Sunday, 29 May 2011

Bienfait Hotel: Mute Witness to Troubled Times

Bienfait Hotel, June 2006.  Joan Champ photo
Bienfait, a coal-mining town in southeastern Saskatchewan, has seen more than its share of trouble and the Bienfait hotel stood in mute witness to it all. 

1915 map of Bienfait showing location of the hotel. Image source
In 1904, the Canadian Pacific Railway opened Bienfait Mines Ltd. ten miles north of the US border near Estevan. Soon, other coal mines were opened in the area. Miner’s cottages, stores and other buildings were built near the mines, and the CPR built its Bienfait railway station in 1905. The King Edward Hotel was built on the corner of Railway and Main in 1907 by Fitzsimmons & Sons. By 1911, Albert Rogers was the hotel keeper, followed by Gordon White.  Because he owned it for so many years, the two-storey wood frame building with its lovely white verandah became unofficially known as White’s Hotel. 

White advertised the King Edward Hotel as “the best equipped village hotel in Saskatchewan.”  The hotel featured Simmons beds, Slumber King springs throughout, hot soft-water baths at all times, four  first-class billiard tables, three bowling alleys, a first-class two-chair barber-shop, and electrical refrigeration. According to Stephen L. Endicott, historian of the Bienfait miner’s struggles, by the 1930s the village elite – including mine managers, office staff, and pit bosses – “gathered at the bar for smoking, relaxation, and socializing and took their privileged standing for granted.” (Stephen L. Endicott, Bienfait; The SK Miner’s Struggle of ’31, 2002, p. 12)

Madoff Murder

In 1915 when the province went dry, bootlegging became Bienfait’s main industry. Harry Bronfman and his brothers set up a boozorium in the town called the Bienfait Export Liquor Company. By 1920, the boozorium, which looked from the outside like a drug store, stocked hundreds of cases of expensive Canadian and imported liquors – rye, gin, rum and scotch – all of which was sold to American buyers from across the border. “All we handled was $100 or $1,000 bills,” said Harry Zellickson, a farmer from Hirsch who managed the Bienfait boozorium. “We made about $10,000 to $20,000 a day.” (As quoted in Heather Robertson, Grass Roots, 1973, p. 249) The boozorium later became Alex Ronyk’s pool hall.

Dutch Shultz
There are stories about Al Capone and other gangsters from Chicago spending time in Bienfait.  Dutch Shultz (real name– Arthur S. Flegenheimer) apparently spent a week in White's King Edward Hotel in early August, 1922. It is said that he was sent by Capone to meet with Paul Matoff, brother-in-law of Sam and Harry Bronfman regarding liquor trade connections between the Bronfmans and Capone. There is even a story that Capone came to Bienfait and met the Bronfmans at White's Hotel. Source

Paul Matoff was shot and killed on October 4, 1922 in the telegrapher’s office of the CPR station – directly across the street from White’s hotel. While his men were loading bottles into the back of a rum runner’s truck, Matoff was inside counting the money.  Suddenly, the barrel of a sawed-off shotgun smashed through the station window, firing point-blank into Matoff’s back. $6,000 and Matoff’s diamond tiepin or ring were stolen. Source

Miner's Labour Struggles

In the summer of 1920, P. M. Christopher, organizer for the One Big Union, came to Bienfait to address a mass meeting of miners from various mines in the district.  On June 30th, a vigilante group representing the coal mine operators broke into Christopher’s room at the King Edward Hotel in the middle of the night and kidnapped him. They drove him across the US border and told him that if he ever returned he’d be tarred and feathered. Click here for full story in the Regina Morning Leader.

A decade later, the Depression hit, knocking the bottom out of Bienfait’s economy. The price of coal fell, wages were cut, and many miners were laid off. The pressures of unemployment and the resulting poverty led to the coal miners’ strike in and around Bienfait in the fall of 1931. On September 29th, miners and their families travelled in trucks to Estevan for a parade demonstration against the mining companies. Three miners, Julian Gryshko, Peter Markunas, and Nick Nargan, were shot and killed by the RCMP when they attacked a miners' parade in the streets of Estevan that day. Many more were wounded despite the fact that it was a peaceful demonstration that included women and children. 
RCMP during the miner's demonstration at Estevan, 1931. Source
The tragic melee was over in an hour. The miners and their families fled back to Bienfait in their trucks, where, in the Bienfait Café, Wing Wong performed first aid on the injured. Immediately afterwards, 90 fully armed RCMP descended on Bienfait where they patrolled the town night and day for two weeks in an attempt to break the strike and destroy the union. (For a full account of this event, see Endicott's book, Bienfait: The Saskatchewan Miner's Strike of '31 [Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2002.)
Postcard showing the King Edward Hotel in the early 1950s. Image source

Shenanigans in the Seventies

Wilf Gardiner (centre) with his father, son and wife, c. 1955. Image source
In 1971, J. W. (Wilf) Gardiner, son of former premier of Saskatchewan James G. (Jimmy) Gardiner, bought the Coalfields Hotel (the former King George Hotel) in Bienfait from Mrs. Ann Sichello.  “I bought the hotel because I love Saskatchewan’s small towns,” Gardiner said, “and because this part of the country has always been in my heart. My father Jimmy Gardiner taught school at Frobisher, just east of Bienfait, when he first came to western Canada. Besides that I am told the Coalfields Hotel … is one of the best small-town hotels in the province.”Click here for full story in Regina Leader-Post, p. 2.  Gardiner changed the hotel’s name to the Plainsman, and remodelled a section of the hotel as living quarters for his family, wife Marg and their son and daughters.

