HAPHAZARD HISTORY: The story of Alex Meiss in the Cariboo

Alex Meiss was a true entrepreneur, always open to new ways to turn a profit

One of the most flamboyant characters among the early settlers in the Horsefly area was Alexander Meiss.

Born in Victoria in 1864, he apprenticed to become a butcher, but the lure of the Cariboo was strong, and he abandoned life in the big city during his early twenties to take up freighting goods from Ashcroft to the Cariboo goldfields.

During one of these trips, while on a stopover at Clinton, he was cleaning his rifle when it discharged, shattering his left knee. The Ashcroft physician, Dr. Sanson, was called, and he decided that the leg would have to be amputated.

This procedure was carried out on the dining room table of the stopping house, and although he was offered ether prior to the operation, Meiss refused, insisting that he wanted to watch the entire process. Although fortified with a good deal of over-proof rum, he passed out as the amputation progressed.

Meiss was nursed back to health by Mrs. Barton, the lady of the roadhouse, and he never forgot the kindness and attention she provided to him during his recuperation.

After he was almost fully recovered, he fashioned a wooden leg for himself, and he hobbled around Clinton for some time, becoming accustomed to the home-made prosthesis.

During this time, he met two young sisters, the Gospard girls from Dog Creek, both of whom were working as cooks and servers at the Clinton Hotel. Their father was a French count, who had taken up land in the Dog Creek Valley in 1860.

Meiss courted Matilda, the younger of the two sisters, and they were married at St. Joseph’s Mission near Williams Lake on March 1st, 1897. She was 27 and he was 33 years of age.

Alexander Meiss in 1897. (Photo courtesy of the Horsefly Historical Society)

Alexander Meiss in 1897. (Photo courtesy of the Horsefly Historical Society)

Matilda Meiss in 1897. (Photo courtesy of the Horsefly Historical Society)

Matilda Meiss in 1897. (Photo courtesy of the Horsefly Historical Society)

The year previously, Alex had obtained land in what is now the centre of the town of Horsefly, and he had built a three-room cabin, where he established a small store and eatery which served meals to the single miners. At that time, Horsefly, which was called Harper’s Camp was seeing a resurgence in gold exploration and large-scale hydraulic mining was just beginning.

By the 1890s three large mines were in operation, and many miners had moved in, most single, but some with their families. As well, the available growing land in the area showed good promise and ranchers were also establishing themselves in the region.

After their marriage, Alex and Matilda moved to Harper’s Camp, adding a large dining room and kitchen to the three-room cabin.

Part of the new dining room was designated as a saloon. They hired a Chinese cook, and with the addition of some rough log bunkhouses out back, they provided room, board, and drinking place for the miners. They named this complex the City Hotel.

It was a successful operation, and in 1904, the Meisses added a three-story log structure with an additional 14 rooms. It included an office area, later converted to a post office, ladies parlour, and lobby.

Somewhere along the way, Alex and Matilda had acquired an upholstered barber’s chair. It was seldom used for hair cutting, but Matilda, who was a competent midwife, also took on the role of nurse practitioner.

On many occasions the chair was used to hold patients for stitching, bone setting, and other medical procedures. Sometimes, when someone had a bad toothache, he (or she) would be given several shots of whiskey or rum, then be seated in the big chair where Matilda would remove the offending tooth with a pair of pliers.

Alex also operated livery stables, and for many years he ran a regular freight service between 150 Mile House, Williams Lake, and Horsefly. It was a common sight to see him driving his rig with his peg leg propped up on the board in front of him.

His stopover on these trips was about half way down the Horsefly Road, where the Jessica Lake Road intersects it.

There, he pre-empted some land and built a cabin, barn, and corral. He kept some horses and feed there and contracted someone to stay there and manage the place.

The big natural meadow which he used is still known as Meiss meadow, and old timers still know the place as Halfway.

Alex Meiss, his wooden leg on the wagon’s brake, ready to leave Williams Lake for the 50-mile drive to Horsefly. (Photo courtesy of the Museum of the Cariboo Chilcotin )

Alex Meiss, his wooden leg on the wagon’s brake, ready to leave Williams Lake for the 50-mile drive to Horsefly. (Photo courtesy of the Museum of the Cariboo Chilcotin )

Alex was a true entrepreneur, always open to new ways to turn a profit. In 1910, he brought the first automobile, a McLaughlin-Buick, to Horsefly.

It had no windshield. When asked why he had removed it, Meiss replied that he needed a place to rest his wooden leg. He used this vehicle as a taxi of sorts, taking people around the area. A trip from Harper’s Camp to Stuart’s Pitch (now Poplar Grove) cost 25 cents, quite a hefty sum for that time.

In 1912, Meiss, with the help of two other men, built a bridge across the Horsefly River. It was rough and rustic looking but, people were very glad not to have to ford the river, and willingly paid the 25 cent toll. This was the forerunner of the bridge that is in the place today.

Meiss served as Horsefly’s postmaster from 1916 until 1923. He purchased a Model T Ford truck to cover the route. To accommodate his wooden leg, he installed a bracket on the front windshield.

He kept the mail delivery contract until 1928, although sometimes the roads were so bad that he would be stuck in the mud for hours.

Alex always had a taste for hard liquor, especially rum, and as he grew older, the attraction increased. People would tell of meeting him along the road with an open bottle on the seat along with a chunk of bologna sausage.

If he wasn’t having a little nap, he always had time to take his knife and cut off a generous piece of meat and offer it, along with a drink to the other driver.

Meiss passed away from stomach cancer in November of 1928 and he was buried in the small Roman Catholic cemetery in Horsefly. Matilda continued to operate the hotel until her death at the age of 72 in 1942.

They had no children, although over the years, Alex was always taking in some waif or orphan boy to live and earn his keep at the hotel. Some of them remained for several years being taught and treated as family by both Alex and Matilda. Matilda too was buried in the tiny cemetery which contains only three graves.

The City Hotel was purchased from the Meiss estate in 1944 by Stan and Ruby Barrett, who lived there for only a few months before a fire destroyed the old wooden buildings in May of 1945.

Alex Meiss was a man with drive and ambition. He never let his physical handicap slow him down, and his “never give up” attitude was very typical of most early Cariboo settlers.

There are many more stories and anecdotes about him, and I have only scratched the surface in this article. He was one of Horsefly’s most remarkable pioneers.

Barry Sale is a retired school teacher who write a monthly history column for the Tribune.


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