Tuesday, May 28, 2013

Paco's Provision - Chapter 2 - Second Draft

I've been told or have read a thousand times not to do this, but I'm letting anybody read the second draft of Chapter 2 of my novel, "Paco's Provision." I have decided to resume the rewrite after a slow couple of weeks on the freelance front.

Let me know if anyone recognizes the bar in the story.
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Operating a bar wasn’t totally foreign to me. I had managed businesses before; big ones, in fact.

My first job led me to a manager's position at a retail sports outlet in Winnipeg. It was part of a large corporation with several different retail stores under its umbrella. I was able to improve sales at the sports store so well over my four-year tenure, I was asked to look into other retail outlets as a corporate consultant.

Really, it was simply hard work and the development of a fun, productive environment.

I was helping a poorly managed shoe store when I met Corey Percival, a member of the Winnipeg Blue Bombers who was starting a three-outlet chain of restaurant-sports bars called The Rouge.

Five years later, the restaurants were garnering a healthy profit, which made Corey so happy, he gave me a small share in one of the restaurants.

I believe I had a hand in The Rouge's success, but Corey was instrumental in the atmosphere that seemed to attract committed employees and devoted customers. Corey had a keen sense - due to his football career - of what motivated people and made them feel good about themselves.

My job was to put Corey's vision on paper and help profitably implement it for the long-term. Our partnership worked gloriously. Corey was getting rich, and I was doing far better than I was while lost in middle management at the retail corporation.

I was 28 when I started thinking about leaving Corey and The Rouge. When I was 12, I set a goal to operate a business of my own before I was 30. That deadline was approaching far too fast.

Considering my meager budget, I started looking in the less competitive markets provided by smaller communities. I found an advertisement for The Boony in a trade magazine mailed to The Rouge. I investigated further and found that the low cost of living in Woodbine – combined with the greater enthusiasm for people I had developed through my association with Corey – could make The Boony a good option.

Corey let me go with his blessing. In fact, he cut me a cheque for $50,000 and told me he was available for any help he could offer.

I was floored.

As I made arrangements to purchase the establishment, I read anything I could get my hands on about the old hotel. I even traveled to Regina to look over the old issues of the Woodbine News, a weekly newspaper that was established months after the community was incorporated in 1882.

My eyes burned from hours of reading blurry micro-fiche, but what I found was fascinating.

The Boony was the name adopted by the Wilsons once they took over in 1973. The business was originally called the Stoddart Hotel. The name was still visible in faded paint along the top of the front of the building until Leon had the exterior sandblasted and refurbished in the mid-1980s.

When the Wilsons changed the business, the residents of Woodbine – a majority of the 900 residents being retired, bored and curmudgeonly – considered their decision sacrilegious. Some of the seniors thought the Wilsons were literally trying to rewrite history.

Of course, they weren’t. The Stoddart name came from a North West Mounted Policeman who served in the Yukon during the 1898 Klondike rush for gold. Staff Sergeant Thomas Stoddart never set foot in Woodbine, but his friends, John and Samuel Whitewood, moved to the town when their father became post master at the Woodbine Railway stop in 1887. The pair were already in their late teens at the time, but they followed their father out of Ontario to be part of the adventure of settling the hinterlands.

The Whitewoods met Stoddart on their own quest for gold, an extension of their need to discover the West. In May of 1899, they set out for the Klondike. They almost didn’t make it after losing the small about of cash they had in a crooked poker game in the Town of Edmonton.

They found work cutting and hauling wood until they had the money replaced, then continued on horseback to the Yukon district.

Like thousands of others, they arrived in Dawson City too late. There were few worthwhile claims available. Those that were left cost far more than what little cash they had remaining. Stranded and destitute, they survived on scraps for eight months, finding the odd day of work with the merchants who found their gold by taking advantage of innocent dream seekers.

Stoddart found the Whitewood boys breaking up a fight one night in Dawson City saloon. The Staff Sergeant asked them if they’d like to help him and the NWMP out by keeping an eye on the business district for a small fee. The Whitewoods agreed.

Two months later, the boys had saved enough money to get out of Dawson City. With the help of the NWMP, they were back in Edmonton early in the Spring of 1900.

The Whitewoods were not discouraged by their failure in the North. Fueled by surviving the ordeal, the pair set out to make enough money to start a business. When they returned to Woodbine in 1901, they worked every job they could muster – from menial farm work to serving the French aristocracy that settled the area south of Woodbine.

Four years later, with investment contributions from local business leaders, the brothers had enough for a down payment on the construction of a hotel. Once completed, the building hulked over the Woodbine rooftops. At three stories high, the brick building and two grain elevators were the firsts sights caught of the town by travelers.

Once it was completed in 1908, the Whitewoods christened the enterprise the Stoddart Hotel in honor of the man who saved them from probably senility or death in Dawson City.