Gardiner spent seven years – three consecutive terms – as a Liberal MLA for Melville. He was defeated in the 1967 election. In 1970, Premier Ross Thatcher appointed Gardiner as the chairman of the Saskatchewan Homecoming ’71 celebrations. In March of 1971, Thatcher fired Gardiner because of a dispute over Homecoming funding policy. Gardiner fought back, calling for Thatcher’s resignation, saying that the premier was “unfit to govern.”  Thatcher proved too powerful and Gardiner’s political career was over. Click here to read full story in Star-Phoenix, p. 3.  

In 1972, Heather Robertson interviewed Wilf Gardiner for her book, Grass Roots. At that time the Plainsman Hotel was painted robin’s-egg blue. There was a big wooden cut-out of Davy Crockett over the hotel’s main entrance and an Indian’s head with feathers over the bar which was called the Eagle’s Nest.  When Robertson met with him, Gardiner was presiding over the bar,” a dark, cavernous place with cheap arborite tables and chrome chairs.” He explained to the author that Bienfait was his last resort after his battle with Thatcher. “Usually a man who’s been in government can get a big job with business,” Gardiner said. “Thatcher had enough power to freeze me out of a job.” Gardiner and his family ran the hotel themselves. He was the bartender, his wife did the cooking and cleaning, and his kids mopped up the pub on Sundays.

According to Robertson, Gardiner was “a wheeler-dealer, a promoter with a dozen schemes up his sleeve and all the angles figured.”
He’s out to promote Bienfait, to turn the town on its ear. Already he’s organized a shuffleboard tournament and an Indian pow-wow in the beer parlor. “I’m an honorary chief of the Crees,” he booms. “I have the complete outfit, white buckskin jacket, feather headdress; my wife has a wig with long braids. We’re gonna dress in the outfits all summer for the tourist business. I’ve been working seven years to get tourists into this province. The people say the only reason I’m doing it is because I’m gonna benefit, being in the hotel business. Most of them don’t recognize it as history. They’re not old enough.” … Gardiner has detected that [the mayor of Bienfait] Metro Katrusik is not too enthusiastic about advertising Bienfait’s illicit past. His eyes twinkle wickedly and a slow smile spreads across his face from ear to ear. “The mayor was one of the biggest bootleggers in the area! He admits it.” … Gardiner’s sly laugh booms through the pub. (Robertson, pp. 278-9)
 In 2010, the bar at the Bienfait Hotel was called the Coal Dust Saloon.

Coal Dust Saloon, Bienfait, June 2006.  Joan Champ photo
Courtesy of Google Street View

© Joan Champ 2011

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Monday, 23 May 2011

Tabor Light at Esterhazy

Joan Champ photo*
A ghostly light seen at the Tabor Cemetery, 17 miles northeast of Esterhazy, caused a sensation in Saskatchewan for several weeks in 1938. It was front-page news, with extensive coverage on the radio. “The Tabor Light was sometimes described as a ball of fire, slightly reddish or pinkish in color, and occasionally flickering,” Jo-Anne Christensen wrote in her book, Ghost Stories of Saskatchewan (1995). “Witnesses always said the glow appeared to be directed inward, the light never illuminated the surrounding area … and it would either dance among the trees skirting the cemetery, or speed along the road that ran past it.”

There were some superstitious people in Esterhazy who saw an evil omen in the spooky light. Descendants of the original Czech colony feared that the Tabor Light was a warning and that something sinister was going to happen. The Tabor Cemetery was remembered as a cemetery where atheists were buried, the Leader-Post reported on November 30, 1938. It was said that some of the Czechs who came to the country in 1885 “spread their gospel there was no such thing as a God or hereafter, and their people were buried in this ground."

The site became a popular spot for people from miles around. On the night of December 2nd, for example, the Leader-Post reported, “A laughing thrill-seeking crowd of more than 80 persons including a cameraman and reporter jammed the bleak Tabor cemetery … in a vain search for Esterhazy's phantom light.”  About thirty cars from Churchbridge, Yarbo, and Langenburg were parked around the tiny burial ground for hours, the newspaper continued. “The presence of so many lights, however, definitely handicapped the watchers and made the task of shooting the strange ball of red fire a practical impossibility.” Eventually, the iron gates to the Tabor Cemetery had to be locked to stop the desecration of graves.  

The Central Hotel in Esterhazy, 1958. Image source

The supernatural visitation drew many guests to the Central Hotel in Esterhazy. The Leader-Post reported on December 6th that ever since the light was first seen, the hotel proprietor, James Brown, had been “losing sleep attending to numerous visitors.” The newspaper continued:
Best joke in Esterhazy is one perpetrated on Mr. Brown in connection with his electric light services. Canadian Utilities of Calgary has the franchise at Esterhazy and supplies the electricity to consumers in the town. With his light bill for the last month, Mr. Brown received another bill, calling for charges made for consumption of light made by the 'will o’ the wisp' after midnight. At first Mr. Brown was mystified, but on closer examination, was satisfied office boys at Calgary were just having fun.
The Esterhazy hotel was not the only hotel in the district impacted by the eerie light. Like most of the people in the province, T. Raymond, the owner of the Tantallon Hotel, was curious. On the night of December 5th, Raymond decided to leave his wife and young daughter alone in the hotel, and drive 20 miles (30 kilometres) northwest to Esterhazy, where he joined the nightly vigil at the Tabor Cemetery. In the early hours of December 6th, Mrs. Raymond was awakened by the sound of her child’s coughing. Smelling smoke, she ran into the hotel hallway, where she saw that the entire lower floor of the Tantallon Hotel was in flames. She threw bedding and valuables out of an upstairs window, and then escaped with her daughter. The entire hotel building was destroyed. 

Esterhazy Hotel, 2006. Sheave wheel (pulley used in ore extraction) in foreground.
Courtesy of Ruth Bitner

Click here and here to read more about the Tabor Light near Estevan.

