Updated: Jun 29, 2021
You’d think if fire destroyed a town’s business district, the date would be well documented. Not in Fruitvale’s case. Much of the town burned in the mid-1910s, yet until recently we could only narrow the disaster to a three-year window.
Before we get to the fire, let’s discuss the building where it started. The incredible photo below has been little seen; it shows the first Fruitvale Hotel and W.R. Mellard’s store, which had an unusual false front.
Fruitvale Hotel and W.R. Mellard, general merchant, ca. 1910s.
(Courtesy Beaver Valley and Pend d’Oreille Historical Society)
Local heritage expert Bob Inwood calls its “strange pedimental ornamentation” a “local vernacular Victorian oddity.”
“The parapet extension follows the classic lines of the gambrel (barn) roof, a form common to many builders of the day,” he says. “In later decades (1930s-‘40s) the use of the gambrel roof shape became part of the Dutch Colonial Revival style in residential architecture.”
A remarkable postcard that sold on eBay in July 2020 (seen below) shows the hotel in context. The Fruitvale Trading Co. is the building at the left of the cluster of commercial buildings.
Fruitvale, ca. 1911-12, perhaps during a May 24 celebration. (W.G. Barclay photo)
A hotel of some sort, which may or may not have been this one, was mentioned in an advertorial about Fruitvale that appeared in the Nelson Daily News of Oct. 29, 1907, quoted in the Calgary Herald on Nov. 9:
Yesterday was being finished a boarding house, hotel and store by J.N. Hammond, the unfinished building being crowded Saturday night so that several were turned away … A log house was built for the temporary accommodation of settlers, but is now superseded by the Fruitvale hotel.
But the hotel seen above was definitely the one mentioned in the Nelson Daily Canadian on Feb. 20, 1908: “John Beemer has opened a new hotel at Fruitvale, and will observe the event by giving a dance and musical entertainment on Saturday night the 29th. The new hotel is fitted up with bathroom, etc., and has in connection a barber shop and sample room for commercial travellers.”
John Benjamin Beemer was born about 1866, somewhere in Canada, to John W. Beemer and Elizabeth J. Smith. On May 31, 1893, at Tawas City, Michigan, he married Alberta (Albertie) Peck, 23. She was born in Walsingham, Ont. in 1869 or 1870 to Orin Beemer and Lydia Robertson. Alberta’s first husband’s was Minor Peck, whom she married in 1888 in Oscoda, Michigan. They had two children, Minnie and Corrine, before divorcing.
On his marriage registration, John gave his profession as painter. John and Alberta show up in Cottonwood, Assiniboia on the 1901 Canadian census (what’s now Saskatchewan). Their son Russell was born there in 1902.
John Beemer’s liquor license renewal application for the hotel was denied as “not in public interest,” whatever that meant. In a full-page newspaper ad that appeared in late 1910, the provincial government used it as an example (along with 73 others throughout BC) of how they were enforcing the Liquor Act by canceling or refusing licenses.
By then, however, it was a moot point for Beemer, who died on Sept. 25, 1909 at Ymir, age 44. For some reason, his death was registered as “James” Beemer. While it’s uncertain, a descendant believes he was interred at Ymir.
Albertie apparently ran the hotel for a while after John Beemer’s death, but then sold it to the Mellard family (often misspelled Mallard or Millard). William Richardson Mellard was born in 1872 in Yorkshire and married Mabel Harriet Rees. William was listed in the 1910 civic directory as a fruit rancher and in 1914 and 1915 as a merchant. No hoteliers were listed.
The following quotes are from the 1997 book Beaver Valley and Pend d’Oreille, which featured transcripts of interviews with pioneers conducted in the late 1970s.
Mrs. Jack Jones: And then the hotel there, that was Mr. and Mrs. Mallard. It was the Fruitvale Hotel. It had 10 or 12 rooms. It only had odd visitors. The section men often stayed there; they would have dinner there. I used to help Mrs. Mallard wait on tables. I used to get a couple of dollars. They had to get waitresses from Salmo and Trail and everywhere. And then Mr. Mallard had a little store on the side of the hotel. And that's where he had groceries and the post office.
Will Grieve: Mallards had the hotel. Mabel Mallard was the first girl born in Fruitvale.
Mabel was born March 7, 1908.
William Mellard was Fruitvale postmaster from June 1, 1913 to Sept. 25, 1916, whereupon he resigned and moved to East Trail, where he started a general store. e also ran a second hand store on Bay Avenue in downtown Trail.
On Sept. 18, 1918, Mellard gained an unfortunate distinction, as the first victim of a fatal car accident on the road between Trail and Rossland. Mellard was a passenger in a vehicle driven by Rossland garage owner Murdock A. Henderson that went off a bridge over Trail Creek and dropped 40 feet to the rocks below. Henderson, who survived but was badly injured, had been ferrying people between Rossland and the Trail fall fair.
Mellard was 46. His widow appears to have later married Chad Summers. Daughter Mabel married Donald Eric Dalby Rathborne in 1939 and died in Vancouver on May 25, 1993.
Fruitvale’s fiery fate
The village suffered two fires before the big one. The Vancouver Daily World of March 30, 1908 reported: “Last Monday night the first fire in Fruitvale occurred, when the residence of Messrs. Bell and Catt was destroyed. The fire started in the roof and was caused by a defective pipe. It was soon beyond control. The owners managed to save most of their effects.”
