BCHF News Putting the pub in public history

Putting the pub in public history

Mike, a black and white English sheepdog-terrier cross, was trained to serve bottle beer to customers in the Bowser Hotel, 1937–1941. Mike even collected the money and came back with the change. Photo: Vancouver City Archives, 586-348

By Glen A. Mofford

I love a good story. I suppose my appreciation began in childhood when I eagerly looked forward to the nightly bedtime story. I did well at social studies and it only got better in high school when I got an A in History 12.

I graduated with a BA in history from Simon Fraser University in 1986, then was accepted into an entry-level job in the BC Government. My partner and I moved back to Victoria in July 1986.

It was in the Ingraham Pub near closing time, while a very drunk fellow was slurring his story about an Island hotel from his past, and I was trying to decipher just what he was saying, that it happened. I had an epiphany—why don’t I take the two things I love most, history and beer, and combine them into a study of the historic saloons, bars, and hotels of Victoria? So that’s what I did.

Working for the government paid the bills and gave me a little left over to enjoy the occasional Friday night in the pubs. It was in the Ingraham Pub where I heard stories from those around our table, usually retired men, of the places they used to drink in and the humorous or tragic events that took place in those pubs. I began showing up at the pub after work on Fridays more often and with a small notepad so I could write down the stories. I started to learn about the history of hotels and bars long gone from the very people who had frequented them. I wanted to know more and began to ask questions, purposely leading conversations back to events that happened in these old bars.

Using not only my bar notes but the resources in the Victoria and BC archives, I researched the history of local saloons, bars, and hotels. I found notes from those who had gone before me, leaving lists of hotels compiled from old phone books. That was the beginning of the research for what would be my first book, Aqua Vitae: A History of the Saloons and Hotel Bars of Victoria, 1851–1917. I sent my first book proposal to Taryn Boyd at TouchWood Editions in 2015 with no expectations. After six months, I contacted them and shortly afterwards received a call from Taryn.

The Riverside Hotel in Courtenay, ca. 1908. Author’s collection

They liked my proposal, felt it could sell, and picked it up. I shall forever be grateful to Taryn and TouchWood for taking a chance on an unknown writer, yet I felt that the topic was strong, and sales proved us right. Two years later, my second nonfiction history book was released by TouchWood, Along the E&N: A Journey Back to the Historic Hotels of Vancouver Island. The book did very well, spending 22 weeks on the BC Bestseller List. I realized that people loved stories as much as I did, especially when they were about familiar places like local hotels.

The Covid-19 pandemic put a temporary halt to my live presentations. Following a short adjustment period, I focused on writing a new book while utilizing social media to promote my past books and my current project. I rejoined Facebook with a clear vision to talk about historic hotels. One group lead to three; the most successful, named Historic Hotels & Pubs of British Columbia, now has more than 9,000 members and is still growing.

The Facebook format, while it limits the amount of text I can use on a given story, has proven to be an excellent means to share and exchange information, photographs, and related ephemera, and to comment on the history of British Columbia’s hotels and drinking establishments. I thought I’d teach others on the subject, but the experience has enriched my knowledge too. It has proven to be an excellent two-way street, where the history of both bygone and existing hotels in BC is examined. My favourite posts are those in which people open up about their families who either worked in or owned one of the historic hotels under discussion.

Along the E&N: A Journey Back to the Historic Hotels of Vancouver Island cover, designed by Colin Parks.

This online community has far surpassed my expectations and makes me want to work harder (believe me, it’s a labour of love), uncovering more true stories and discovering old hotels hidden in the mists of time. It has not only enabled me to discover historic hotels I hadn’t known about, but it’s allowed me to find new ways of exploring and sharing hotel history. One example is viewing historic hotels through art — paintings, drawings, sketches — and therefore through the eyes of the artists.

I’ve learned so much since that day all those years ago in the Ingy pub when I decided to seriously research and write about BC hotel and pub history that my only regret is that I didn’t come up with the idea when I was much younger. But there is no time like the present.

Glen A. Mofford, author of Aqua Vitae and Along the E&N, is a historian and writer with a passion for sharing the social history of British Columbia. He graduated from Simon Fraser University, and has been writing about BC’s historic hotels for 20 years.

Facebook History Groups
■ Pacific Northwest History (pre-colonial, pre-1850s) (1,200)
■ Maillardvilleites (1,200)
■ Chilliwack History Perspectives (4,000)
■ BC Ghost Towns & Forgotten Places (8,700)
■ People of Nelson, BC (8,700)
■ Boundary Heritage (3,300)
■ Cariboo Historical and Legends (8,300)
■ History of Hope and the Fraser Canyon (2,200)
■ British Columbia Nautical History (6,300)
■ British Columbia’s Abandoned History (14,300)
■ Our Chilliwack Heritage (1,100)
■ Historic Hotels and Pubs of BC (9,000)
■ North Shore Picture and Memory Group (2,600)
■ Kamloops History (12,100)
■ Lost Kootenays (45,000)

The BC Historical Federation has a Facebook group with 1,300 followers.