*Photo taken at the Crooked Trees north of Speers, October 2008; flare added.

© Joan Champ 2011

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Friday, 20 May 2011

Wolseley Hotels: From the Empire to the Leland

Leland Hotel, 2010. Image source

Wolseley’s first hotel was a primitive affair. Built in 1883 by W. D. Perley and E. A. Banbury, the one-storey, wood-frame building had a canvas top.  A more substantial hotel called the Leland was built in 1901 by Robert E. Hall and his wife, Eliza. Meanwhile, Perley and Banbury built the brick three-storey Empire Hotel on Sherbrooke Street.  In 1923, when the Leland Hotel was destroyed by fire, the owners bought the Empire Hotel and renamed it the Leland.

William Dell Perley and Edwin A. Banbury

Edwin and Edith Banbury, 1886. From
Bridging the Past: Wolseley and District, 1880-1980
Wolseley’s first settler, Edwin Ashely Banbury, arrived from Ontario at what was then called Wolf Creek in 1882. William Dell Perley arrived that same year with his young family after being defeated in a provincial election in New Brunswick. Both men started farming, and soon afterwards built several small businesses, one of which was the wood and canvas hotel. A fellow named G. Swift wrote a letter to his aunt in 1899, in which he described the conditions in the hotel in Wolseley:

I was shown a room, I’ll never forget – Very small, rough boards, not finished. Old fashioned bed, washstand and chair, and no lock on the door. (I should have been thankful there was a door.) So I had to barricade it by pulling the bed across and piling a stand and chair between it and the side of the house. … The bed was unmade from the last occupant, so no getting undressed that night. … In the morning after putting things back in place I went down to get breakfast. I found a room where five or six men were sitting down to a table made of three rough boards put together, there was no cloth to cover them. I was told to sit down and asked if I would have some porridge. Not knowing what that might be I asked if they had anything else, and was told they had some beefsteak so ordered thinking that I would enjoy that after my long trip. When it was served I found my knife was not sharp enough to cut it. I drank my tea and returned to my room for my coat.

Car race in Wolseley, 1912, with Empire Hotel on right. Source: Bridging the Past

In 1906, Perley and Banbury built the Empire Hotel on Sherbrooke Street.

W. D. Perley. Source
W.D. Perley was elected to the Northwest Territorial Council for Qu’Appelle in 1885.  In 1887, he was the first elected MP for the riding of East Assiniboia. After only two years, Perley resigned to accept an appointment to the Senate in 1889.  He served on the Senate until his death in 1909.

Banbury died at age 97 in 1955. Source
Edwin A. Banbury was the co-founder, along with his brother Robert, of the Beaver Lumber Company. His hotel venture provided him with the capital he needed to establish Banbury Bros. Lumber Company in the 1890s.  A series of mergers and takeovers with partners and competing firms led to the formation of one large lumber company in 1906.  A name was needed that had something to do with wood.  Edwin Banbury came up with "Beaver" which remained the company’s name until 1999, when it was taken over by Home Hardware. In 1886, Banbury married W. D. Perley’s daughter, Edith. They had eight children, three of whom died from diphtheria at a young age.
The Leland Hotel

Windsor Hotel on left, before the 1905 fire.
From Bridging the Past
In 1901, Robert E. and Eliza Hall built their first hotel, the Windsor, on the corner of Sherbrook and Front Streets. This wooden building burned down in 1905, along with most of the other buildings on the street. The Halls, who were among the first homesteaders in the Wolseley area, then set about building a new, three-storey brick hotel on Front Street, half a block west of their first hotel. 

Hotel Leland, centre, c. 1920. Image source
The Leland Hotel, as it was called, had distinctive arched windows on the second floor. The Halls had two children, Herbert and Pearl. Robert ran the hotel with the helped of his son. When Robert retired and moved to Victoria, the Leland was operated by Pearl and her husband, Charlie Corbett.

In the middle of the night on October 6, 1923, a fire broke out in the basement of the Leland Hotel. Within four hours, the hotel burned to the ground. All of the people inside the hotel at the time managed escaped with their lives. About half of the 30 occupants were guests – mainly commercial travellers; the rest were regular roomers, boarders and hotel staff. The building filled with dense smoke, and some people had great difficulty finding their way to an exit. The proprietors of the Leland, Pearl Corbett and her four children, were among the first to be rescued. Some of the hotel guests had to jump from the upper floors. Others lowered themselves from the windows of their rooms with ropes. One salesman crawled down the hall on his hands and knees, through the acrid smoke, only to fall down the stairs. He managed to get out the front door with only a few bruises. 

Leland Hotel after the fire, 1923. From Bridging the Past
According to the Morning Leader, Frank Vincent, the postmaster for Wolseley who roomed on the hotel’s third floor, had the most spectacular escape. “Overcome by smoke in his bedroom he could only be reached by a couple of ladders,” the newspaper recounted. “The upper ladder was held from the top of the lower ladder by two men while the third assisted Mr. Vincent over the window sill and down the perilous upper ladder.”

The heroine of the disaster was Gladys Macdonald, the night telephone operator in the telephone building at the rear of the hotel. She called the police and fire brigade, and then stuck to her post throughout the conflagration, while “every minute the telephone building was threatened with destruction by the flames and was enveloped with dense smoke for hours.”  None of the contents of the hotel was saved. People lost everything except the pajamas they were wearing as they escaped the blaze. Click here to read the full story of the fire on page page 12 of the Morning Leader.

The new Leland in the former Empire Hotel building. From Bridging the Past
After the fire, the Corbetts and Grandma [Eliza] Hall bought the Empire Hotel and renamed it the Leland Hotel. This hotel was purchased by Victor Hunter and family in 1971. Vic Hunter was still the owner in 2010.

