Monday, November 28, 2016

History of the Prairie Inn Part I: From Henry Simpson to Prohibition.

History of the Prairie Inn
Part I: From Henry Simpson to Prohibition. 


     The history of the Prairie Inn begins with Henry and Adelaide Simpson who arrived in Esquimalt harbour aboard the Norman Morison on January 13, 1853. The recently married couple came from England where Henry had signed a five year contract to work as a baker and Adelaide as a laundress for the Puget Sound Company, a subsidiary of the Hudson's Bay Company (HBC). Once settled, they began working at the Constance Cove Farm in the Esquimalt District.
    Five years quickly slipped away and the Simpsons fulfilled their contract to the HBC. On July 1, 1858 Henry purchased 300 acres in South Saanich District (known as Central Saanich today) where he built his house, a barn, and outbuildings that he named Stream Farm. Henry eventually added a small inn and named it the Prairie Tavern, where in 1864 he applied for and was granted a country liquor license. Henry was an excellent farmer and possessed a creative mind, he is credited with organizing the first "U-Drive" using trained horses that would get a person home and return rider less to their stables. This system was appreciated by those customers in the tavern who had a bit too much cheer.

     Through the 1860’s-1870’s the Prairie Tavern was not only a place to rest and ‘refresh the inner man’ but it also served multiple functions: a meeting place for farmers to elect local officials and listen to their elected official when he came out from Victoria, a place where locals could obtain the latest news such as the new roads that were opened up from Victoria into the South Saanich District and road improvements, and for other important developments that affected their community.

     Henry Simpson proved to be a renaissance man as Doreen Marion Gee states in her 2014 article, The Prairie Inn Neighbourhood Pub: A Legacy of Community Building, “Henry Simpson, was a baker, farmer, contractor, hotel owner, mailman, community worker and one of the founders of the Saanich Agricultural Society.”  The morning of October 9, 1885 was unusually warm and sunny, perfect conditions for the annual Saanich Agricultural Show. Dust rose up along the roads choked with carriages arriving from Victoria filled with eager folks and their excited children and looking forward to a day of fun in the country, which “gladdened the hearts of the farmers by their presence.” There were attractions for everyone to enjoy with all kinds of animals on display and up for prizes including sheep, horses, pigs and cattle. Henry Simpson’s best milch sow oxen won first prize in the cattle completion. The crowd was estimated at around 400 people, most of whom enjoyed a filling lunch put on by Simpson and his staff. They ate and drank under a sunny October sky while the Queen City Band played delightful music through the day. The band continued into the evening where a dance took place, the dance floor lit by lanterns and a large beautiful harvest moon.

     Henry and Adelaide were early pioneers that helped develop what would eventually become the important corner of Mt Newton Cross Road and East Saanich Road in Saanichton. A small village grew up around the Prairie Tavern which really took root when the modest tavern was replaced with the much larger Prairie Hotel in 1893. Back then the South Saanich district area where the Prairie Tavern was located was known as Turgoose in the directory, named after the postmaster of the region, F. Turgoose. That name would be dropped by 1923 for the now familiar Saanichton.

     Due to his varied commitments, Simpson found that after numerous attempts to sell his tavern and his farm that he found someone that was willing to lease his Prairie Tavern - John Camp was native of Chesterfield, Derbyshire, England and his wife Annie, was from Dorkin, Surrey, England. On June 22, 1889 Camp, who had successfully operated the Royal Oak Hotel in the Lake District, was granted a license, transferred from Mr. Simpson. This was the start of a sixteen year term for John Camp as proprietor of the popular hostelry. The Colonist newspaper reported, “Mr John Camp, late of the Royal Oak, Lake District has removed to the Prairie Tavern, South Saanich, where he will be glad to see his old friends and as many new ones as will give him a call. Refreshments served at the shortest notice. The bar furnished with best wines and liquors.”  Mr and Mrs Camp had gone through the anguish of having almost lost their son to a firearms accident. In 1883, John Camp, jr. was handling his father’s loaded rifle when it went off with the bullet tearing through the young man’s forearm. The arm had to be amputated in order to save his life.

