Drop the name Cowboy Jim over breakfast at Wait’s News and all the old boys will have a tale to tell.
Kevin Gilchrist remembers pissing Cowboy Jim off and getting chased around a building downtown. Then there was the time Cowboy’s bottle buggy was kicked over by a pair of kids.
“He ran, grabbed one, pulled him back, not exactly hogtied him but told him to stay put, and he got the other kid and took them up to the cop shop,” recalls Gilchrist. “You don’t want to mess with Cowboy.”
Jim Plamondon, who owns Wait’s News, has known Cowboy Jim since the 1980s. He also knows by heart what Cowboy orders for breakfast every time he moseys into the diner: one cup of coffee and three slices of buttered white toast, broken up with a smoke break.
Sure enough, Cowboy Jim walks through the doors on an early weekday morning, takes his seat at the end of the bar (whenever he visits, that seat belongs to him and him alone) and orders his coffee and toast. Once finished, he shambles outside to fetch his buggy and start another day’s work.
Cowboy Jim’s real name is James Hamilton. He’s 81 years old and has been a local fixture for decades. Six days a week Hamilton wakes up at 5 a.m. and leaves his home to pick up his cart before spending a couple hours collecting bottles from various locations around downtown. The effort nets him $25 to $50 per day.
He has a hard time getting around, but he doesn’t mind.
“I get my exercise,” says Hamilton. “Talk with people. People come up and give you money, $5, $10, $20. ‘You work hard for it. You earned it.’
“You see all these kids panhandling. I had one woman come up me and said, ‘How old are you?’ I said 81. She said, ‘It’s amazing what you do. You beat these young guys.’ … I never needed to do panhandling. I’d never do panhandling.”
On this particular morning, accompanied by a Star reporter, Hamilton’s route takes him first to an auto detailing garage. He says hi to people on the street — some know him and chat, others eye him sideways — and when he arrives at the destination an employee wordlessly walks over with a bag of bottles and puts them in the buggy.
Then it’s onto City Hall. Hamilton needs a few breaks to walk up a hill, but still prefers to take the stairs instead of an elevator on his way into Mayor Deb Kozak’s office where staff find him bottles.
Conversations with Hamilton tend to be short. He developed a speech impediment early in life following a car accident, and can be difficult to understand. He also needs to stop occasionally to wipe his right eye. Glaucoma robbed him of his left eye 14 years ago, and now the other one leaks.
Not that he uses it as an excuse. Hamilton collects bottles in rain, shine or snow. “He might look old, but not in his heart he ain’t,” quips Gilchrist.
Hamilton may walk alone, but he has help. Four years ago a group came together to build him a custom-designed cart that could collect more bottles and was easier to push than one from a grocery store. Cowboy Jim’s Cadillac — the cart’s nickname — is stored and taken care of by residents in a downtown alley when it’s not being used.
“Jimmy’s been friends with people in this town for so long that we need to make sure he’s OK,” says Plamondon.
Hamilton has lived in Nelson since 1972. Before that, he grew up in Edmonton as the son of a cowboy. When he was 14, Hamilton said he competed in bareback and saddle bronc at the Calgary Stampede. He remembers being at the Stampede in 1955, but that timeline doesn’t match his age.
It’s more likely he was at the Stampede in 1949. A list of every participant from 1912 to 1995 provided by the Calgary Stampede archives shows no Jim or James Hamilton as having competed in the 1950s. But it does have a Jim Hamilton (listed as being from Calgary) participating in boys steer riding on July 13 and 15, 1949, which would also put him at the right age.
At the time, Hamilton said he was asked to keep competing but he declined. “This guy I rode with, he got his head and neck broken. Head came too close to cow,” he says. “The other one got kicked by a horse, broke his back. Arm broken, leg broken.”
Plamondon owns one of the belt buckles Hamilton won at the Stampede. It was a gift, one that Plamondon says is his prized possession.
“It’s really old. You can see it just looking at this buckle,” says Plamondon. “It’s an old cowboy-style buckle. Jimmy tells me he won that riding horses in the Calgary Stampede. I’m not sure if it was saddle bronc or bareback. It’s an older buckle so it doesn’t tell you. It isn’t as ornate or fancy as what they make today, but it probably means more to me than anything.”
When Hamilton moved to Nelson, he took a job at the old Civic Hotel as a janitor. He played country songs on his guitar in local bars — “A Mansion on the Hill” by Hank Williams Sr. is his favourite song — and when the hotel closed down in the mid-1990s Hamilton started collecting bottles.
Over two decades later, Cowboy Jim is still pushing his buggy over sidewalks and through alleys. As he waits to cross an intersection, a friend stops Hamilton to ask for a cigarette and notices a reporter standing nearby.
“You’re going to be famous, Jimmy,” he says.
“I’m already famous,” Hamilton replies, before moving onto his next pick up.