© Joan Champ 2011

Monday, 16 May 2011

Tisdale Tragedy: Anatomy of a Hotel Fire

The Imperial Hotel, c. 1912 Source

The following graphic account of a horrible hotel fire in Tisdale was published over several days in the Saskatoon Star-Phoenix (republished in the Regina Leader-Post) by one very thorough, unnamed reporter. All of the photos shown below are from the newspaper. Click here to read the full account from February 8, 1933.

Dolly Couture, daughter of owner
In the early hours of a frigid February morning in 1933, a devastating fire at the Imperial Hotel in Tisdale took the lives of eight people. Mrs. C. Couture, owner of the hotel, and her three daughters were among the victims. The others who died in the fire were Emma Roy, the hotel chambermaid; Jack F. Marsh, commercial traveller for Adams Brothers Harness Company of Saskatoon; Fraser Paige, commercial traveller for Spillers Milling Company of Calgary; and – a few days after the fire – William John “Sandy” McPherson, the 65-year-old manager of the hotel. The coroner’s inquest determined that the terrible fire was caused by a match or cigarette butt that had been tossed into the woodbox beside the stove in the hotel lobby.

The Cause of the Fire

Mah Choon, manager of the restaurant at the Imperial Hotel, rose at 5:00 a.m. to prepare breakfast for six commercial travellers who were leaving Tisdale on the 6:10 a.m. train. The temperature outside was 45 degrees below zero and there was a strong northwest wind. Choon served the meals at about 5:30, and after the travellers were finished, he cleared the dishes and took them to the kitchen. As he came back into the restaurant, he noticed fire in the rotunda through the glass doors. The cook went into the rotunda where he saw flames coming out of the woodbox, licking the wall. He ran back into the kitchen for a bucket of water, but by the time he returned to the rotunda, it was too late. The fire had spread to blankets that were hung to dry on the stair banister, and was raging up to the second floor. Choon ran to the foot of the stairs and called, “Fire! Fire!” He was immediately answered by Mrs. Couture. Choon then went to wake up his two restaurant partners, Roy Mah and E. Kin. The three Chinese men then escaped the building.

Chambermaid Emma Roy
The hotel night porter, Jack McLory,was also working that fateful Wednesday morning. Because it was extremely cold outside, he stoked both the furnace in the basement and the stove in the rotunda. A few minutes before six, he escorted the departing travellers across the street to the Tisdale train station, carrying their bags. For some reason, McLory turned around about a minute or two after leaving to look back at the hotel and saw a sudden burst of light through its front doors. Within five minutes, the entire two-storey building was engulfed in flames. So severe was the fire that the plate glass windows of the store buildings across the street cracked under the intense heat – in spite of the 45 below zero temperature. Telephone communication between Tisdale and the outside world was cut off for hours by the conflagration.

George Booth, Tisdale’s night policeman had accompanied McLory and the six salesmen from the hotel to the train station. At the coroner’s inquest, Booth stated that some of the men had been smoking in the hotel. One of them – it was never determined whom – must have carelessly thrown a cigarette butt or match into the woodbox. McClory admitted to the jury that there had been paper and other rubbish in the box. “I had not cleaned it out for three or four days,” he said. “The box was open and had no cover.” (Leader-Post, February 10, 1933)

The Survivors

C.B. Conley of Winnipeg broke his hip when he leapt to safety through a second-storey window. After landing, his hands and feet became badly frostbitten. Mr. and Mrs. Charles A. Otterbein escaped through the window of their hotel room, jumping into the snow behind the general store next door. They were rescued there, half frozen in the snow by the storekeeper. The couple was immediately taken to the hospital, along with C. W. Martin of Prince Albert, who also escaped through a window. His feet were badly frozen.

Charles Otterbein was a district forest ranger from Nipawin, formerly of Hudson Bay Junction. He was in Tisdale on business, accompanied by his wife. His hands and face were badly burned by the blaze, and his feet were badly frozen. In an interview for the Leader-Post, Mrs. Otterbein, feet heavily bandaged, remembered: “I heard someone [Sandy McPherson] running around in the hall in excitement and we got up to see what it was. I opened the door. The flames were right in the hallway. We could not get out. My husband broke the window and I got on the roof of the next building, then my husband went back in again. I was ready to go in after him, he seemed to be so long. I began to call him, when he came out the window again. His face was burned and the flames were already coming through the window.” Click here for full story

John L. Tennent
Of the thirteen people inside the Imperial Hotel at the time of the fire, only one man escaped unharmed. He was John L. Tennent from Saskatoon, a representative of General Motors Products of Canada, Ltd. Thankful to be alive, Tennent told the Star-Phoenix, “Two seconds more and I’d have been there yet.” The Saskatoon traveller said he owed his life to Sandy McPherson, who spread the alarm up and down the hotel hallways, endangering his own life. Tennent grabbed his clothes and sped out of his room into the hallway which was already on fire. “I didn’t know which way to go,” he continued. “I never was in the hotel before, but I headed for the back of the building.” When Tennent got to the back door, it was locked. He had to force it open. Clad only in his pajamas, he ran barefoot down the street to the safety of the Tisdale Hotel. Interestingly, when Tennent registered at the Imperial Hotel the night before, he was shown to a room on the second floor. Because of his inherent fear of fire in “country hotels,” however, he had his room changed to one on the first floor. That spur-of-the-moment decision likely saved his life.

