An artful dodger who was captured in lore and immortalized in bronze is now iconified on the walls of the Red Deer Museum and Art Gallery.
And so lives on the real-life legend of Francis, a 108-kilogram range hog that bolted from certain death and beat it for the bush while his fellow swine were on their way to becoming sausage and bacon at a Red Deer processing plant.
The plucky porker had been hiding out in the bush along the east side of West Park for three months in late September of 1990 when word of his daring escape reached local media and rapidly captured the public’s imagination.
Schoolchildren from across the country wrote letters to Red Deer Mayor Bob McGhee, imploring him to have Francis spared from the butcher’s knives.
As the days grew shorter and colder, people from across the continent followed local news stories for word of the pig’s plight and wrote letters to local officials, begging that he be rescued and given a good home to live out his years.
Others composed songs and poems, singing praises of a homegrown hero.
Finally brought down by a series of three tranquilizer darts fired from a rifle, Francis was put in a warm stall under the care of a veterinarian and a local farmer.
He was frost bitten, bruised and emaciated. Porcupine quills were embedded in his hide and his body still bore the remnants of previous encounters with cars and coyotes.
He slipped quietly away only two days later, on Dec. 1, 1990. A necropsy revealed that Francis had died of peritonitis, the result of a tranquilizer dart piercing his bowel.
The letters and tributes continued to flow, including a sympathy card from the staff at an elementary school in Quebec.
Mrs. N. Mason, president of Mercy Volunteers for Animals in Vancouver, wrote a letter to the mayor, decrying the slaughter of pigs for food.
“We have no right to treat them like tins of soup. We will put a momorial (sic) of Francis in our next newsletter,” wrote Mason.
The breadth of the story came to light at the Red Deer Archives earlier this year, when a bronze statue of Francis — part of the city’s Ghosts series — had to be moved to accommodate construction at its original site, near Gaetz Avenue and 52nd Street.
Jillian Staniec, lead archivist for the City of Red Deer, said the Recreation, Parks and Culture department had come up with a contest, inviting children to figure out where the ham on the lam would find his new home.
The statue was to be placed at the Blue Grass Sod Farms spray park, a stone’s throw from the Red Deer Museum and Art Gallery.
Archives staff started contemplating a Francis exhibit while collecting information for the contest, Staniec.
Further incentive for an exhibit was developing as archives staff were finding frequent reminders of the legendary escape.
“As we were going through our archival records here, and we’re looking through city documents and community documents, we started seeing Francis just pop up places.
We found these amazing documents and we wanted to highlight the full story of Francis,” said Staniec.
Under direction of Selena Percy, archives staff pulled up the material to create the Ham on the Lam exhibit, coined from one of the newspaper articles written about his escape and the adventures that followed.
Ham on the Lam, located on walls just outside the archives office, was opened to the public in mid-October. The exhibit will be displayed until Christmas.