And then, according to the Nelson Daily News of March 8, 1913, “T.H. Seymour’s post office and general store at Fruitvale was an entire loss by fire [yesterday] morning at 1:30 a.m. The loss is about $3,000; partly covered by insurance.”
Seymour must have found a temporary location to sort mail; he remained postmaster until May 7 of that year, when he resigned.
I haven’t been able to locate more detailed accounts of these fires, but it was at least more than I could initially find on the great fire of 1915 — or was it 1916 or 1917? — that destroyed the hotel and H.C. Davis store, among other buildings.
Several people remembered the event in Beaver Valley and Pend d’Oreille, but none could give an exact date:
Kelly Grieve: In 1915, a fire destroyed the downtown area of Fruitvale. I remember coming down the railroad tracks; there was all the stuff piled up outside that they took out of the store.
Edith Stainhope: The whole village was burnt out in 1916. The hotel, all the stores, everything went.
Jim Davis: I was about two years old when the hotel chimney got on fire one evening. And then the roof got on fire, and there was no fire department, and each building was side by side with the next, and before the night was over, it wiped the whole place right out. It was in 1916 or 1917, because I was born in 1915. The sad part was, they had lots of time, and the people threw everything out from the store, into the snow, you know, but by the time the insurance adjusters got here everything had disappeared! They would not pay for it. So it was a terrible loss. My mother had to go back teaching school, to get back on their feet again, before they could get another store built.
Jack Jones: That burned down before I came here, the hotel. We went to Grandma Grieve’s after that, for meals. There was no place to get a meal, so they opened up Grandma Grieve’s.
According to History of Beaver Valley & Pend d’Oreille Districts, compiled by Helen Newlod and Florence Grupp and published by the Fruitvale Women’s Institute in 1958:
In 1915, fire destroyed most of the business section of the town, but most of it was rebuilt on its original site, an exception being Arthur Mears’ hardware store which was moved to the original school location, and the post office. At the time of the fire, the hotel which had been owned for a time by Mrs. Kidd (then Mrs. Beamer), belonged to the Mallards …
And in Making History: An Anthology of British Columbia (1974), Jack Greenwood recalled:
As for [Davis’s] store, for many years it was the only one in Fruitvale. It stood beside the hotel and included a post office. The proprietor, Mr. Davis, had only one arm. This made him interesting, especially when he was cutting cheese with a wire or wrapping parcels. But one day the store burned down. That was a landmark in my life. The first we knew of it was the sight of smoke billowing up from behind the Big Hill. There were no telephones, so our whole family hurried to the top of the hill where a solitary rock, known as the Big Stone, offered a vantage point. When we looked down at the village we saw the store and the hotel burning fiercely. My father rushed down to join the bucket brigade carrying water from the creek but nothing was saved. It must have been a terrible loss to the community but all I remember is the excitement and the smouldering ashes next day.
A note in Anna Reeves’ Tracks of the Beaver Valley & Pend Oreille (2002) states “In 1916, Mr. Davis lost his store when the townsite burnt down” and also has a caption that reads: “Fruitvale townsite, 1915, before the disastrous fire.”
And finally, D.M. Wilson writes on the Virtual Crowsnest Highway website:
In 1915 much of Fruitvale’s central business district was destroyed by fire. Despite the influx of money under the Soldiers’ Settlement Act of 1918 which enabled many veterans to buy land, Fruitvale was slow to recover from the fire, in part due to the general economic slowdown at the end of the Great War and to the relative ease of travel to Trail.
At long last, however, I have pinpointed the date of the fire: March 5, 1916. This is thanks to the digitization by Touchstones Nelson and UBC of the Nelson Daily News. (It was still hard to find, however.) This story appeared two days after the fire.
The Trail News also ran a brief item on March 10:
An $8,000 fire, partly covered by insurance, occurred at Fruitvale last Sunday afternoon. It started in the Mellard hotel, and spread to the A. Mears general store and the Dais [sic] store as well as the post office were burned. It was the most destructive fire in the history of the little town and was fanned by a strong wind.
The only follow-up I could find was in the Daily News of March 25, 1916: “H.C. Davis has a large force of men employed building his new store. It will be quite an imposing building when finished.”
I can find no mentions of the fire in any other digitized newspaper online. The Rossland Miner did not bother to mention it.
Tax assessment records held at Touchstones Nelson reveal the hotel stood on Main Street on Block B, Lot 5. The property was in John Beemer’s name in 1910, but was transferred to W.R. Mellard by 1912. Mellard’s store was on Lot 6.
In 1935, 19 years after the fire, the current, much larger Fruitvale Hotel was built partly on the site of the old one — it sits on Lots, 5, 6, and 7.
A.H. Green completed the Fruitvale townsite for owner Frederick L. Hammond on Dec. 11, 1907. (Courtesy Regional District of Central Kootenay/BC Online)
Updated Nov. 20, 2018 with quote about the earliest hotel. Updated on Jan. 10, 2020 with the exact date and details of the 1916 fire. Updated on March 14, 2020 to add the quote from the Trail News about the fire. Updated on July 16, 2020 to add the postcard showing the hotel. Updated on Aug. 13, 2020 to pin down the exact location of the hotel and store. Updated on Sept. 4, 2020 to add details about the crash that killed William Mellard.