The Stoddart had 16 rooms on the upper two floors. The main floor contained a state-of-the-art lobby, a saloon and a dining room. Once inside, the place could have been mistaken for a posh hotel in Winnipeg, Manitoba; the largest city on the Prairies at the time.

However, the Whitewoods grew uncomfortable with the apparent rise of prohibition among politicians in Ottawa. They sold the hotel in 1917 to Emile Blanchette. When prohibition took hold, Blanchette relied on the dining room and room rentals for survival. The Stoddart may have looked like a hotel in Winnipeg, but it was located in Woodbine, Sask. With less and less tourists and diners who opted for cheaper meals at the local Chinese restaurant, the Stoddart fell into disrepair.

At the request of the town’s mayor and council, Blanchette was asked to sell the business to save it. Councilor Patrick Beachy just happened to be in the market for a hotel and bought the Stoddart for a mere $500.

Prohibition ended in 1925 and patronage of the hotel improved when the Town of Woodbine offered the Stoddart the opportunity to provide off-sale beer and liquor.

But it was all too much responsibility for Beachy, who found that managing the business cut far too deeply into his hunting, fishing and poker time.

The latter pastime ultimately ended Beachy’s tenure at the hotel. He was playing poker with a group of American ranchers staying at the Stoddart while hunting geese in the area. After losing almost $1,000 to the Americans, Beachy claimed he had house authority to end the game and nullify the debt.

By the end of the incident, one of the few bullets ever to puncture the walls of the establishment was fired. Beachy  relented and paid the debt to the small, wiry cowboy who had pulled the gun.

The Woodbine News discovered later the “ranchers” were cattle rustlers from North Dakota.

Not long after, Beachy’s creditors suggested he sell. He did so in 1931. The Stoddart changed hands frequently after that, once lost in a game of Blackjack, another time taken over by angry contractors who hadn’t been paid for an expansion of the saloon into the dining room.

In all, there were a total of 13 proprietors between Beachy and 1973 when the Wilsons bought the place. The previous owner – known as Marcus the Magician for his weekly magic shows held in the bar for the previous four years – gave up the property to the local credit union after going a year and a half in arrears of a large business loan.

Apparently, Marcus’s best act was making money disappear from the cafĂ© and bar cash registers before it was accounted for.

When the Wilsons took over, the building was 65 years old and required extensive renovations and upgrades. They closed the third floor to the public due to a lack of business to the hotel. On the second level, they developed their apartment out of four rooms and left the remaining four to let out.

However, Paco arrived not long after. “The little Mexican”, as he was known around Woodbine, made one of the rooms his new home.

Outside the building, the Wilsons sandblasted the brick wall facing Main Street and removed the wooden “Stoddart Hotel” sign from the north side. The sign had been there from the very beginning. Leon couldn’t believe how many old-timers came to heckle him just hours after removing the faded wooden banner.

“You’re trying to wreck our town,” some said to him. “You city-folk. Go back to where you came form.”

Wilson only smiled and politely asked them to leave. Most just wanted to say their piece and walked out quietly or sat down for a drink.

The signage was replaced by another with lights jutting out from the corner of the building at the intersection of Main Street and South Railway Avenue. Emblazoned in bright, gold letter was “The Boony, Est. 1973.”

The name came from a comment Marjorie made as the couple drove to Woodbine from Calgary, Alberta for the first time. Peering out of the passenger window, bored after five hours of travel, Marjorie looked at the flat farmland all around them and said: “If you take me any further into the boonies, I might as well leave your for a chicken farmer.”

Leon remembered the comment and kept “Boony” as the name of the business to remind of the trip. It also related what city dwellers think about rural Saskatchewan. Those who frequented the bar wore the business’s advertising apparel like a badge of honor. It was a way to annoy those coming in from the city who didn’t think much of small-town Saskatchewan.

Most of the information about the Wilsons I learned from Marjorie from my first visit to The Boony. The rest came from The News and history books, including the one honoring Woodbine’s 100th Anniversary in 1982.

There were rumors of another story about the Stoddart, though; one that, if true, could be the darkest in Woodbine’s history. An old regular told me about it on a quiet Tuesday afternoon the week after I took over the bar.

He said a double murder had occurred in the room we sat in. Two immigrant hotel employees were shot dead by unknown assailants in 1921.

“Come on,” I said to him, a little too sarcastically.

“My granpa told of a news story on it. Gotta be on the record somewhere,” he said.

I certainly hadn’t seen anything about it during my research, but some old issues of the Woodbine News were missing from the provincial archive. Considering I owned the place; and considering how much fun I had reading the history of the Stoddart Hotel; I told myself I’d better check it out.

But right now, I’ve got a new bar to run, I told myself, ending any further thought about it.

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