Booze and Bars in the Bow Valley

By Stephanie Laine Hamilton

Back to The Cairn

[Two R.C.M.P. officers on horseback on Banff Avenue, with King Edward Hotel in the background], ca. 1930-1940, Whyte Museum of the Canadian Rockies, Peter and Catharine Whyte fonds (V683/III/A/1/PA-321)

In the fall of 2019, I was selected as one of the Lillian Agnes Jones Fellowship recipients in order to conduct research in the Whyte Archives & Special Collections Library about Booze and Bars in the Bow Valley. Collective regional identities in Western Canada can be seen through examination of heritage buildings and the societies that built them—pub culture in Western Canada is no exception. This type of exploration is unique and the common thread is a continuity in beer sales—yesterday and today. Pub culture heritage research is original in studies of Western Canada, and wide varieties of cultural tourism are growing on economic sectors across Alberta and Western Canada. All of the buildings researched are still licensed and in operation today. Collective identities have always been created among the working people, and among the travellers that continue to meet in the hotel beer parlors and pubs of the Bow Valley for the last 130 years!

I’m a classicist by training, so having proximity to the originals to consult when contemporary historical topics is an amazing reality that shouldn’t be taken for granted. It’s so intriguing to consider these resources in real time with one’s own eyes, oftentimes decades after the fact. There are so many different kinds of materials one engages with in an archive—company cards, menus, receipts, permits, calendars, albums, maps, ledgers, and so on. Not to mention brochures! Trifold and serial varieties from the late 1800s to the early twenty-first century. If it hasn’t become pretty obvious, I may as well state it explicitly now—I heart the plethora of paper ephemera that is the archive! What one finds in the files, that are contained within the boxes, that are ordered in the stacks—not to mention what else might be contained here and there!

[Pages with pressed flower petals from King Edward Hotel Ledger], 1909, Whyte Museum of the Canadian Rockies, Luxton family fonds (LUX/I/C/I/49)

Flower petals were found among the accounts on the ‘Bankhead Meal Account’ page. I wondered—why is this flower pressed here, in this ledger? Who put them there? Coal mining was dangerous business in the early twentieth century, and the Bankhead Memorial in the Old Banff Cemetery tells us that over 30 men died in the Bankhead Mine between July 1905 and January 1907. Did the ledger-keeper know someone who worked, or perhaps died, in the mine? Could very well be. In my mind I started thinking about questions I now had that were (in many ways) beyond my designated scope for the visit. Who would have been keeping this ledger, ca. 1909? Did they lose a loved one in a mine accident? Could also be, that it’s nothing like that at all. If one were to look through certain sections of my home-library, they would definitely find flowers among the pages of my books—some of the flowers are pressed at specific locations in specific books for specific reasons, others are not. So perhaps, the placement of the flower’s petals at this page was totally arbitrary; having had nothing at all to do with the mine? Regardless, what a thing to come across to prompt the mind to wander!

[Page from King Edward Hotel Ledger], 1909, Whyte Museum of the Canadian Rockies,

Luxton family fonds (LUX/IC1/49)

I came across another ledger from a similar time period from the King Edward Hotel that contained liquor inventories and bar tabs. This photo shows a list of ‘CPR Men’ with tabs at the King Eddy. There were also tabs for a number of packers, a handful of Brewsters, at least one Peyto, and even Tom Wilson himself. When considering heritage pub culture in Alberta, documents like the ones found in the Whyte archive shed light on the heritage bar-rooms spaces themselves.

The hotels I am researching as case studies by which to focus my Lillian Agnes Jones research looks more broadly at the development of hospitality and tourism (as well as resource development and pub culture) in Banff National Park still exist. Vernacular architecture and built heritage resources are important to consider for thorough contemporary historical inquiry. So, to supplement my archival research I also stayed as a guest (and arranged insider building tours) at the King Edward Hotel, Mount Royal Hotel, and Banff Springs Hotel. Among other things, I made a point to write postcards in the once-upon-a-time writing-room at the Banff Springs Hotel (now a restaurant known as, Grapes) over charcuterie and wine, ca. late 2019. Which is fitting because I can’t generally gush about archives without mentioning vintage correspondence, and how I am a massive sucker for the things a letter contains—handwriting, ink, stamps; and with business correspondence also, letterheads, seals, and margin notes. Each work-stay at one of my heritage hotels meant I could also accumulate contemporary examples of these hotel’s stationary, ca. 2019/2020. Looking at archival materials like business letterheads (as well as, beer labels and other promotional materials) that change over time, is another of my favorites things to spend time doing in archival study.