instead, he would walk around until his ‘nubbins’ (the remnants of his toes) began to twitch. He claimed that the twitching of his toes not only indicated where water was located, but also how far down the well would have to be dug.

The digging of water wells was hard work, but he was very strong, despite the severe injuries to his feet. However, he was never one to be rushed. He worked slowly and methodically as he shoveled away.

Water well digging was not very profitable.

The price paid was usually not very high. There were also the overhead costs of buying the lumber for cribbing. Wintertime was particularly hard financially as it was impossible to dig. During that part of the year, he hoped to get a bit of money from odd jobs with the Village, or his neighbours.

Over time, he became more and more poverty-stricken. He never had any running water in his shack so he, infrequently, took a bath to remove all the dirt he accumulated digging wells. He used piles of old coats to cover himself when he went to bed. Often, his meals came from the generosity of his neighbours. His only indulgence was the occasional pipe of tobacco.

Eventually, a lifetime of hard work caught up with him and he had trouble managing even small odd jobs. Finally, the government took charge of his affairs and had him placed in a nursing home in Olds.

He hated the place. His old friends were still in Red Deer. Travel to even a nearby community such as Olds was considered quite a trip in those days. Most of all, he hated the loss of his independence, despite the squalid conditions under which he had been forced to live.

Not much time passed between Goodall’s placement in the nursing home and his death. He was buried in an unmarked pauper’s grave by the authorities. Fortunately, the stories about this colourful man continued for many years to come. When the Glendale subdivision was developed, the Red Deer and District Archives Committee recommended that a street be named in his memory. Hence, Goodall Ave. was designated by the Red Deer Planning Commission and the City of Red Deer.

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