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Holy Grails of Kootenay history

Updated: Feb 19

Many’s the time I’ve come across something historically interesting in a newspaper only to:

a) Fail to fully appreciate its significance and not bother to write down the information or its source;

b) Write down the information but not the source; or

c) Write down the information and the source but lose the slip of paper.

This may be followed by years of fruitless efforts to rediscover the said item, often led astray by own hazy memory. Below are six examples of these Holy Grail-type searches, five with successful endings and one that will probably never be solved because it was just in my imagination.


1) Nabob Tea sign

One of my projects is cataloguing local phantom signs. One of more intriguing was a Nabob Tea ad (although I misremembered it as a Salada Tea ad) discovered on the side of a building at 301 Baker Street in Nelson that was once D.J. Roberston’s furniture store and funeral parlour and is now Rel-ish Bistro and some other businesses. But in 1998, it was being turned into the Rice Bowl restaurant. As stucco was removed from the west side of the building facing Kootenay Street, the old Nabob ad appeared. The building is much older than it appears; it dates to the 1890s, but all of its original features have been lost.

Bob Hall wrote about the sign’s discovery in the Nelson Daily News, and I read it with interest at the time, but failed to clip it or note the date. A few years later I wanted to locate it but that proved a challenge, even though it was fairly recent. The text of the Daily News in the ProQuest database only goes back to late 1999. It didn’t help that for some reason I thought the sign was found in 1996; I went through months worth of papers in a vain attempt to locate the story (fortunately, there was enough interesting but unrelated material to keep the effort from being a total waste).

But just last week at the Shawn Lamb Archives at Touchstones Nelson, volunteer Maureen Attridge called me over to look at something, unaware of my long quest. Lo and behold, there it was, in the Daily News of Nov. 10, 1998. And here it is:

(Thanks to Touchstones archivist J.P. Stienne for the scan.)

I don’t know why people thought this might be an ad for Overwaitea; Nabob was a well-known coffee and tea brand (the name, by the way, is an Anglo-Indian term “for a conspicuously wealthy man who made his fortune in the Orient during the British colonial era,” according to Wikipedia).

A follow-up story appeared on Dec. 2, 1998, which noted that several people called the newspaper to fill in some of the missing details.

“It sure brought back some memories,” said Earle Cutler, a former owner of the building. He bought it in October 1952 from former mayor J.P. Morgan.

Cutler explained that the sign was erected on with Morgan’s blessing by the Kelly Douglas wholesale grocery company. (Kelly Douglas used to be in the Corner Brick building, which I’ve written about.)

Cutler said Morgan had an arrangement with Kelly Douglas manager John Morey to rent the space for $40 per year. When Cutler bought the building, the newspaper said, “he approached Morey about the arrangement, but nothing was done.”

In 1953, Cutler had the building covered with stucco. Copies of the Daily News from that year were found behind the stucco during the 1998 renovation.

The Nabob ad was depicted on a ca. 1940s postcard by Gowan Sutton Ltd., seen below.

Above and detail below from Greg Nesteroff collection

You can’t see it on either the 1940s or 1998 picture, but the full billboard slogan was “Tea as it should be.” Here it is on an ad from the Winnipeg Tribune of Feb. 26, 1926.

Two other prominent Nabob ads existed in Nelson: one was a giant clock atop the Medical Arts Building at the corner of Ward and Baker. It’s not in the earliest photos of the building from the 1930s, but was there in the 1940s when the postcard below was produced.

Maureen Attridge came through again, locating this item in the Daily News of June 3, 1944, which revealed the clock was still in business, though it had been out of service.

The item above calls it the Malkins clock. Malkins was another grocery wholesaler on Front Street. Does this mean the clock was imploring people to buy Nabob products from Malkins? Or had the clock been modified to read Malkins? I don’t know.

Nor do I know when the clock disappeared or what happened to it, but it was gone by January 1953, when a Nelson Daily News columnist remarked “the clock on the Medical Arts building is missing — perhaps getting a going-over for 1953.” But that was probably the end of it.

The other ad was a rooftop sign on the LD Cafe (now the Broken Hill pub) at 479 Baker that said “Use Nabob” in giant letters. A smaller sign on the opposite side had a cartoon trademarked in 1953 of a “fanciful representation of a jovial Nabob having a moustache and wearing a jewelled turban.”

