Clinton’s small-town vibe is still an attraction – 100 Mile House Free Press
By Kelly Sinoski
Their tombstones rest in the mound above the town: Robertson. Tadpole. Doherty.
The “old families,” says Helen Cade.
It refers to early settlers, who came to Clinton in the 1860s. Settlers established ranches on the outskirts of town, then the “center of an Indian village,” according to a 1969 report. Call of the caribou.
Halfway between Lillooet and the goldfields, the Royal Engineers declared the village the junction of the 47 Mile. A roadhouse, built by Joe and Mary Smith and later called the Clinton Hotel, was the rendezvous of all the Cariboo and a divisional point for the first stagecoaches.
Here the drivers and horses were changed and the passengers enjoyed the hospitality of the hotel.
The most famous of all roadhouses, the hotel was constructed of hand-hewn and whip-sawn logs, skillfully dovetailed together and pinned with wooden dowels. It measured 20 feet by 40 feet and had two floors. There was not a single highlight in the whole hotel, which had five rooms upstairs and three downstairs. Many famous names were transcribed in his register.
The hotel remained 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 street, in the 1950s. “There were a few hotels 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 elders. Kids would come for soft drinks and fries
Clinton was a prosperous city at the time. It was booming, its economy fueled by the bush mills around the area.
Cade says someone told him Clinton had more neon lights than anywhere in British Columbia at the time. Beeds remembers the Maple Leaf boarding house was always full.
The village had three service stations, a pharmacy and a butcher. Robertson’s general store still had plank siding. A doctor came twice a week.
“Back then we probably had twice as many people. It was a great time to be a teenager, because the town got bigger on the weekends with all the guys coming from camp,” Beeds says. “We used to go down on a Saturday night, the bars would be overflowing. Sometimes fights broke out. It was exciting.”
In May, the city’s population exploded during the annual May Ball celebration.
The one-day party was started in 1868 by Mary Smith to help newcomers adjust to the Cariboo. People came from miles around, women in elaborate dresses, men in coats and tailcoats. In 1901, Smith added a May Queen to the mix: Edith Anderson, the blacksmith’s daughter, received the first crown.
In 1950, then 17-year-old Loretta Ferguson, then Loretta Pigeon, was anointed with Blanche (Robertson) Fraser and Verna (Jakel) Pollard as her princesses. Ferguson, who grew up in the Meadow Lake bush, couldn’t believe it. When she started school in Clinton at age 13, she said, “I was pushed around, really pushed around. That’s what they called him.
“It was very exciting for me. To be raised in the bush and to come and have all this excitement,” says Ferguson, 89. of May. It was a real party at the time.”
The May Ball celebrated its 155th anniversary in 2022. But there is no longer a May Queen, much to Cade’s disappointment. The last Queen of May – Donna Millward – was crowned in 1978.
“People objected that it wasn’t right for a person to be a princess or a queen,” Cade says, but “that’s the way life is.”
Today, life is much calmer in Clinton. Its main street is still lined with businesses – including a hotel – but it’s now a destination for thrift shops and second-hand treasure seekers. At 4:30 p.m., the sidewalks wind up. People driving through town play a game of counting how many people they see on the street.
The population stands at just under 600, according to the last census.
“When the sawmill closed, it really annoyed us,” says Ferguson. “I would like to see him grow up. There have to be ways of working for people to stay.
Rolly Higginbottom, 70, agrees. In his time, work was abundant. As a child, he worked as a cowboy for five dollars a day. He moved to the bush factories before the government closed them, then to the Chasm factory until his retirement.
Now, however, he worries about Clinton’s future.
When he was a freshman at Big Bar School, there were over 20 people in his class. He estimates there were about 30 families within a 10 mile radius. “There is no one left now.”
At the K-12 school in Clinton, there are only 92 children. Once they graduate, they leave.
“It looks like a retirement town now. Young people can’t stay here, there’s nothing for them,” says Higginbottom. “If this highway were ever removed, it would be a ghost town because that’s all we have.
“We need the industry, but I don’t know what it would be.”
Clinton Mayor Susan Swan says they are working on it, but are facing challenges. The village has temporarily halted its entrepreneurship program, aimed at attracting new businesses, as it has no commercial spaces available. Housing is also a bonus.
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 provide water and sewer to the sites.
The road is expensive to build because it would have a 12% grade and would require a retaining wall.
Swan says the project is a priority for her as mayor, especially when it comes to accommodating young families moving to the area.
Jordan Lawrence, who grew up in Clinton and returned with his young family in 2016, says he thinks the city is in transition.
More and more people are coming from the coast or other parts of British Columbia, seeking the small-town vibe that attracted him and his wife Jessica, who opened the flower shop Bubble Blossom Design.
“It’s a good thing, we want to populate the city,” he said.
But he is conflicted as to how tall he should grow. He likes the fact that a walk to the store can take 15 minutes – when it should only take two – because he will inevitably bump into someone he knows.
“I had a great childhood here, a great upbringing, and it’s the perfect sized community,” Lawrence says. “Part of me wants it to become a big community but part of me wants it to stay that way. Maybe with a few more improvements for the kids.
He would like to see more people stepping in and volunteering, to help shape the community – something both Swan and Cade support.
When Cade arrived at the Doherty Ranch in Maiden Creek in 1959, everyone pitched in, she says, from the school to organizations like Royal Purple and Lions clubs. Clinton 4-H was one of the largest in the province. Now it is difficult to find volunteers.
“These were large, dynamic organizations,” she says. “Now we don’t have any of that.”
Still, she says she wouldn’t want to live anywhere else.
“I know someone once said we have to do this and that and we’ll have 3,000 people,” she says.
If that happened, she said, she would leave.
“I came here to live in a small town.”
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