Past, Present & Beyond- Just an old, blackened monster, fondly remembered

Barbara Roden's bi-monthly delving into the quirky parts of our local history.

Over the centuries poets have waxed lyrical on a wide variety of subjects. Love and death, war, historical events and personages, youth, beauty, and much more have all been the focus of elegies, ballads, sonnets, pastorals, narratives, haikus, elegies, and even the humble limerick. Odes – a specific type of lyric poem, usually of a serious or meditative nature, and addressed to a particular subject – have been written to a nightingale (Keats), a skylark and the west wind (Shelley), intimations of immortality (Wordsworth), Aphrodite (Sappho), and the Confederate dead (Tate) among other, usually lofty and inspiring, people and things.

However, odes have also been written about, less exalted subjects. A case in point is the ode I have in front of me now, written in February 1938 by an author identified only as “Silvertip” Brown. It is called “The Clinton Stove”, and is a poem in praise of – well, what is says on the label. As an example of the ode it does not reach the heights of Keats or Shelley, but it illuminates a small corner of Cariboo history.

The Clinton stove stood in the Clinton Hotel, construction of which began in 1861, when George and Robert Watson thought to build accommodations for the miners who were streaming through the town – then known as 47 Mile House – on their way to the gold fields. It opened for business in 1862, and by 1863 – the year in which the settlement was officially renamed “Clinton” – was advertising its “large bar-room, private sitting-room, and free beds to people that brought their own blankets”.

Over the years the building was expanded, with additions including a ladies parlour and a billiard room. In 1868 the first Clinton Ball was held there, and the hotel quickly became a landmark on the Cariboo Road. But it was not just the hotel which found itself famous. The hotel’s stove, as old as the building itself, occupied a place of pride in the structure. It heated the building, yes; an important consideration given Clinton’s location. But it also provided a meeting place for visitors and locals alike; a spot to linger, exchange pleasantries, muse over current events, and engage in a spot of gossip. In September 1880 Mrs. Sarah Crease, a guest of the Clinton Hotel, noted in her diary that in addition to a soft, comfortable bed and excellent food, her stay was enhanced by the company of Mrs. Marshall, one of the owners, who “entertained me with an hour’s gossip about herself and her neighbours”.

“Just an old, blackened monster – a warm, great, burly stove / I abide at hotel in Clinton, on trail to the treasure trove” begins Mr. Brown’s ode. The stove was built “On the banks of Harrison River” he continues, and then transported north – almost certainly in pieces, given the stove’s size – by oxcart. This was in the days before the Cariboo Wagon Road was completed, and the arduous journey would have taken days, if not weeks. It was a “stove” inasmuch as it had a flat surface on which things could be heated, and a rectangular receptacle on the top of it, with a tap at one end, appears to have been used as a source of hot water.

Over the decades the Clinton stove must have heard countless tales, with Mr. Brown noting that sourdoughs, miners, tinhorns, touts, skinners, and trappers had doubtless sat by its side, swapping stories and experiences, triumphs and tragedies. “I’ve stored up tales in millions of mining, romance and lore / I know all this grand old country – stories and tales by the score,” he writes. “I live today as you see me – a grand old husky pioneer / Dispensing my warmth and comfort, trying the weary to cheer.”

By the 1940s the stove was almost as well-known as the hotel which housed it. Both the building and the stove were featured on postcards, which advertised them as the oldest specimens of their respective kinds in the province. “Nigh eighty years I’ve done service through days of the golden past / Still am I hale and hearty, to duty still holding fast” notes “Silvertip”; and the Clinton stove would almost certainly have continued to “serve the Cariboo need” had not Fate cruelly, and tragically, intervened.

By May 1958 the Clinton Hotel had seen off two rivals: the Dominion Hotel, which burned down in 1908, and the Palace Hotel, which had become a boarding-house in the early years of the twentieth century. In 1958 British Columbia was celebrating its centenary, and among the festivities was the Centennial Stagecoach Run, which visited communities across the province. On May 14 the Stagecoach Run passed through Clinton, and that night the annual Ball was held at the Clinton Hotel. In the early hours of May 15, however, a fire broke out in the hotel. The manager went from room to room, waking all the guests and telling them to evacuate. All of the guests got out safely, except for one couple and their young child, who went back to sleep after hearing the manager’s warning. All three of them were killed in the fire which, despite the valiant efforts of firefighters, succeeded in burning the Clinton Hotel to the ground and destroying everything within it.

“Just an old rusting monster, yet have I the heart of a king / Romantic days of the Stampede – yet am I able to sing!” concludes Mr. Brown’s ode. Sadly, the Clinton Stove is no more; but its song lives on, in pictures, and the memories of those old enough to recall it, and in the words of “Silvertip” Brown. He may not have the eloquence of the great poets, but he has ensured that a part of the Cariboo story will not be forgotten.

Barbara Roden

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