The Clinton Museum

The Clinton Museum – more than bricks

The dedicated people who made the early Clinton Museum what it is.

by Esther Darlington MacDonald

The red brick building sits so quaintly and sedately, like a school marm of old on the highway that goes through Clinton. It is a museum and it has been for many years. But the building was once a one roomed school built in Clinton’s earliest years. The bricks, I was told by Curator Avis Choate, were made right there in Clinton. I suppose from native clay and kiln dried, perhaps on the spot. Avis was the curator of Clinton Museum for well over 20 years.

What brought it all to mind, was the amusing and informative Tales of the Cariboo by Mike Brundage.  Mike writes about the parsonage, a tall frame house with a single dormer window located only a few hundred feet from the museum. Apparently, the house was moved by a team of horses from its original location on the main highway, and placed directly across the street from the United Church.

Avis and husband Fred were living in that house when I moved to Clinton in 1970. Their son, author and game guide of considerable note, Chilco Choate, lived for a time as I recall, in a cottage behind the parsonage. Avis and Fred are long gone from this world, but their time in Clinton will be remembered by the few old timers left. And my memories of Avis and Fred are quite vivid.

When Fred moved to Ashcroft after Avis died, I visited him often in Extended Care. He wanted me to read to him. I don’t recall what he wanted me to read, but I was happy to do this and he told me he liked the sound of my voice. Fred was a tall man with a dignified bearing, gentle in demeanour, but vigorous enough in opinion. (Like most of the intelligent people I know). He was a staunch Conservative, and very much against the idea of the country going bilingual. Be that as it may, in old age, Fred’s persona in veritable old age took on that quality of equanimity that endears. He would walk me to the entry to the hospital after every visit. He advised me on the last occasion, that he had requested to be transferred to the hospital in Lillooet. I never saw him again.

Now Avis was quite different in personality. She was as direct and forthright as a well placed arrow.

She usually hit the mark too. Seated behind the desk on the pulpit-like dais at the rear of the Museum, she almost disappeared. All you could see was the top of her head. But the quality of the voice was undiminished by size. When she spoke for attention, Avis’s voice, like any good school teacher’s, could be heard not only to the doors of the Museum, but several feet beyond. Impatient to the point of rudeness, she could be abrupt, in fact, often was. But Avis could be quite the reverse when replying to questions from visiting tourists. Anyone interested in Avis’s passion for Cariboo history was rewarded in spades with a tide of well informed facts about pioneer folk and the events of yesteryear.

Shortly after arriving in Clinton, I visited the Museum, met Avis, of course, and was given a tremendous introduction to South Cariboo history, a subject of which I was largely ignorant. Other than reading a little about the gold rush, I knew nothing about the Cariboo. City bred and from back east, like many, British Columbia seemed as remote as China. I quickly absorbed some of the personal history of characters, some of them beef barons who had established the first ranches, and the framed portraits on the walls added more character to the facts. Thanks to Avis, the tour of the interior’s artifacts, and the inspection of the displays outside, including the old forge, had me hooked. I mentioned to Avis that I had written a few articles about historical things, and I’d interviewed Tom and Helen Pollard, Clinton pioneers. Avis’s reply went something like this.

“We desperately need a grant to catalogue the artifacts inside and outside the Museum. And we need money to restore the outside displays. Get me some money from the government, and I’ll give you a job.”

I was taken aback. I’d never applied for government money before. I guess I muttered something about, maybe next year. Avis’s reply shot back with whip lash speed: “I am old. I don’t have time. I may be dead next year.”

So, the upshot of it was, I wrote to Len Marchand, who was then a federal minister, and I asked for a grant and gave the reasons why it was needed. Not too many weeks later, Avis called me to advise that a quite generous grant had been given. It was as jubilant a cackle as I would ever hear from Avis. She immediately set me to work. Gave me a typewriter, a pack of file cards, and the tedious, methodical process of cataloging every item in the Museum and outside the Museum began. Avis supplied all the information. She had the history of every item, however small, noted. When I was last in the Clinton Museum some time back, I was pleased to see the card system still there.

Avis then hired a couple of American Viet Nam veterans who just happened to be staying in Clinton at the time. The two men were strong, healthy, and sober. They worked outside through the summer and into the fall.

I was told by locals, that Avis saved a good many articles from the ruins of the fire that destroyed the 97 year old Clinton Hotel in 1958. “People thought she was crazy.” Sifting through the smoke blackened debris. Pulling out, sorting, and finally, wheelbarrowing one load after the other down to the Museum. The Hotel had been situated on the northern boundary of the town, a good three blocks or more from the Museum. So there was little, small boned, fragile Avis, barrowing what most people probably thought was a load of junk down the main thoroughfare. Avis spent many hours cleaning, brushing, and bringing back to some semblance of life those priceless artifacts she was able to glean. It was the kind of effort back in the 1970’s you didn’t get much, if any credit for. British Columbia did not realize at that point, that the backbone of tourism was really the Province’s history. That people would come from across the world to find the Cariboo Gold Rush history and relive its color and character in museums and former ghost towns. And we still have a way to go before we really begin to see our history like that. Like the Brits do. Mining their history. Even a boat ride down the Thames to the music of Elgar, brings in millions of pounds every year.

The famed Cariboo freighter, Cataline, (Jean Caux) was photographed seated in front of the Clinton Museum. You can see the red bricks  behind him. The rugged Spaniard’s face is a road map of Cariboo strength of character. Cataline probably spent a good many hours in Clinton as he freighted everything imaginable up as far as Barkerville. Somebody had the sense to see the freighter photographed, before he left the Cariboo and went up to the Hazelton area, where he died and was buried. Clinton’s history is older than Ashcroft’s by at least 20 years..

So thanks, Mike, for that nudge of a reminder in your Tales of the Cariboo.

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