The former was there from at least 1945 to 1970, while the latter only appears in the 1960s. I don’t know when they were removed either. (Down at the other end of Baker, a large ad for Corby’s Rye Whisky stood atop the Tremont Hotel in the 1910s, and the Nelson Daily News had a flashing neon sign on its roof from the 1930s to the 1960s, also seen in the postcard above.)

Above: Detail views of the LD Cafe from a postcard showing the 1945 Midsummer Bonspiel parade and a 1970 poster of the pancake breakfast during the bonspiel. The Nabob sign is gone, but the LD Cafe sign is still there, peeking out after being painted over.

Above: Detail view from a 1960s postcard showing the second,

smaller Nabob sign on the roof of the LD Cafe.

Unfortunately, while Touchstones Nelson has the Daily News negatives from 1998, the ones showing the rediscovered sign are missing from the collection. They would have been black and white; I don’t know if any colour photos of the sign exist from that time.

I also mistakenly thought the sign was merely covered over again, but in fact the reason it was uncovered was also the reason it was obliterated: to install new windows. However, one small piece of the sign survived, with the word “New” on it (seen at right). Doug Jones salvaged it and Lou Coletti put it in the window of his shop on Beatty Ave. — the former Baker’s Grocery, which I have previously written about.

2) Allen Woodrow letter to the editor

The earliest observation (and condemnation) of the use of the phrase “West Kootenays” instead of “West Kootenay” was by Robson resident Allen Woodrow — the former proprietor of the Robson Zoo. I came across it around 2000 and briefly considered noting the date, but as I hadn’t given the subject much thought, I decided against it. Within a few years I regretted this, as I became very interested in how the corruption took hold and came to rail against it much like Woodrow did.

I thought his letter appeared in the Castlegar Sun in 1995 or 1996, and combed every issue of the paper for those years without luck. But I misremembered which newspaper it was in and was also off on the date by a decade. In August 2010, while looking at a box of old clippings, I was overjoyed to rediscover it in the Castlegar News of Jan. 20, 1985. Here it is:

I’ll devote an installment of my ongoing place name series to this issue, but Alistair Fraser wrote about it several years ago. I transcribed the above letter in his comments section.

3) S.A. McManus, Junction Hotel

I might get around to posting a history I have written of South Slocan-area hostelries. For years I had a note that S.A. McManus was advertised in 1900 as proprietor of the Junction Hotel at Slocan Junction, only I didn’t record where this appeared. I checked the Nelson Daily Miner, Nelson Tribune, Slocan Drill, Sandon Paystreak, and The Ledge for that year, but was unable to find it.

In September 2010, Innes Cooper (the one-man Slocan City Historical Group) sent me a list of liquor license applications from The Ledge of Dec. 4, 1902 (seen at right), which included S.A. McManus as the applicant for Lambert’s Hotel at Slocan Junction.

I still don’t know where I saw the original 1900 mention, but it became a moot point. Incidentally, S.A. McManus was Selma Augusta McManus, who with husband John Henry McManus ran the hotel in partnership with William and Mary Lambert from 1899-1903. Later known as the Kootenay Falls Hotel, it burned down in 1923. The filling in of the South Slocan bridge on Highway 3A last year buried the site.

4) Nelson courthouse renos

I was long after a story that appeared in the Nelson Daily News in 1998 or 1999 about interior renovations to the Nelson courthouse. I recalled Lara Schroeder was the author. There was nothing particularly remarkable about the story, except that it was accompanied by a rare photograph taken inside a courtroom and it bugged me that I could not find it.

Happy day: I finally came across it in the June 19, 1998 edition, seen below.

5) Frank Sinatra in Castlegar

Ol’ Blue Eyes (seen below in a Wikipedia photo from 1957) briefly visited Castlegar in the 1950s while his plane stopped there, according to an item in the Nelson Daily News. I did note the date on this one when I came across it in the late 1990s, but almost immediately lost it and could not find it again.

It would have been in either the late spring or fall; I later rechecked May 1951, 1952, 1953, 1954, 1955, and 1957, plus June 1952 and 1953, and September to November of 1950, 1951, 1952 without luck.

My memory of the item had Sinatra visiting a cafe to talk to some astonished patrons and buying a hat.

As the digitization of the Nelson Daily News neared the 1950s, my excitement at finally rediscovering this item grew, although I was initially dismayed that a search for Sinatra+Castlegar mostly turned up his appearances in movies at the drive-in theatre there.

As each subsequent year was added, nothing relevant appeared, and I began to despair. However, one day after the 1957 papers were placed online … bingo!

