The history of the Prairie Inn begins with Henry and Adelaide Simpson’s arrival in Esquimalt harbour aboard the Norman Morison on January 13, 1853.
The recently married couple came from England, where Henry had signed a five-year contract allowing him to work as a baker and Adelaide as a laundress for the Puget Sound Company. Once settled, they worked at the Constance Cove Farm in the Esquimalt District.
Five years slipped quickly by. Soon enough, the Simpsons had fulfilled their contract, giving Henry enough money to buy land. And he did just that.
On July 1, 1858, Henry purchased 300 acres in the South Saanich District (known as Central Saanich today) where he built his house, a barn, and outbuildings that he named Stream Farm.
Later, he added a small inn: the Prairie Tavern, which received its country liquor license in 1864.
Along with his reputation as an excellent farmer, Henry also possessed a creative mind. He’s credited with organizing the first “U-Drive”: trained horses that transported people home and then returned to their stables on their own. This system was appreciated by those customers in the tavern who had a bit too much cheer.
Through the 1860’s-1870’s the Prairie Tavern was not only a place to rest and ‘refresh the inner man’ but it also served as a meeting place to elect and hear local officials and as a hotspot for discussion of current events.
A day in the life of a 19th-century settler:
The morning of October 9, 1885 was unusually warm and sunny, perfect conditions for the annual Saanich Agricultural Show. Dust rose up along the roads behind carriages arriving from Victoria. Eager folks and their excited children looked forward to a day of fun in the country.
There were attractions for everyone to enjoy, with all kinds of animals on display and up for prizes including sheep, horses, pigs, and cattle. Henry Simpson’s best milch sow oxen won first prize in the cattle competition.
The crowd that day was estimated at around 400 people, most of whom enjoyed a filling lunch put on by Simpson and his staff. They ate and drank under a sunny October sky while the Queen City Band played delightful music. The band continued into the evening where a dance took place, lit by lanterns and a beautiful harvest moon.
The Simpsons: Pioneers and Developers
Henry and Adelaide were early pioneers that helped develop what would eventually become the important corner of Mt Newton Cross Road and East Saanich Road in Saanichton.
A small village grew up around the Prairie Tavern which really took root when the modest tavern was replaced with the much larger Prairie Hotel in 1893. Back then the South Saanich district area where the Prairie Tavern was located was known as Turgoose, named after the postmaster of the region, F. Turgoose. That name would be dropped by 1923 for the now familiar Saanichton.
After numerous attempts to sell his tavern and his farm that he found a couple willing to lease his Prairie Tavern – John and Annie Camp.
On June 22, 1889, Mr. Simpson transferred his license to Mr. Camp, marking the start of a sixteen-year term for John Camp as proprietor of the popular hostelry. The Colonist newspaper reported, “Mr John Camp, late of the Royal Oak, Lake District has removed to the Prairie Tavern, South Saanich, where he will be glad to see his old friends and as many new ones as will give him a call. Refreshments served at the shortest notice. The bar furnished with best wines and liquors.”
Mr. and Mrs. Camp had gone through the anguish of having almost lost their son to a firearms accident. In 1883, John Camp, Jr. was handling his father’s loaded rifle when it went off. The bullet tore through the young man’s forearm, which had to be amputated.
By late 1892 Simpson and Camp agreed that the diminutive tavern needed replacing. Plans were drawn up and in 1893 the new Prairie Hotel and Tavern opened at the cost of $2,200, a sum that Simpson had to borrow.
Some historians wrote that the original Prairie Tavern burned down, but there is photographic evidence that shows that the new tavern was built right beside the original and I suspect that business went on as usual right up to the time that the new tavern was prepared to take on customers.
One chapter ends, and another begins
Simpson was pleased with this arrangement and both parties made a tidy profit over the years. That all ended on May 9, 1905, when an ailing Mr. Camp died suddenly. There were a large number of people in attendance at his funeral. The late John Camp had been a member of the BC Pioneer Society, the Loyal Orangemen, Saanich Lodge #1597 and the Ancient Order of Foresters. The 62 year old Camp left behind his wife Annie and a daughter. Shortly after the funeral, the liquor licence was transferred to his wife.
On August 30, 1906, Annie Camp died at the age of 36. Two months after she passed away Henry Simpson, who built and worked his farm for the past 54 years as well as starting and nurturing his Prairie Inn Hotel business, died on October 22, 1906 at the age of 78. The early pioneering history of the Prairie Tavern came to an end and a new chapter began for the well-liked hostelry.
John Southwell purchased the Prairie Hotel and his first advertisement ran in the Colonist on September 18, 1906 reading, “Prairie Hotel…Headquarters for Sportsmen, the hotel is situated in a good hunting country. Stabling for horses; best brands of liquors and cigars.”
But Southwell’s ownership was shortlived. In the autumn of 1909 he sold the Prairie Hotel to Enoch Sage and purchased the Oak Dell House Hotel in Colwood.
Enoch Sage operated the Prairie Hotel until January 1912 when he leased it to James Callander. In September 1913 Callander leased the hotel and bar to George and Lena Jenkins.
A close, fiery call
A fire broke out in the barn on the Prairie Hotel property in October 1916 and completely destroyed the structure and the contents within.
Constable Dryden, with the assistance from many of the surrounding neighbours, concentrated on ensuring the hotel was safe from the flames by applying wet sacks and buckets of water on the exterior. In the end, the hotel only suffered some paint blistering from the intense heat of the barn fire.
If it wasn’t for their quick action, the history of the Prairie Inn may have been quite different. Three of four horses were saved from the flames but unfortunately, the last horse did not make it out on time and succumbed to the flames and smoke.
Enoch Sage, the owner of the property, estimated the loss at around $2,000. He promised to rebuild after an investigation into the fire and was thankful that the hotel was spared.
Prohibition hits hard
The following October, prohibition became the law of the land. The retail and wholesale of alcoholic products with greater than 1.5% alcohol was illegal and anyone caught selling it was subject to prosecution.
On January 27, 1918, George Jenkins, the proprietor of the Prairie Hotel, was charged with having whisky in his possession. He was found guilty and was fined $75 by Magistrate Jay in Saanich Police Court.
Jenkins apparently didn’t get the message as less than two months later, on March 2, 1918, Jenkins found himself in court once again this time pleading guilty to selling intoxicants in his hotel bar.
This being his second conviction since prohibition came into force, Magistrate Jay fined him $200 and $5 costs – a princely sum in 1918.
But the Prairie Hotel survives
Things calmed down through the early 1920’s as Enoch Sage operated the Prairie Hotel and closed the bar. The hotel survived prohibition, at least for the first few years but the history of the hotel was still in its early period and there are many more tales to tell as we shall see in part II of my history of the Prairie Inn, covering the period from 1925 to today.
Stay tuned for the next installment…