The Dead

Newlyweds, Mr. and Mrs. Fraser M. Paige
Screams of the dying could be heard by the frenzied volunteer fire-fighters soon after the outbreak. The building was razed with such speed, however, that they were unable to force their way into the inferno. It was so cold that the ice formed inside the fire hoses, rendering them useless. The fire was not brought under control until the next day. The metal roof of the hotel had collapsed, completely covering the burning debris. The remains of the victims, "simply skeletons," were not located until two days later when the roof was lifted.
Jack F. Marsh
Jack F. Marsh, the Saskatoon commercial traveller who perished in the fire, was survived only by his wife. Marsh, who had resided in Saskatoon for a number of years, was well known on the commercial travellers’ circuit. Fraser Paige, formerly of Calgary, had recently married. He and his wife had lived in Prince Albert for about one year. Both Marsh and Paige were likely disoriented in their strange surroundings during the early morning, and could not find their way out of the hotel.

The young chambermaid, Emma Roy was from McKague, Saskatchewan. It was determined that she became trapped in her room at the time of the fire.

Margaret Couture, age 19
The Couture family, formerly of Saskatoon, was all but wiped out by the fire except for a son, Edward, who operated the Kinistino Hotel, also owned by his mother. Mrs. Couture, the owner of the Imperial Hotel, had been ill for some time. She had been released from Holy Family Hospital in Prince Albert on January 20th, returning to Tisdale. She still was confined to her bed at the time of the fire. Her eldest daughter, Dorothy ‘Dolly’ Couture, age 22, had graduated from the nursing program at St. Paul’s Hospital in Saskatoon in 1932. Dolly had arrived in Tisdale a few days before the disaster to nurse her mother. Dolly and her sister Margaret, 19, both “strikingly beautiful,” were graduates of Tisdale high school. Their younger sister, Simone, 13, attended public school in Tisdale. It is thought that the Couture daughters rushed to their mother’s bedside in an attempt to save her. All four perished in the same room. They apparently did not even attempt to escape through a window. At the funeral, the remains of the three Couture girls were placed in one coffin. The Tisdale schools were closed that day out of sympathy and respect for the Couture family.

The Imperial Hotel on left, 1928 Source

Sandy McPherson, the hero of the Imperial Hotel fire, died of his injuries in the Tisdale hospital four days later. McPherson, partially clad, had rushed along the hotel halls, going from room to room, warning the guests to save themselves. When the fire became too intense, he made a dash for the front door, running through a solid wall of fire. He emerged barefooted onto the street. “So cold were the sidewalks,” the Leader-Post reported, “that the flesh was torn from the soles of his feet, and as he rushed to the Tisdale Hotel, tracks of blood showed at every step. His hair was burned from his head; his face was badly cut and burned on one side almost to the bone.”  While in hospital, McPherson continually asked how everybody was from the hotel. Due to his critical condition, however, he was never informed of the deaths of the people he had so desperately tried to save. 

© Joan Champ 2011

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Sunday, 15 May 2011

Sasko: The Hudson Bay Hotel's Pet Moose

Alcide Marcotte with Sasko, 1911. Source: Valley Echoes (1980)
In the winter of 1911, lumberjacks brought a baby moose to Marcotte’s Hotel at Hudson Bay Junction located in north-east Saskatchewan. They had caught the moose calf in the woods surrounding village. The hotel owner, Alcide Marcotte, obtained a government permit to enable him to keep the moose in captivity. ‘Sasko’ became the family pet. Every day, it would climb the steps of the Marcotte’s Hotel to be fed. It basically had the run of the hotel.

Rosalie Marcotte with Sasko, 1911. Valley Echoes (1980)
By the summer of 1911, Sasko must have outgrown the Marcotte’s hotel. The Saskatoon Star-Phoenix reported on July 13th that the one-year-old moose had arrived at the CNR station from Hudson Bay Junction, packed in a piano box.  “Saskatoon is to have a little zoo of its own opposite the Flanagan Hotel [now the Senator Hotel on 21st St.],” the newspaper stated.  “Sasko … is turned loose inside a small run on 20th Street, and seems quite at home.” Mr. G. A. Wilding, the new owner, stated that his intention was to present Sasko to the street railway company when it opened up a park after the system had started, as a first donation to their zoological department.

None of this ever happened. Saskatoon Municipal Railway did not begin operating until 1913. It is not known what happened to Sasko.

Marcotte's Hotel 

Alcide Marcotte came from Quebec to the Prud’homme region of what is now Saskatchewan with his parents and eight siblings in 1897. Alcide was well-educated and became an entrepreneur, dealing in real estate. He was always building, buying and selling hotels. When the Canadian Northern railway line came through around 1905, he owned hotels in Warman, Osler and Vonda. 

Marcotte's Hotel, c. 1910. Valley Echoes (1980)
In 1907, Alcide and his father, Joseph A. Marcotte, built the hotel at Hudson Bay Junction (called Etomami until 1909; “Junction” was dropped in 1947).  “There was a long bar with a brass rail and beautiful big mirrors over it,” Alcide’s daughter Elsie wrote in the Hudson Bay history book. “The customers were nearly all lumberjacks from the woods and they had every kind of liquor [in the hotel bar] they wanted.”

Alcide and Rosalie Marcotte. Image source
Alcide married Rosalie, 20 years his junior, in Duck Lake. They had four children, Donald, Wilfred, Maurice and Elsie, who were raised in the hotel at Hudson Bay Junction. “I sure did love that hotel,” Elsie recalled. "It brings back so many memories. In those days we didn’t have plumbing or electricity so everything was a lot of hard work.  My father really built Hudson Bay Junction and owned most of the town at one time. He was a real business man and very smart.  He treated mother like a princess. She was never allowed to work around the hotel, only to dress and look pretty for him.  He was so proud of her and of course, she was never allowed to worry about business.  When he died in 1920, she knew nothing of money matters or the hotel business." (Valley Echoes: Life along the Red Deer River Basin, Saskatchewan, 1900-1980)

When Alcide passed away in 1920, Rosalie managed Marcotte’s Hotel with the help of her sons. In 1928, she was doing all the cooking for the hotel and needed help. A young woman named Josephine from Gimli, Manitoba, came to work in the kitchen. “The chambermaid and I became good friends,” Josephine recalled, “and we would often go for walks but not too far away from the buildings because the bush with wild animals was so close by.” (Valley Echoes) Josephine married Donald Marcotte in 1929. In 1935, Maurice Marcotte took over ownership of the hotel when his mother and sister, Elsie, moved to Los Angeles, California. A beer parlour opened in the hotel that same year.