     By late 1892 Simpson and Camp agreed that the diminutive tavern needed to be replaced. Plans were drawn up and in 1893 the new Prairie Hotel and Tavern opened at the cost of $2,200, a sum that Simpson had to borrow. But he knew that business was good in his original tavern and was confident he would get a good return on his investment in his larger establishment. Some historians wrote that the original Prairie Tavern burned down, but there is photographic evidence that shows that the new tavern was built right beside the original and I suspect that business went on as usual right up to the time that the new tavern was prepared to take on customers. The original tavern was demolished.

     Simpson was pleased with this arrangement and both parties made a tidy profit over the years. That all ended on May 9, 1905, when an ailing Mr. Camp died suddenly. There were a large number of people in attendance at his funeral. The late John Camp had been a member of the BC Pioneer Society, the Loyal Orangemen, Saanich Lodge #1597 and the Ancient Order of Foresters. The 62 year old Camp left behind his wife Annie and a daughter. Shortly after the funeral, the liquor licence was transferred to his wife. 

     On August 30, 1906, Annie Camp died at the age of 36. Two months after she passed away Henry Simpson, who built and worked his farm for the past 54 years as well as starting and nurturing his Prairie Inn Hotel business died on October 22, 1906 at the age of 78. The early pioneering history of the Prairie Tavern came to an end with the passing of Henry Simpson and a new chapter was beginning for the well-liked hostelry.

     John Southwell purchased the Prairie Hotel and his first advertisement that ran in the Colonist on September 18, 1906 read, “Prairie Hotel...Headquarters for Sportsmen, the hotel is situated in a good hunting country.  Stabling for horses; best brands of liquors and cigars.” Mrs. Southwell bore John a healthy son on November 14, 1908 which she proudly displayed in a family photograph taken with friends on the front porch of the hotel around May or June of 1909. In the autumn of 1909 they sold the Prairie Hotel to Enoch Sage and purchased the Oak Dell House Hotel in Colwood.

     Enoch Sage operated the Prairie Hotel until January 1912 when he leased it to James Callander. In September 1913 Callander leased the hotel and bar to George and Lena Jenkins.

     A fire broke out in the barn on the Prairie Hotel property in October 1916 and completely destroyed the structure and the contents within. Constable Dryden, with the assistance from many of the surrounding neighbors concentrated on ensuring the hotel was safe from the flames by applying wet sacks and buckets of water on the exterior of the hotel which only suffered some paint blistering from the intense heat of the barn fire. If it wasn’t for their quick action, the history of the Prairie Inn may have been quite different. Three of four horses were saved from the flames but unfortunately the last horse did not make it out on time and succumbed to the flames and smoke. Enoch Sage, the owner of the property, estimated the loss at around $2,000. He promised to rebuild after an investigation into the fire and was thankful to all concerned that the hotel was spared.

     The following October prohibition became the law of the land. The retail and wholesale of alcoholic products with greater than 1.5% alcohol was illegal and anyone caught selling it was subject to prosecution. On January 27, 1918, George Jenkins the proprietor of the Prairie Hotel was charged with having whisky in his possession, found guilty and was fined $75 by Magistrate Jay in Saanich Police Court. Jenkins apparently didn’t get the message as less than two months later, on March 2, 1918, Jenkins found himself in court once again this time pleading guilty to selling intoxicants in his hotel bar. “Chief Little and his assistant had visited the hotel on Saturday morning last and found 34 bottles of beer testing 6.2 alcohol and also a bottle of gin among a lot of sacks in an outhouse. This being his second conviction since prohibition came into force, Magistrate Jay fined him $200 and $5 costs"- a princely sum in 1918.

     Things calmed down through the early 1920’s as Enoch Sage operated the Prairie Hotel and closed the bar. The hotel survived prohibition, at least for the first few years but the history of the hotel was still in its early period and there are many more tales to tell as we shall see in part II of my history of the Prairie Inn, covering the period from 1925 to today.

Wednesday, November 16, 2016

Cocktail Lounge to HillBilly Bar ~ A History of Big Bad Johns, 1954-2016

      From Cocktail Lounge to Hillbilly Bar ~ 

A History of Big Bad John’s, 1954-2016



This article is written exclusively and in conjunction with, Big Bad John’s Day which is taking place on Saturday November 26, 2016 in celebration and as a tribute to the longevity of Victoria’s only hillbilly bar. I will trace the history of Big Bad John’s, from its earliest roots as a cocktail lounge through its conception and years in the popular form it is today.


