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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