The Becher House, two years before it burned down in 1915. (Public domain photo)

The Becher House, two years before it burned down in 1915. (Public domain photo)

HAPHAZARD HISTORY: The Becher House’s rise and fall in popularity

Around 1888, he left the Company and made his way to Soda Creek, where he took on a job freighting

Barry SALE

Hapahzard History

In the early 1900s the most impressive of all the stopping houses in our region was to be found situated in the lovely Riske Creek valley on the quickly opening, high potential Chilcotin plateau.

It was owned and operated by Fred Becher, an Irishman, who had made his way to the colony as an 18 year old in 1883, and had signed on as a clerk with the Hudson Bay Company.

He served with the HBC first in the Peace River country, then later at Fort St. John. Around 1888, he left the Company and made his way to Soda Creek, where he took on a job freighting to Hanceville for Peter Dunlevy.

Becher found the rolling grasslands around Riske Creek irresistable, and within a year, he went into partnership with George Dester, who operated a trading post, a small saloon, and a modest ranching operation in the area.

When this land was allocated as part of a First Nations reserve in 1891, Becher moved a half mile further up the creek, eventually pre-empting 160 acres.

He bought out Dester, and began building a large stopping house complex which contained a substantial store, a roomy saloon, a post office and several rooms for travellers.

The place quickly became known as the Becher House, and it proved to be a gold mine, being the only stopping house between 150 Mile House and Hanceville.

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For over 40 years, it was a social, trading and service centre for the Chilcotin country. The Becher House was also by far the largest and the grandest of all the Cariboo/Chilcotin stopping houses.

Fred Becher was a large, good-looking man, weighing in at more than 220 pounds and standing over six feet tall. He sported a full, black beard, a thick moustache and an ever-present Stetson hat.

He was a fairly typical British innkeeper: friendly and kind, but very tough.

He was always willing to extend credit, and only rarely were the debts not repaid. His motto was: “We aim to please — for a consideration.”

Many new arrivals and would-be settlers got their start in the Chilcotin working for him.

Fred drank constantly, but never seemed to show any adverse effects.

It was said of him that he never started a fight, but he never lost one, either.

The saloon was the cornerstone of the business. Gambling and card games were constantly in progress with the house taking a cut.

The bar would remain open all night when there was a crowd, and Fred gave a free bottle of whiskey and a free breakfast to any man who spent three months’ wages in an evening.

Drinks cost 15 cents or two for 25 cents. The place did not make change since nobody ever stopped at two drinks, anyway.

The locals called the saloon “The Den of Iniquity.”

There were some legendary gatherings held there. For example, the story is told that one day Becher arrived home from a trip to find a huge party going on, with the saloon filled with men and their horses. The elderly bartender seemed to be swamped, so Fred strode in to disperse the crowd.

The bartender grabbed him by the arm and sad: “No, Fred. Just leave them be. The boys have just been paid. By morning, we’ll have every cent off them. The mess on the floor can be easily cleaned up.”

And he was right.

But it wasn’t only the saloon that made the Becher place so successful.

Becher operated the first Chilcotin Post Office, and he served as the area’s postmaster for more than 30 years. His store had the reputation of being “the best stocked store north of Vancouver,” carrying a large array of items.

If they didn’t have an item in stock, they would order it in for you. The stopping house did a brisk business as well, with travellers and saloon patrons being accommodated.

In 1912, Becher had the first telephone in the Chilcotin installed in the hotel. In 1913, he purchased a Cadillac, and for several years ran it as a taxi between 150 Mile and Hanceville. His ranching operation also did well, with over 200 head of cattle, a large flock of sheep, good horses being bred, broken and trained, and several hay meadows in production.

The place was flourishing.

Then, in January, 1915, during a prolonged cold snap, disaster struck. The saloon, store and roadhouse burned to the ground. Becher had no insurance and the loss was devastating.

He lost more than $70,000 in stock from the store, alone.

Fred immediately set about rebuilding. In order to keep his liquor licence, he was required to have a larger hotel area. He cut all the lumber at his own sawmill, and when the complex was completed, it was huge.

On the main floor, there was a store, a conservatory, a ballroom, a family suite and drawing room, a private sitting room, a large kitchen, a dining room, separate sitting rooms for men and women, and, of course, a large saloon.

Upstairs there were 18 small bedrooms for overnight guests. As well, Fred constructed a large stable with stalls for 20 horses.

The construction of this grand new mansion put Becher heavily into debt.

Furnishings were imported directly from England. There was no indoor plumbing, and the rooms were cold in the winter.

The plants in the conservatory regularly froze, so eventually it was turned into a library.

However, as impressive as the building was, it never really reached its full potential, and Becher never really recovered from the loss of the original place.

In 1917, Fred married Florence Cole, an English woman who was a friend of Mrs. R.C. Cotton, and who had come to the area for an extended stay. In order for this wedding to occur, Becher had to sever his relationship with his Tsilhqot’in “country wife,” with whom he had been living for several years.

He arranged to trade her to a local man in exchange for four horses and the forgiveness of a small debt.

Rather than the outrage we would expect today, the feeling in the Chilcotin at the time was that this was a most considerate move, since most men simply abandoned their First Nation wives when they moved on or wanted to marry a white woman.

Fred and Florence ran the hotel for several more years, but economic conditions continued to deteriorate. Prohibition came along and the saloon licence was cancelled.

The improvement in automobiles and the increase in auto travel meant that people often bypassed the stopping house.

The store no longer did the booming business it once did.

Fred’s health was also in decline. His eyesight was gradually deteriorating as well, but he had an indomitable spirit and he remained positive. He died at home in April of 1936 and was buried on the hill above the house.

Florence continued to run the hotel and store for a while, but in 1942 she sold all her holdings to Geneva Martin, co-owner of the River Ranch.

Florence returned to England and died there in 1957.

Geneva Martin and her husband, Mickey, lived in the Becher House for a while, making several renovations, but the business was not sustainable. In 1945, the Chilcotin highway was rerouted so that it did not pass close to the hotel and store, and that was the final blow.

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In 1950, the Martins boarded up the place and they moved back to the River Ranch.

The old house sat unused for years. Gradually, birds, rodents, the weather and the ravages of time took their toll on the place.

In 1981, Geneva’s daughter, Willena Hodgson, who had inherited the property from her mother, had the old building demolished.

The large barn, however, remains standing and is still being used.

It was a sad and unfortunate ending to a once proud building which was so much a part of the early 20th century history of the Chilcotin.

For this one, I relied heavily on “The Road Runs West” by Diana French, “Chilcotin: Preserving Pioneer Memories” by the Wittle sisters, and “Cariboo-Chilcotin-Pioneer People and Places,” by Irene Stangoe.

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