       Big Bad John’s hillbilly bar on the main floor of the Strathcona Hotel was the brainchild of John Olson, beverage manager of the hotel. He conceived and built the popular bar during the World’s Fair in Seattle hoping to attract tourists to the Strathcona Hotel and his bar in particular. Big Bad John’s was to be a temporary bar for the summer season in 1962 and plans were to either change it back to the original cocktail lounge or find a different use for the space. But what was just a whim turned out to be a gold mine for the Olson’s as business at Big Bad John’s exceeded their wildest dreams.

     The 900 block of Douglas Street consisted of a few houses on the Courtney side some small trees and a large building on the corner of Broughton. They were demolished in 1911 to make way for a new 100-room office building designed by H.S. Griffith and named the Empress Block. Construction began in 1912 but plans changed and the completed building opened as the Strathcona Hotel in 1913. H.B “Barney” Olson purchased the hotel from Warren Martin in April 1946 and the Olson family has owned the Strathcona Hotel ever since.

     John Olson began working for his father at the hotel at the age of sixteen, during summer vacation from school. Olson was the elevator operator until he moved up to bellboy. John Olson graduated from high school in 1948 and was accepted in the University of Victoria where he studied courses in commerce, he transferred to the University of British Columbia in his third year. He then was accepted at the University of Denver working towards a degree in Hotel Management. While attending university during the day, John worked as a bartender at night. He moved back to Victoria after his graduation armed with a degree in Hotel Management which made him an asset in his fathers’ hotel.
     Together with his brother Keith, who graduated with a degree in Commerce from the University of British Columbia, then with a degree in Restaurant Management from Cornell University in Ithaca, New York, they were valuable assets by assisting their father in running the Strathcona Hotel. John became beverage manager while Keith operated the hotel.

     The city of Victoria remained “dry” after prohibition was repealed in 1921 because the majority of Victorians rejected beer-by-the-glass. But during the 1952 provincial election a plebiscite asking eligible voters if they wanted beer-by-the-glass was asked again, this time the results were a victory for the ‘wets’ by a slim margin of 61.5%. Barney Olson fought hard on the side of the ‘wets’ and upon hearing of the victory he began plans to build a cocktail lounge.

