The chilly truth about Hat Creek House

Esther Darlington MacDonald has another chilling tale about the roadhouse at Hat Creek.

by Esther Darlington MacDonald

In the mid 1970s, the late Dorothy Jackson introduced me to Hat Creek House, now a historic site situated just 11 km from Cache Creek.

I had discovered the place shortly after moving to the South Cariboo, eyeing it from the highway and wondering about the place. I was told that the ranch and the buildings were owned by Basil and Dorothy Jackson, pioneers of the region and operators of the Hat Creek Ranch.

I contacted Dorothy and asked if it would be possible to visit the site. She seemed pleased at my interest and we made an appointment for her to accompany me to view the exterior as well as the interior of Hat Creek House.

The prospect was exciting, not only because I would see the House and get some first hand history about it, but I would also meet one of the district’s earliest members of the pioneer family. Dorothy’s maiden name was Parke. Philip Parke had founded the Bonaparte Ranch in 1863 and the sons of his nephew, one of whom was Dorothy’s father, had later developed the ranches at Bonaparte in Cache Creek and at Upper Hat Creek.

As Dorothy and I walked from her comfortable bungalow home on the Old Cariboo Road, south of Hat Creek House, I was struck by the dignity of the simple architecture of Hat Creek House immediately ahead.

As we approached however,  the abject neglect of the building came as something of a shock. The roof of the front veranda had fallen. It was only a matter of time before a storm or a gust of wind blew the rest down. The veranda too had sunk and some of the boards looked decidedly foot-tripping.

As Dorothy unlocked the front north entrance of the building, she told me that she and her late husband had lived in Hat Creek House for some years. She expressed concern about the future of the stopping house which had played so vital a part in the development of the horse drawn transportation era. She had wondered aloud if some group or individual would come forward to help with the restoration and preservation of the place. An event that, happily, was to occur a few years later in the early 1980s when a group was formed, some of whom were descendents of Steve Tingley, the famous BX Express owner.

Tingley had acquired Hat Creek Ranch and the House, and he had built the west wing, sparing no expense to make it as handsome as possible. For the time, the French-designed wallpaper on the second floor alone was a touch of luxury the frontier teamsters and passengers found impressive. Indeed, an overnight stay at Hat Creek House was thought to be something of a luxury.

Dorothy explained that she and her late husband Basil had lived in the House for years. But those years were not the most comfortable for Dorothy.

“It was a cold and drafty place,” she said.

Accustomed to the comfort of wood heat in the family homestead at Upper Hat Creek, Dorothy’s introduction to life in Hat Creek House after her marriage to Basil came as something of a shock. Dorothy shivered with the recollection. Told me that she had suffered chilblains. Winters became a kind of torture for Dorothy, only relieved by her frequent outings on horseback over the vast holdings of the Ranch.

But Basil, having grown up in Hat Creek House, had no problem with the cold. Looking about the House some time later, the high ceilings, large rooms, I could well imagine how uncomfortable most people would find living inside this historic building, a building like so many built before the turn of the century, that had never been insulated, and which had been entirely dependent upon wood stove heat.

When Dorothy told Basil that she intended to have a bungalow built just south of Hat Creek House, Basil stubbornly asserted that he would not be moved from the House he had grown up in as a boy and he was quite accustomed to the place. Change was, at least for a year or two, unthinkable.

However, after the bungalow was built, Basil visited it. Was suitably impressed after a visit or two more. And he decided, not reluctantly, to move in. As Dorothy explained all this, she gestured toward a long, well worn leather bench against the wall of the dining area at Hat Creek House.

“He slept on that.”

Dorothy’s frankness was characteristic. Her older sister Sybil, who lived on the Bonaparte Ranch in a tidy bungalow for many years, was also a straightforward person who did not mind expressing her views without concern about how they would be viewed by others. Sybil had been a nurse at the Royal Jubilee Hospital in Victoria. She gave me some valuable information about life at All Hallowes School near Yale, a private school run by the Anglican sisters. Both Dorothy and she had received their high school diplomas from All Hallowes around the time of the First World War.

As Dorothy took me through the various rooms and up the narrow back stairs, to the second floor, stairs which she mounted with considerable lack of effort although she was well into her 80s at the time, I was struck by the uniformity of the building itself. It looked like it had all been built at one time. Every extension built by the various owners, corresponding in form and exterior siding, as well as the colour of the paint chosen, brown and yellow.

Yet, the original building of Hat Creek House had been a log building, roughly 40 feet long and 20 feet wide. Built by Hudson Bay Chief Trader, Donald McLean when he retired from the Company in the early 1860s, the building was known as McLean’s Station.

George Dunne, the next owner, added the second storey, and Steve Tingley added the west wing.  Charles Doring added the south wing at the turn of the century.

Yet, the whole looked “all of a piece” and whether this was  due to the conservative tastes of the owners, or whether some thought was given to the outward appearance, who can say?

The kitchen held a central work table. They call such a feature an “island” today. Spacious, light filled, the room held cupboards, a large wood stove, and adjoining was a pantry, where butter, eggs and meat were stored.

The dining room was also spacious, not so well lit,  and the parlor section held the front windows.

The apartment built by the Vancouver brewer, Doring, held another sitting area and two bedrooms adjoining.

All in all, nothing fancy. Nothing decorative. All entirely practical. No pretentions in the pioneer dwellings of yesteryear, that is certain! The only difference with Hat Creek House and other stopping houses along the Cariboo Road, and there were several of them between Cache Creek and 150 Mile House near Williams Lake, was size. Hat Creek House was larger than the others.

Outside Hat Creek House, a shed-like building called “The wash house” served as the laundry area. Here, native women were hired to wash the linen and probably the clothing of some of the occupants. I was told that payment to the women was sometimes not cash, but bedding and clothing.

There were no motorized or electric laundry machines. Just the washboards set in the wooden tubs. The bedding was strung up on lines outside, adjacent to the large vegetable garden.

The barns at Hat Creek Ranch were comparatively well preserved. Stalls, heavy plankboard floors. Hay racks. The odour of those sturdy horses that pulled the stagecoaches and freight wagons still in the air, in the log walls.

All in all, it was an unforgettable visit. Dorothy became somewhat of a mentor in the early 1990s and provided me with many insights into the activities at Hat Creek House and Ranch.

I served as Chief Interpreter of the Ranch’s history from 1990 until 1992, but acted as a tour guide in 1993. During my employ there I interviewed several Hat Creek pioneers, including Ike and Edna Lehman and Walter Ferguson.

In 1991, the Community Channel recorded an interview about wild horse herds in the Cariboo. Author and journalist, as well as federal MP, Paul St. Pierre also visited the Ranch during that time. Gave a very nice talk and brought some of his books to sell and autograph. In fact, Paul came twice to the Ranch, and I was able to give him information about the Maggie Mine, just north of the Ranch.

The restoration of the Ranch will probably be on-going. And the addition of the native Indian dwelling and subsequent interpretation of the history of the native people of the area at the Ranch as well as the annual events that have become a vital part of the Ranch’s operation will undoubtedly bring in many more thousands of visitors for years to come.

It is a far cry from that first rather woeful, and decidedly uncertain prospect of the future of  the Ranch with Dorothy Jackson back in the early 1970s.