Marcotte's Hotel, 1953 Source

The Marcotte family operated the hotel until 1955 when they sold it to a Mr. King. Not long afterwards, Ovide Desrochers and Arthur Kelm became the owners, changing its name to the DesRochers Hotel.

DesRochers Hotel in Hudson Bay, 2007.  Ruth Bitner photo

© Joan Champ 2011

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Saturday, 14 May 2011

Black Gold in Coleville

The Coleville Hotel in 2007. Joan Champ photo
In 1951, the year that oil was discovered by the Royalite Oil Company near Coleville, the sleepy farming hamlet had a population of about 80 people. Over the next five years, the population of Coleville grew by leaps and bounds. A refinery was built,  284 heavy crude oil wells were drilled in the area, and oil people moved into town. “Coleville’s boom has none of the earmarks of a temporary boost,” Munro Murray wrote in his August 7, 1954 feature on Coleville for the Star-Phoenix. “The new population are people who are building substantial homes and taking a real and intimate in the community life of the village.” 

In 1953, Bill Crawford formed a public company called the Coleville Development Company Ltd. with the sole purpose of building a hotel. Originally called the Prince Charles Hotel, the two-storey hotel had 21 rooms, a café and a beer parlour. The building was only partially completed when, in the spring of 1954, construction ceased due to lack of funds. Promoters of the company, Laird and Rumball of Regina, placed an advertisement in the Star-Phoenix in August offering shares in the Prince Charles hotel at $100 per share. In the meantime, part of the hotel structure was used as offices for the Royalite Oil Company.

Crawford ended up buying most of the shares in the hotel at a reduced price. He refinanced and completed the hotel in 1956. A café and bar have operated in the hotel since it opened. Other businesses in the hotel have included a liquor board store, an arcade, a hair dressing salon, and a movie rental store.

Today, Coleville is an agricultural and oil community with a population of about 300.

The Coleville Hotel in 2007.  Joan Champ photo
© Joan Champ 2011

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Friday, 13 May 2011

Murders at Shaunavon’s Grand Hotel

On March 16, 1940, Mah Sai, a Chinese baker in Shaunavon, was playing solitaire in a sheltered corner of the Grand Hotel lobby when he witnessed the fatal shooting of RCMP Sergeant Arthur Julian Barker by Victor Richard Greenlay. As Mah Sai watched, Greenlay fired three shots at Sergeant Barker who was putting on his boots at the foot of the hotel stairs. The policeman crumpled to the floor with a groan, and the baker ran for his life. Mah Hop, the proprietor of the Grand Hotel, was another witness to the murder on that fateful Saturday night. When he heard what sounded like firecrackers, Mah Hop ran to see what was going on. When he reached the second step of the stairs, Greenlay ordered him to get back.  “I went back fast,” Mah Hop said later.

Two months later, on the identical spot in the lobby of the Grand Hotel where Sergeant Barker died, both Mah Hop and Mah Sai were stabbed and killed in a knife fight.

The Grand Hotel, Shaunavon’s third hotel, was built in 1929 under the ownership of Fred Mah and Mah Hop. The two-storey brick hotel with 38 guest rooms was the scene of three brutal murders before it was bought by George Baird and converted into an apartment building. The Grand Hotel received Municipal Heritage Designation in 1999.

The old Grand Hotel, now an apartment block in Shaunavon, 2003. Image source

Officer Down

Victor Richard Greenlay was the 30-year-old son of Colonel and Mrs. G.L. Greenlay, highly respected ranchers in the Climax district. An officer of the non-permanent militia, Victor was formally charged on March 18, 1940 with the murder of his friend, Sergeant Barker, RCMP veteran and cattle country investigator. Barker had been visiting Greenlay in his room at the Grand Hotel just prior to the shooting. 

Shortly after the murder, it became clear that Greenlay was insane, suffering from schizophrenia. Victor Van Allen, another rancher in the south country, testified at the coroner’s inquest on March 18th that he took Greenlay to Shaunavon that Saturday afternoon. On the way into town, some of the things Greenlay said made Van Allen realize he was not “normal.” Greenlay told Van Allen that was going to Shaunavon to see Sergeant Barker because together they would be able to prevent the Canadian government from selling horses to France. Greenlay said he feared trouble was to break out, and that “within a week there will be troops in the saddle,” adding that “Christ will appear in Germany in the form of a woman, and will turn the forces against Germany.” 

Photo of Sergeant Barker from the Leader-Post, March 19, 1940.
When they arrived in town, Greenlay phoned Sergeant Barker at about 7 o’clock and asked him to come to his room at the Grand Hotel. Barker, his wife, Gladys and their son Kenneth walked downtown, and while his family went to the library, Barker visited with Greenlay in his hotel room.  According to his later testimony, during their visit Greenlay apparently asked the RCMP officer to intervene for him with a girlfriend, and Barker demurred. When Barker left Greenlay’s room around 9:00 PM, Greenlay said he “heard a voice tell me to go out and shoot the evil beast.” He headed down the hotel stairs where he saw said he saw that Barker was not a man, but “a devil,” and he pulled the trigger of his .38 revolver three times.
After the funeral service in Shaunavon, Barker’s body was transported by train to Regina, where he was interred in the cemetery of the RCMP barracks. “The body was placed in the baggage car,” the Regina Leader-Post reported on March 19th. “In the day coach was Victor Richard Greenlay, charged with the murder of Sergeant Barker, and in the third coach was Mrs. Barker and her son, Kenneth.”  Greenlay was found not guilty by reason of insanity and confined to a mental institution.

