If a man had a wife who was a good cook, and was willing to be on call at all times of day or night, he had it made. As long as the table was appetizingly furnished, it mattered little about the sleeping accommodation. Bunkhouses and lofts with or without beds — as long as they kept some rain and snow out — were less criticized by the weary travelers than some luxury motels are today. A horse blanket suspended from the rafters provided as much privacy as any woman could hope for. The occasional well-built log or frame house and a real bed ranked as luxury hotel would today.
Background music wasn’t piped in – it was dripped in! Any sort of utensil was disposed on and around the bunk to catch the drops, no two of which seemed to fall at the same interval. The Chinese are said to have invented water torture. This was another kind, listening to the glockenspiel plink-plunk-dribble of water-to-tin and water-to-water percussion, waiting for a new leak to spring, probably over the pillow. The most irritating thing was that the common sod roofs might hold out water for a week during a rainy spell, but leak for a week after the rain had stopped.
We cannot possibly list all of the famous stopping places on the many trails. One, perhaps, will serve for all — the late “Ma” Brainard’s on the old road between Grande Prairie and Pouce Coupe, on the shore of a little lake called Lake Sinclair. Before her husband died, the Brainards ran a huge unfenced ranch. When settlers fenced, ranching declined. It was then that Ma became famous.
Additional information found in an old sewing book on the back of a recipe which had been cut out of a newspaper sometime in the 1930’s — on the Arrow Lakes. It is incomplete, but adds a bit of detail to Ma Brainard’s life:
“Living at Brainard for over twenty-two years — even the post office takes its name from her — Mrs. Brainard has thrown open her home to provide meals for the travelling public and specializes in home baking, fried chicken and pot pie. She is a very interesting woman and has an unusual background. She was born in Hendersonville on the Ridge in North Carolina. From the Old South Mrs. Brainard brought the secrets of good cooking. Her late husband was the first baby born in Rochester, Minnesota. Mrs. Brainard came west when a young girl. She met her husband and they decided to make their home in the west. They lived on the pack-trail before the railway went through from Edmonton to Grande Prairie in the Peace River District. Now the family are married and gone, but Mrs. Brainard lives on in her old house and provides meals for hundreds of travellers every year. She still prepares sumptious dinners and there is never a day but cars are lined up and old friends emerge, or new friends come to have a meal with “Ma Brainard” as she is affectionately called.”
It is a delightful memory of the writer that once we sat down at her table, where notable people as high ranking as the Governor General had sat before. The huge board in the enormous kitchen was never bare. At all hours, in fact, it bore a smorgasbord. The number of homemade cookies, pies and cakes, pickles, preserves, jams and jellies; the golden honest-to- goodness butter, the cream, the fragrant bread and buns would astonish a cooking-class. Mounds of fluffy homegrown mashed potatoes, several kinds of home-preserved vegetables, and roots from the cellar or root house, were just the trimmings. Ma’s famous fried, range-run, old time-flavoured chicken, prepared on the huge black range by Ma herself was the main dish. The delicious sizzle of chicken and aroma of brewed coffee would have been unbearable, unless one could nibble freely on all the goodies of the table. How she ever did it is a wonder, but one who partook of her hospitality could never forget it.
From this sumptuous fare at Ma Brainard’s, the stopping-place menus ran the gamut from not-so-fluffy flapjacks to perennial baked beans.
Stopping house rates weren’t calculated to make the owners wealthy. For each horse, 35 cents for corral and feed was typical with a bunkhouse included for the driver. A buffet-style meal ran around 25 cents. I have never heard of a place where a traveler was turned away for the lack of cash.
Sooner or later the stopper became acquainted with that very common predatory domestic insect, the bedbug. Before the days of DDT, the most house-proud wife could never be certain that some visitor had not left a living “calling-card” that knew more about population explosion than all the sociologists in North America. All settlers stoutly maintained that, as well as on human hosts, they came in spruce wood, particularly logs. Maybe so. Swallow’s nests under the eaves were also suspect, as the birds were said to be infested. I don’t know.
Actually, although I was exposed to them, they did not cause me the peculiar anguish of their bite, which was said to be like the insertion of a red-hot needle, and which on fair-skinned people particularly raised great red lumps. As late as 1937 in a hotel that shall be nameless, I was sharing a room with the fair complexioned wife of a political candidate, who was stumping his constituency. She snored gently a little while, and then just as I was dozing off, she bounded out of bed with a shriek “I am being eaten alive!” On her neck and arms and on her side of the bed was the evidence. When the light went on the dark-loving predators began to scurry for the nearest crack. Two women, flashlight in hand, went prowling the corridor, gingerly trying doors until we found the broom closet and an insect-spray gun of the old-fashioned non-aerosol type. After pumping the room and the bed full to suffocation with the fumes of insecticide, we aired the room a little, lit the coal oil lamp again at the hazard of an explosion (the electric power having been turned off at midnight) and retired. None of the other guests seemed to be in the least agitated, and fortunately did not deem it necessary to investigate us two nocturnal prowlers in the hall. In all that fuss, I am glad to say I demonstrated some kind of immunity, for I didn’t get a single bite.
Not only travelers, but Ladies Aid Meetings, schoolhouse dances, even a close-crowded pew at church, spread the scourge. I was initiated to the lore of the pre-DDT days when the first house we bought in Dawson Creek presented me with the problem. White-wash, superheating, pyrethrum powder, setting the bed’s legs in cans of kerosene, and sulphur fumigation — all recommended — were inadequate against the pests that dropped from the ceilings onto warm bodies. Finally cyanide crystals in diluted sulphuric acid did the trick, but I selected to do it the day for tenting in the yard, during one of the dust storm we experienced for many years in the country. I think I’d rather risk DDT poisoning than go through all that again! The stopping house hostess did not have a chance!
The insects performed a sort of negative social service as well in a pioneer community. If any homemaker had social ambitions, the knowledge that she might become a hostess at any time to the low-caste beasties effectively inhibited snobbishness!
We are assured that the power of faith can move mountains. There is a theory that insect-power moved more than one trading post in the Peace River Country. There is a case on record where in a “hotel” in Peace River Town, a room consisted of a space on the floor, two by six feet, marked out by a two-inch painted line. For this non-private accommodation the traveler paid twenty-five cents. Breakfast was fifty cents, and nobody complained to the landlord!