The item appeared on June 17:

I don’t know what the Castlegar shopping centre referred to was, but it must have been downtown. The Castleaird Plaza had not been built yet. My memory of Sinatra entering a cafe was false but I was right that he bought a hat, although what was this strange business about band swapping? Who received hat No. 1 and what became of it?

The Castlegar News did not carry a word about his visit. But subsequently, I discovered the fleeting stop appears to have been part of a scheduling nightmare.

Sinatra, 41, was at the peak of his popularity and performing weekend concerts while filming Pal Joey, for which he would be nominated for a Golden Globe. The whirlwind tour was partly to fulfill a legal settlement after a Seattle promoter sued him for cancelling other dates in Australia.

But Sinatra’s itinerary and travel arrangements were fraught with problems.

When the tour was announced, it was supposed to start in Spokane, but for unknown reasons that date was switched to Calgary. Sinatra initially planned to fly in a chartered TWA Constellation, but was unable to get a permit to land in Canada. Then he tried to hire a Canadian TCA Viscount to fly the entire trip, but the airline felt taking one of its planes off its regular run for six days was impossible. So the Calgary show was cancelled on four days’ notice.

Sinatra nearly cancelled the entire tour after being stuck in a boiling room in Albequerque without air conditioning on June 1. It took some last minute pleading for him to change his mind. In the meantime, Sinatra’s Vancouver show at the Exhibition Forum on the PNE grounds sold out, and since the Calgary show was off, a matinee was added on the same day, Saturday, June 8.

“He was late, he forgot his words, he bullied his audience, and acted as if he was just killing time till the bars opened,” wrote Province reviewer Ben Metcalfe. “But they loved it.”

You can buy a low-fi recording of one of the Vancouver shows, although the venue is misidentified in the CD title as Live at the Orpheum.

Sinatra and his entourage then took a United Airlines chartered DC-7 to Portland where he performed the next afternoon with the 26-piece Nelson Riddle orchestra, comedian Frank D’Amore, and the musical comedy dancing troupe of Hal Loman and His Playmates. Next it was off to Seattle for an evening concert first issued as a bootleg and then officially released in 1999 as Seattle '57 in Concert.

Now here’s where things get odd.

The following weekend, Sinatra was scheduled to do four shows in four cities in two days. On Saturday, June 15, he was supposed to perform a matinee in San Jose and then fly to Salt Lake City for the evening. So why would he be heading from Vancouver to Calgary that day? And if he was in Castlegar in the afternoon, wouldn’t the San Jose show have been postponed or cancelled? While I can’t find confirmation the San Jose gig went ahead, the show in Salt Lake certainly did.

I think the simplest explanation is the date implied by the Daily News item was misleading and the reported flight path was wrong, although that still doesn’t explain everything.

If Sinatra was actually in Castlegar a week earlier, on the afternoon of Saturday, June 8, he could have been en route to his Vancouver matinee, rather than heading to Calgary. But if he was coming from Hollywood, why did the flight veer off to Castlegar? The Daily News story never told us what sort of plane he was on or why the flight was grounded. Bad weather? Refueling? Or were they lost?

Another possibility: maybe the guy who did the hat buying was just a Sinatra lookalike. After all, Nelson had a Walt Disney impersonator.

Coincidentally, Castlegar’s Sinatra encounter came less than a month after some other musical legends visited: Johnny Cash, Jerry Lee Lewis, Carl Perkins, and Wanda Jackson performed at the Cominco Arena in Trail.


1) Payne Bluff outtake

I might have just dreamed this one. Richard Trueman took what is probably West Kootenay’s most oft-reproduced photograph: a train stopped on Payne Bluff along the Kaslo and Slocan Railway in 1900 (seen at right in a postcard). But I have a hazy memory of seeing an outtake from this photo session, which was badly overexposed and showed the same men in different positions, some of them with their backs to the camera.

I thought it might have appeared in a railway history book I read in the 1990s, but no one I have consulted can recall seeing such a shot. The Vancouver Public Library, City of Vancouver Archives, and other repositories have collections of Trueman’s work and it’s not held by any of them. So I think this is most likely a combination of my faulty memory and wishful thinking.

Updated on Jan. 10, 2020 with details from the Dec. 2, 1998 follow-up story on the Nabob sign; on Nov. 30, 2020 to announce the rediscovery of the Nelson courthouse story; on April 16, 2023 to announce the rediscovery of Frank Sinatra in Castlegar and to add more about the Medical Arts building clock.

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