Bloody Night at the Grand Hotel

“Jack” Toy Ying, a young waiter in Shaunavon, was upset. He was so upset that on Friday, May 3, 1940 he called Constable Robert Roycroft of the Shaunavon police force. Toy Ying laid a charge against the Grand Hotel, apparently involving a woman. He asked Roycroft to remove the woman in question from the hotel, and to get her out of town. So, at about 10 PM, Toy Ying, accompanied by a nervous Constable Roycroft, went to the Grand Hotel and searchted all the rooms. The woman was not found. 

With the town policeman still in tow, an angry Toy Ying confronted Mah Hop, the owner of the hotel, in the lobby. Their argument started out quietly, and then Roycroft noticed that the lobby was slowly filling up with other Chinese men. All of a sudden, the crowd of men jumped Toy Ying. Arms and legs were flying. In the melee, Roycroft wrestled some of the men off Toy Ying, who then saw his chance, ran out of the hotel, and headed off down the street. Behind him, Toy Ying left two dead and two injured, all as a result of stab wounds from a weapon he had concealed in his coat pocket. Police arrested Toy Ying the next day in Admiral, 25 miles east of Shaunavon.

Dead were Mah Hop, the 50-year-old hotel owner, and Mah Sai, the 45-year-old town baker. Mah Sai died on the exact spot where he had watched Sergeant Barker die from his bullet wounds just eight weeks earlier.  Both men had wives and children in China; Mah Hop also had a son in Nova Scotia. Mah Sam was in serious condition in the Shaunavon hospital with deep gashes in his leg and arm. Mah Yok had a surface wound.

Funeral services for Mah Sai were held at the United Church in Shaunavon on May 6th. Mah Hop’s son, Mah Tun of Antigonish, Nova Scotia, arrived the following day to take charge of his father’s funeral. Both men were buried in Hillcrest Cemetery near Shaunavon.

On May 16, 1940, Toy Ying was put on trial on two charges of murder. When defense counsel, C.H.J. Burrows, K.C., Regina, asked Mah Sam through an interpreter whether he knew the woman Toy Ying wanted removed from town, Mah Sam said he had seen her in a local café, but not in Mah Hop’s room. Three other Chinese witnesses denied any knowledge of the mystery woman.

© Joan Champ 2011

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Beer Rationing: Saskatchewan Liquor Laws in the 1940s

Image source
During the Second World War, beer parlours across Canada experienced a shortage of beer because Prime Minister W. L. Mackenzie King wanted Canadians to cut back on drinking. In a national radio broadcast on December 16, 1942, King announced the Wartime Alcoholic Beverages Order which reduced the alcoholic content of beer by 10%, wine by 20% and spirits by 30% for the duration of the war. King’s order also prohibited all advertising of beer and liquors, and asked the provinces to shorten the hours of operation in beer parlours and liquor stores.

Tommy Douglas. Source
Earlier that year, a delegation of temperance advocates received a sympathetic hearing from King when they urged him to reduce the traffic in liquor. King views on alcohol jived with those of a Baptist church minister from Saskatchewan by the name of Tommy Douglas. At the annual conference of United Church ministers on July 1, 1942, Douglas, leader of the provincial CCF party, called for wartime liquor rationing. Tea and coffee were being rationed, he said, so similar rationing for beer and whiskey would not be out of line. “Bottles are hard to get for milk, but have we heard of any shortage for bottles to contain beer?’ Douglas asked. He called liquor “the No. 1 saboteur of the war effort.” (“Active Temperance Federation Urged,” Regina Leader-Post, July 1, 1942) 

Prime Minister W .L. Mackenzie King. Source
King justified the alcohol restrictions, saying they were in accordance with government policy of not allowing profiteering as a result of the war. “The brewers have profited more than anyone out of the war,” King wrote in his diary* on December 10, 1942. “Indeed, the liquor interests and the newspapers have been the real profiteers.” In his CBC broadcast on December 16, 1942, he emphasized the importance of temperance during wartime. “Regardless of what one’s attitude towards prohibition may be, temperance is something against which, at a time of war, no reasonable protest can be made,” he stated. “No one will deny that the excessive use of alcohol and alcoholic beverages would do more than any other single factor to make impossible a total war effort.”  

The Government of Saskatchewan complied with King’s wishes. Starting on February 1, 1943, Saskatchewan beer parlours were only allowed to stay open for eight hours, from 2 p.m. to 10 p.m., as part of the imposition of wartime temperance. In addition, beer was supplied to liquor stores and licenses premises on a quota basis reflecting the 10% reduction in the amount that could be brewed and sold.

Beer Rationing

Beer ration coupon book from Ontario.
Photo by Will S. Image source
In May of 1943, beer ration coupon books for home consumption were issued across Canada. Rationing of products like sugar or butter, gasoline or rubber, was implemented due to supply problems resulting from military conflict. Beer, however, was brewed from Canadian ingredients which were in plentiful supply. Nevertheless, in Saskatchewan in 1944, beer coupon books were sold for 25 cents and each person was entitled to only one book. The maximum quantity of beer that one person 21 years of age and over could purchase in one month was 12 bottles – six bottles in the first two weeks in a month and six bottles for the second two-week period. Beer rationing continued until January 1947.

