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From Letters to Sketchbooks: Connecting the Adventures of Peter and Catharine Whyte

Updated: Aug 1

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By Kate Riordon, Collections Processor

The Whyte Museum contains endless stories – thousands of letters, shelves of sketchbooks, and artifacts that comprise people’s entire lives. Hidden amongst this treasure trove of paper and graphite and paint are more than a fair few gems. While cataloguing and digitizing Peter Whyte’s sketchbooks, Collections Processor Kate Riordon came across one such find.

During World War II, Pete (as he was called by his wife Catharine Robb Whyte) was enlisted as a war artist with the Air Force. One unexpected side effect of Pete’s time with the military branch that focused on planes was that he became quite interested in Jeeps. However, as a still-new feature on the scene, Jeeps were not commercially available to Canadians and, outside of commandeering one from a military base. While this was not advisable, there wasn’t really an easy way for them to get one. Pete and Catharine, who loved travelling and camping as much as the modern-day van lifer, jumped on the opportunity to buy one thanks to Catharine’s continued dual-citizenship in the United States, and retrofit it for their needs.

Camping aside, in the 1940s and 50s a Jeep was a powerful vehicle to own. First brought on the scene in 1940 by Willys-Overland on commission from the United States Army as a light reconnaissance vehicle, these 4x4s quickly became an icon

They were sturdy, easy to drive, easy to fix, and could tackle almost any terrain in all kinds of weather. Following the war, Jeep pivoted into marketing towards farmers as a work vehicle in the United States, but in Canada they remained a more elusive ride. But Pete and Catharine had one and boy did they put it to good use.

icnic between two jeeps [Catharine Robb Whyte on far left, Fern Brewster seated on blanket with back to camera, men unidentified], 1946, Peter Whyte, photographer, Peter & Catharine Whyte fonds, V683/III/A/3/PA–369]
Picnic between two jeeps [Catharine Robb Whyte on far left, Fern Brewster seated on blanket with back to camera, men unidentified], 1946, Peter Whyte, photographer, Peter & Catharine Whyte fonds, V683/III/A/3/PA–369]

In the summer of 1956, Pete and Catharine embarked on a road trip still considered epic by today’s standards. Utilizing newly completed, and sometimes still partially-completed, highways, they drove from their home in Banff, through Whitehorse and Dawson City, to Homer, Alaska. They drove the whole thing, there and back again.

Catharine was also a known letter writer. She wrote to her mother Edith Morse Robb in Concord, Massachusetts, several times a week for more than 30 years. And that habit did not change while they were on this trip. Written by hand with a pen that needed to be refilled with ink, usually balancing the papers on her lap, Catharine detailed every leg of their trip to her mother, including this particular anecdote, dated July 22, 1956 from Dawson City:

I forgot the most exciting part of Friday’s trip. As we drove along one very twisty bit of highway where we made dozens of figure S’s around & between muskegs, we met a car coming too fast who passed us & a little further on a man was standing beside the road, a car right off & into the ditch. The front wheels dug into the mud. We stopped thinking maybe they had been forced off the road, but they had just been driving a bit too fast themselves & the shoulder was a bit too soft & they had landed in the ditch, must have had quite a bump over a lot of big boulders or round stones, but the 3 men weren’t hurt.

They hoped we could pull them out but it looked pretty doubtful. It was a job for a wreching [sic] truck, but there are none on the highway. The Army now charges $25 an hour to do it as too many people they helped previously for nothing sued them later for damaging the cars. So unless a big truck happens along you spend many hours in the ditch.

Pete was willing to try & we hooked our chain to their smaller chain only to break theirs on the first pull & not even budge the car. By then a man from Colorado towing a great 27 foot new trailer with a small truck came along & he stopped. He was delivering the trailer to someone in Anchorage Alaska, charging 31 [cents] a mile to do it. He said his truck wasn’t powerful enough but he had a heavy chain like ours, so they attached that. The driver & owner of the car in the ditch was a nice chap & knew how to do things. So he jacked up one wheel at the back out of the mud. Had to put the jack on rocks. Then he drove his car while Pete started to pull gradually. The car was at least 8 or 10 feet below the road level & nosed into the mud & the chains 20 feet long. The man started his car backing & had snow tires I think & Pete pulled in low compound & out it started to come with much bouncing [?] & grinding over the big rocks. It would not move until Pete pulled & it was so rough & noisy coming over the boulders Pete paused thinking he was pulling the bottom out of the car. So then they made a shorter hitch & 2nd pull it was on the road. They offered to pay but of course we wouldn’t take anything. It was all quite an experience.

[M36/I/A/2b/139/09] Pages 5-7

Back in 2021 I helped digitize these letters in the archives, so when I found this sketch from Pete two years later, I knew it rung a bell.

A page from Peter's sketchbook. WyP.09.17, p. 23
A page from Peter's sketchbook. WyP.09.17, p. 23

A quick sketch for sure, bearing all the trademark style and quirk I’ve come to love from Pete. I also find it extremely interesting that of all the sketches in this book, this one of the cars is the only one he went back in with colour to. You can only guess at which figure is who, but its my personal opinion that the one on the far right in the brown pants and black jacket is Catharine, supervising the men scrambling around down in the muskeg.

Catharine’s letters are housed in the Archives & Special Collections, while Pete’s sketchbooks are kept in Art & Heritage. Not a large distance for sure, but far enough apart to make finding these two sides of the same story feel like a treat. I’m fortunate that in my position I’m able to explore and mine both of these departments for little treasures like this one, and to share them with you.


Want to discover your own treasure trove of Canadian Rockies stories? Book a research appointment with the Whyte Museum Archives & Special Collections or explore the collections online from the comfort of home.

You can also volunteer to help researchers through our online transcription project - delve into the stories of notable historical figures like Catharine Robb Whyte and Lillian Gest by transcribing their handwritten letters. By increasing readability and keyword searching, you can help open new doors to both researchers and the general public to access and use our collections.

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