The Strathcona Room was the first cocktail lounge to open in British Columbia on July 1, 1954.  The Strathcona Room took 28 days to build and occupied the space of the former beauty salon and barber shops where Big Bad John’s is located today. The room was simple, small and cozy with 9 seats at the bar and 23 at well-spaced tables. A line of customers, curious about this novel thing named a cocktail lounge, began forming hours before opening at 2 p.m.
     John Olson worked the bar with Joe Spark and waiter Harry Cross. The first customer, Russell Horton of Victoria ordered a martini. The Victoria Daily Times reported the following day, “For every customer that sat down, two were turned away. The place was jammed until closing at 11:30 p.m. In all, 200 persons were served.” The Strathcona Room did a roaring business, as they were a curiosity and the only licensed lounge in town until the Bengal Room opened in the Empress months later. Rum proved to be the drink of choice as many of the early customers were from the Esquimalt Military Base. Men usually occupied the bar stools and couples gravitated to the tables.
     The owners and their customers had to follow strict regulations. A sign posted by the bar read: ‘It is unlawful to drink while standing.’  Liquor inspectors continually harassed the operation of the lounge, as it was the only lounge in town to inspect.  They had only been open for three weeks when an overzealous and pompous inspector came into the lounge. He asked John why I had so many liquor bottles on the shelves behind the bar. He explained that we used them to pour the drinks for the customers. The liquor inspector retorted, “You get those bottles out of sight or I’ll close you down in two minutes.”  Joe Spark and John quickly took the bottles off the shelves and placed them on the floor. The inspector appeared satisfied but stayed around for a while and watched us as we tripped over liquor bottles while trying to serve customers. John Olson went to a stationary store, bought an assortment of coloured heavy paper, cut out label-sized sheets to cover the liquor bottle labels then placed them back on the shelves. Each liquor bottle was marked in pen as to its contents and held on with an elastic band. The reason he had to remove the bottles in the first place had to do with illegal advertising of liquor so John remedied the silly situation by covering the offending labels.
     On Friday November 16, 1956, the Olson’s opened a larger cocktail lounge that was right next door to the Strathcona Room, which we named The Pit. Designed by Industrial designer Earl Morrison, it could seat 100 patrons and featured a large copper fireplace in the center of the room. A wall done with blue cloth separated the walls paneled in black walnut done in three-inch batons. Bat winged chairs covered in a mix of red and blue added to the atmosphere of the room. Barney had invested between $40-50,000. The lounge proved to be a big hit with the public.
     By 1962, the World’s Fair came to Seattle. The Emerald City was less than eighty miles from Victoria and the prediction of millions of visitors coming to the Pacific Northwest gave John Olson an idea. He had been considering remodeling the Strathcona Lounge into a hillbilly - Paul Bunyan and his blue Ox style atmosphere. While hunting in Alberta John collected various discarded farm implements found in deserted barnyards. Every year he would bring more and more of these little treasures home to Victoria. Such as wagon wheels, lanterns, milk cans, old harnesses, even steer and buffalo skulls. The collection was stockpiled in the basement of the Hotel.
     On a Sunday morning near the end of May 1962, renovations began turning the spartan Strathcona Room cocktail lounge into a hillbilly bar. By Tuesday at noon, the Strathcona Room was no more and in its place opened the newest lounge in town aptly named Big Bad John’s. I originally intended Big Bad Johns to last the summer of the Seattle's World Fair and then to renovate it again to a different kind of bar. But it did so well since opening that we left it alone. And it has been going strong for the past 54 years.
     I remember when my father, with me in tow, stopped outside Big Bad Johns in 1964. I was ten years old as I peered into the dark, noisy and smoke-filled room while my dad paid 5 cents to have a headline done up. Back in those days they had a fake newspaper called the Strathcona News where you could have your own headline printed up for a quarter. I sure wish we still had that paper today. There was also a shoeshine outside the bar in those early years.
    I returned to the Strathcona Hotel and Big Bad John’s in the 1970’s, when I was at a legal age to drink. I recall going to the Beaver Pub that was used to be located in the north wing of the Empress Hotel, where I enjoyed inexpensive chilly and washed it down with a few beers. There was a group of us and we waited for our friend Craig, who was a cook at the Empress, to get off work then we’d all take a short walk over to Big Bad Johns where we would proceed to drink in earnest. I spent a lot of time and money in BBJ’s over the years, but none were as fond as the times I spent with Craig and our small circle of friends. When I first went to BBJ’s, there was no doorman and you had to get there early on a Friday or Saturday night if you wanted to get a seat, otherwise you’d be standing all night. By midnight the smoke was so thick in the bar that when you finally got home all your clothes right down to your underwear smelled of smoke. That of course changed when the smoking bylaw came into law in 2000, which banned smoking in restaurants and pubs.
     Everyone who has dropped in for a drink have their own stories of their experiences at Big Bad Johns. The place is a classic, as is the long-time bartender Gerry Lang who first worked for the Olson’s as a pin-boy back when the Old Forge Cabaret was a bowling alley.
     So what’s the draw those who have never been there may ask? Perhaps the small space that makes up that bar makes it a more intimate place to share a drink and a chat with total strangers. Or perhaps it’s the laid back ‘party atmosphere’ of Big Bad John’s that makes one feel comfortable and accepted. Whatever it is – it sure works as people keep coming back. University students find it kitsch while the regulars get to meet up and drink with their friends or swap stories and sports scores with the bartender and waiters.
     No matter what you call it, dive bar or a home away from home, Big Bad John’s has survived where other bars have changed or closed. It is a success story that continues to attract old regulars and new customers and it has been a gold mine for the generations of Olson’s that own it. No matter how much I’ve had to drink there over the years, I will always remember Gerry Lang’s voice calling over the bar, “Gotta get you up, gotta get you outta here – hey, we’re opened tomorrow.”  And I suspect, for many tomorrows to come.