Some of these wartime temperance measures worked to the advantage of Saskatchewan’s hotels. In Bruno, for example, Elizabeth (Pitka) Ulrich remembers that, because beer was rationed, “local people lined up on Main Street and the hotel’s stock would be sold out in approximately two hours.”(Fields of Prosperity: A History of Englefeld, 1903-1987) The closure of 72 government beer stores due to poor sales was another direct result of the liquor restrictions. Many of these stores were located in places where people could buy their beer at the local hotel beer parlour. “The tempo of hotel life in Saskatchewan accelerated,” H. G. Bowley writes in his history of the Hotels Association of Saskatchewan (1957), “Due largely to wartime travel and general wartime prosperity, receipts increased.”

Too much foam!
The breweries passed most of the burden of the beer shortage on to the beer parlours, but hotel operators were not allowed to raise the price of a glass of beer. To compensate for this, the operators reduced the size of the beer glass. In addition, some instructed their bartenders to pour less beer and more foam into the smaller glass. Complaints about “short service” started pouring in to the Saskatchewan Liquor Board. The Provincial Treasurer C. M. Fines issued instructions to his department “for cancellation of licenses of any hotel vendor who continues to serve glasses of beer with large heads of froth.” (“More Wine in Next Two Months,” Saskatoon Star-Phoenix, October 25, 1944)

The perfect pour. Image source
Despite all of the efforts of the arid Mackenzie King government, beer consumption rose steadily in Canada during the war years. The men who fought overseas and the women on the home front who entered the workforce en masse, rejected abstinence. Small-town hotels blossomed, due largely to the general wartime prosperity. By the end of the war, Bowley writes, hotel lobbies across the province were decked out with modern wood panelling; stairways were retreaded; rooms were redecorated and refurnished; facades were rebuilt; and beer parlours – hitherto hardly celebrated for their cheery décor – became more inviting. “At long last,” George Grant, the president of the Hotels Association of Saskatchewan, stated in 1948, “it seems, the plain, bare, uninviting beer parlor is becoming what it should be – an attractive, smartly decorated, spotlessly clean workingman’s club.”

It would be another 15 years before provincial legislation finally permitted women to enter beverage rooms. 

The Antler Hotel beer parlour, n.d. Source: Footprints in the Sands of Time (1983):
 *For the complete Diaries of William Lyon Mackenzie King click here

© Joan Champ 2011

Sunday, 8 May 2011

Grenfell: Hoax at the Granite Hotel

Theodore "Teddy" Roosevelt, 26th President of the United States (1901-1909). Image source
Robert Copeland

In 1887, Robert A. Copeland and W. H. Fleming bought the hotel in Grenfell with a down payment of two yoke of oxen. Eighteen years later in 1905, David Black bought the Granite Hotel from Copeland with a satchel containing $38,000 in cash. 

Perhaps the value had grown due to the local myth that U.S. President Theodore Roosevelt had spent a night at the Granite Hotel on December 14, 1901. A page on the hotel’s register bore the ‘signatures’ of ‘Theo Roosevelt’ and his travelling companions, James J. Hill, president of the Great Northern Railway; U. S. Grant Jr., son of the Civil War general Ulysses S. Grant; and J. A. Garfield Jr., son of President Garfield.  Roosevelt had just been sworn in as President in September of that year. He delivered his State of the Union address on December 3rd, two weeks before he is alleged to have stayed at the hotel in Grenfell, Saskatchewan. On December 16th -- two days later -- he delivered a message to Congress.

The Granite Hotel, c. 1905
For years, Grenfell boasted that this famous name graced the register of the Granite Hotel. One man even claimed to have carried President Roosevelt’s luggage from the station to the hotel. It was a period of railway promotion, so it was thought that there was an attempt to secure American capital for the building of new railway lines in Canada. Surveys were being made in the vicinity of Grenfell, and it was suggested that perhaps Roosevelt and his friends were sufficiently interested to come and investigate the possibilities for themselves.

Grenfell’s tale of this brush with greatness was perpetuated for another 59 years until, in 1960, a former Grenfell resident touched off a chain of events that finally revealed the hoax. Lionel E. Curran was the “doubting Thomas.” He sent a copy of the register to the Library of Congress in Washington DC to have the signatures of Roosevelt and his companions compared to the real ones. The library found that all but that of James J. Hill were fake signatures. Mr. Curran notified the Grenfell Sun of his findings, and his letter was published on the newspaper’s front page. The Regina Leader-Post picked up the story, and ran a photo of the controversial register page on its front page on February 1, 1960.

Hon. C. C. Williams, 1963. Image source
The next morning, Saskatchewan’s Minister of Labour, Hon. C. C. Williams,* contacted the Leader-Post, providing a clue to the origins of the hoax. “The signature of ‘Theo Roosevelt’ is in fact,” said Williams, “the identical handwriting of my late father who was a station agent in a small town near Grenfell at that time.” Williams said he had received a copy of the register page four years before and, not wishing to spoil the story, had said nothing. “I think the real explanation was a hockey game or curling tournament at Grenfell that Saturday night which attracted people from surrounding towns” Williams told the newspaper. “Six or seven ‘Morse boys’ [telegraph operators] got together and had some fun with the register.”

In 1980, the Grenfell local history book concluded its account of the Roosevelt myth by saying: “What better place to relax than in an up-to-date and friendly hotel in a beautiful little town like Grenfell. All we can say is that if he didn’t come it was his loss.”

The Granite Hotel in Grenfell,  2010. Image source
*Charles C. Williams born in Moosomin in 1896 and went to school in Wapella. He was the Minister of Labour in CCF government from in 1944 to 1964 – the longest any Saskatchewan Minister has served in one portfolio. Williams retired from politics in 1964 and died in 1975.

© Joan Champ 2011

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