In my novel Lost on the Praire which is coming out in the spring of 2021 my main character Peter, is riding in a boxcar with his family’s two horses on their immigration journey to Canada. To pass the time he plays with a puzzle made by his Grandpa Hugo. It is a puzzle made from nails and he is trying to untangle it. Later the problem-solving skills he practices while doing the puzzle will come in handy when Peter needs to figure out how to open a locked door.
I got the ideas for Peter’s grandfather’s name and having Peter play with a nail puzzle from the visits I made to the home of Hugo Bartel when I was a child. Hugo designed and fashioned all kinds of interesting puzzles and let us play with them. Hugo, a widower, lived with his daughter Mildred Schroeder, her husband Dave and their children. Mildred was my Mom’s best friend and so we made frequent visits to their house in Winnipeg.
Hugo was a bookbinder by trade and had a workshop on the campus of Canadian Mennonite University where he repaired old books.
In this photo, he poses with a hundred-year-old Bible that he repaired. Besides restoring books, Hugo had lots of hobbies and creating wire and nail puzzles was just one of them. He also made puzzles out of wood.
I did a little research and the kind of nail and wire puzzles Hugo made are called disentanglement puzzles because you have to disentangle them or take them apart. They originally have roots in Asia and Europe but came to Canada when people immigrated here and were also known as patience puzzles.
In my novel, Grandpa Hugo slips a puzzle into his grandson Peter’s pocket when they are saying good-bye. Grandpa Hugo will remain in Newton Kansas while his grandson Peter and his family immigrate to Drake, Saskatchewan.
Nail and wire puzzles remain popular today and you can buy entire sets of them.
I am going to start writing the teacher’s guide for my novel after Christmas and will suggest that teachers have their students try to make or solving nail puzzles like the one Peter has in the novel.
So many little details in my novel relate back to memories I have from childhood and Hugo Bartel’s puzzles are one of those memories.
A big thank you to my honorary aunt Mildred Schroeder who provided me with information about her Dad’s puzzle making and to her daughter Dorothy who sent photos of her grandfather and the puzzles he made.