Moving to the Interior of B.C. today is not particularly difficult; I daresay that most of the people reading this piece have done it themselves, and found it a fairly smooth process. Finding a house, packing up your belongings, transporting them here, and then acquiring anything new you might need is almost always accompanied by a few minor inconveniences, but nothing that cannot easily be overcome.
Now imagine moving here in the 1860s, at a time when you would almost certainly have had to build your own dwelling-place, and transport anything you wanted to furnish or decorate it with yourself (pack-trains and freight services were available, but they were a costly proposition for those trying to establish a new life in the wilds of an untamed land). Basic amenities were almost unknown, and the further north you traveled the fewer there were to be had. Stores were few and far between, and largely confined themselves to selling the necessities of life. If you could not make it, grow it, or build it yourself, you very often went without.
Thus it is that when we picture the lives of the pioneer settlers of the Interior, it’s not difficult to imagine scenes of almost unrelenting hardship and toil. Pictures from the time confirm this view: stern-faced men in practical, hard-worn clothing stand in front of crude buildings on roads that were little more than rough tracks carved out of the harsh landscape. The few women who appear in these photographs wear plain, serviceable dresses; frills and extras are conspicuously absent.
A scene in the classic western film Destry Rides Again illuminates what their lives must have been like: a new female arrival from the east shows off a few “big city” luxuries to a group of eager and admiring women, all of them anxious for a glimpse of something almost impossibly glamorous.
By 1862 the stopping-place on the Cariboo Road known as 47 Mile House had become an important site, situated as it was at the junction of the roads north from Lillooet and Yale. A hotel was built there and the structure, completed in 1863, was named the Clinton Hotel to reflect the townsite’s new name. The large log building boasted eight guest rooms, as well as a bar-room and private sitting-room, and quickly became one of the best-known and successful lodging houses on the Cariboo Trail, popular with the packers and miners pouring into the area.
At some point the original owners sold the Clinton Hotel to local resident Joseph Smith, his wife Mary, and their partner Tom Marshall. The new proprietors added a billiard room and a lady’s parlor to the hotel – the additions are evident in a photograph taken in 1865 – ensuring that it became more popular than ever, and the gathering-place for local residents
Joseph Smith had already proven himself to be a community-minded man when, in 1861, he donated several acres of land to form the Clinton Pioneer Cemetery. Mary was to prove equally mindful of the town and its inhabitants, albeit in a very different way.
In 1867, having already endured several long, dark Interior winters, she decided that what Clinton needed was an event to brighten spirits and cheer hearts. She therefore planned an entertainment unlike any the town had ever seen; and on New Year’s Day 1868 the first Clinton Ball was held, in the billiard room of the Clinton Hotel.
Attendance was by invitation only, and it is not difficult to imagine that these invitations were highly prized. Indeed, we know that they were, for accounts indicate that invitees braved treacherous, arduous travel conditions and traveled long distances in order to attend. In winter it took four hours or more of difficult sleighing to travel the 23 miles from 70 Mile to Clinton, and many of the people who attended the Ball came from much further away.
No doubt in response to this fact, the Ball soon grew in scope. The first few were one night affairs, with a $5 ticket entitling the guest to attendance at the Ball, two nights of bed and breakfast at the hotel, and room and board for two horses. In 1869 the Ball was moved from the Clinton Hotel to a new warehouse which had been opened next door, as it provided far more space for the festivities, and by 1892 the newly-built first Clinton courthouse became the venue. By this time the dancing extended over three nights, if not more, and the Clinton Ball was firmly established as the premier social event of the B.C. interior.
The thrill and excitement of the Ball, particularly for the ladies who were invited, cannot be overestimated. Wardrobes were planned and ordered months in advance, with the more fashion-conscious procuring the latest finery from as far afield as Europe. It would have been common to change one’s attire several times in one day, and even have a different gown for each night’s event. For unmarried women it was an opportunity to display their charms and (possibly) find a husband, while for everyone it was a welcome relief from the day-to-day difficulties of pioneer life.
In 1920, when the Clinton Memorial Hall was built to honour local residents who had participated in the First World War, the Ball was moved there, and at some point in its history was moved from New Year’s Day to May. It has continued to this day; the longest continuously-held event of its kind in Canada, which provides local residents with at least one night a year to dress in their finest attire, kick up their heels, and take part in a piece of vibrant, living history.
Mary Smith could not have known it in 1868, but she was creating a legacy that has spanned three centuries, and which looks set to continue for many years to come.