Cariboo Calling: Clinton’s small-town vibe still an attraction

Helen Cade and Loretta Ferguson represent Clinton Creek Estates at the Clinton May Ball parade Saturday. (Kelly Sinoski photo - 100 Mile Free Press)
Rolly Higginbottom poses on a float at the annual Clinton May Ball Rodeo. (Kelly Sinoski photo - 100 Mile Free Press).
Clinton pioneer cemetery (Kelly Sinoski photo - 100 Mile Free Press)
Clinton pioneer cemetery (Kelly Sinoski photo - 100 Mile Free Press)
Linda Stacey, Marie Forster, Jim Jensen, Doris Jensen and Calvin Jensen have been attending Clinton's May Ball for years. (Kelly Sinoski photo - 100 Mile Free Press)
Village of ClintonVillage of Clinton
A sketch of the Clinton Hotel by James Moorman of Clinton (Photo submitted)A sketch of the Clinton Hotel by James Moorman of Clinton (Photo submitted)

By Kelly Sinoski

Their headstones rest in the mound above town: Robertson. Pollard. Doherty.

The “old families,” says Helen Cade.

She’s referring to the early settlers, who came to Clinton in the 1860s. The settlers started ranches on the outskirts of town, then the “centre of an Indian village,” according to a 1969 Cariboo Calling.

Halfway between Lillooet and the goldfields, the Royal Engineers declared the village the 47 Mile junction. A roadhouse, built by Joe and Mary Smith and later called the Clinton Hotel, was the rendezvous for the whole Cariboo and a divisional point for the first stagecoaches.

Here, drivers and horses were changed and passengers partook of the hotel’s hospitality.

The most famous of all roadhouses, the hotel was constructed of hand-hewn and whip-sawn logs, expertly dovetailed and pinned with wooden pegs. It was 20 feet by 40 feet and two-storeys high. There was not a single nail in the entire hotel, which had five rooms upstairs and three on the main floor. Many famous names were transcribed in its register.

The hotel stood in Clinton for nearly 100 years before burning down in 1958.

It was still there when Bernice Beeds worked at the Frontier Hotel, just down the road in, the 1950s. “There were a few hotels back then,” she says.

It was an exciting time for the teenager. She served characters like Tom Jones, who owned a ranch on Big Bar Road, and countless oldtimers. Kids would come in for pop and chips

Clinton was a thriving town back then. It was booming, its economy fueled by bush mills around the area.

Cade says someone told her Clinton had more neon lights than anywhere in B.C. at the time. Beeds recalls the Maple Leaf boarding house always being full.

The village had three service stations, a pharmacy and a butcher shop. Robertson’s General Store still had board siding. A doctor visited twice a week.

“Back then we had probably twice the people. It was a perfect time to be a teenager because the town just grew on the weekend with all the guys coming in from camp,” Beeds says. “We used to go down on a Saturday night, the bars would be spilling over. Sometimes fights would break out. It was exciting.”

In May, the town’s population would explode during the annual May Ball celebration.

The days-long party had been started in 1868 by Mary Smith to help newcomers adjust to the Cariboo. People would come from miles around, the women in elaborate dresses, men in coats and tails. In 1901, Smith added a May Queen to the mix: Edith Anderson, the blacksmith’s daughter, was given the first crown.

In 1950, 17-year-old Loretta Ferguson – then Loretta Pigeon – was anointed with Blanche (Robertson) Fraser and Verna (Jakel) Pollard as her princesses. Ferguson, who spent her childhood at the bush in Meadow Lake, couldn’t believe it. When she first started school in Clinton at age 13, she says “I was bushed, very bushed. That’s what they called it.”

“That was very exciting for me. From being raised in the bush and coming in and having all this excitement,” Ferguson, 89, says. “It was lovely at that time. We would dance around the May Pole. It was a real celebration in those days.”

The May Ball celebrated its 155th year in 2022. But there is no longer a May Queen, much to Cade’s disappointment. The last May Queen – Donna Millward – was crowned in 1978.

“People objected that it was not fair for one person to be a princess or a queen,” Cade says, but “that’s the way life is.”

Today, life is a lot quieter in Clinton. Its main street is still lined with businesses – including a hotel – but it is now a destination for thrifters and second-hand treasure seekers. By 4:30 p.m. the sidewalks roll up. People driving through town make a game of counting how many people they see on the street.

The population sits just under 600, according to the last Census.

“When the sawmill closed that really buggered us up,” Ferguson says. “I would like to see it grow. There has to be some means of work for the people to stay.”

Rolly Higginbottom, 70, agrees. In his day, work was plentiful. As a kid, he worked as a cowboy for five bucks a day. He moved to the bush mills before the government shut them down and then at the Chasm mill until he retired.

Now, though, he worries about Clinton’s future.

When he was in Grade 1 at Big Bar School, there were more than 20 people in his class. He figures there were about 30 families in a 10-mile radius. “There’s nobody there now.”

At the K-12 school in Clinton, there are just 92 children. Once they graduate, they leave.

“It seems like it’s a retirement town now. Young people can’t stay here, there’s nothing for them,” Higginbottom says. “If this highway ever got taken out it would be a dead town because that’s all we have.

“We need industry but I don’t know what that would be.”

Clinton Mayor Susan Swan says they’re working on it, but face challenges. The village temporarily stopped its entrepreneurship program, aimed at attracting new businesses, because it has no commercial spaces available. Housing is also at a premium.

The village hopes to develop a parcel of land above Carson Street – above the Round-Up Motel – into 25 lots.

But the village needs $80,000 to build a road to extend Cariboo Crescent and service the sites with water and sewer.

The road is costly to build because it would be built up a 12 per cent grade and require a retaining wall.

Swan says the project is a priority for her as mayor, especially if they are to accommodate young families moving to the area.

Jordan Lawrence, who grew up in Clinton and returned with his young family in 2016, says he believes the town is in transition.

More people are coming from the coast or other parts of B.C., looking for the small-town vibe that drew him and his wife Jessica, who opened up Bubble Blossoms Design flower shop.

“That’s a good thing, we want to populate the town,” he says.

But he’s conflicted as to how big it should grow. He loves the fact that a walk to the store can take 15 minutes – when it should only take two – because he will inevitably bump into somebody he knows.

“I had a great childhood here, a great education and this is the perfect-sized community,” Lawrence says. “Part of me wants it to grow into a big community but part of me wants it to stay like this. Maybe with just a few more upgrades for the kids.”

He would like to see more people step up and volunteer, to help shape the community – something Swan and Cade support.

When Cade arrived at the Doherty ranch in Maiden Creek in 1959, everyone pitched in, she says, whether it was for the school or organizations like Royal Purple or the Lions clubs. Clinton 4-H was one of the biggest in the province. Now it’s difficult to find volunteers.

“They were vibrant, big organizations,” she says. “Now we don’t have any of that.”

Still, she says she wouldn’t want to live anywhere else.

“I know somebody was talking one time that we need to do this and that and we will have 3,000 people,” she says.

If that happened, she says, she would leave.

“I came here to live in a small town.”

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